Rekha Tandon on Odissi: New Metaphors, New Meanings

Photo Courtesy: Robyn Beeche

Photo Courtesy: Robyn Beech

Dr. Rekha Tandon has successfully carved her own path as a dancer, writer, researcher, and choreographer. Having undergone years of rigorous training in Odissi, her desire to find her individual voice as an artist led her to delve deeper into the study of dance and movement. She was awarded of the Charles Wallace Arts Fellowship (UK), and a UNESCO Artists’ Bursary Award for further studies at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, where she was awarded her PhD in 2005. Her thesis focused on examining Odissi from the perspective of Choreological Studies. Dr. Tandon, along with her partner, Michael Weston, founded their company Danceroutes in 1997, under which they collaborated on a number of groundbreaking projects and initiatives including (but not limited to) the Danceroutes Repertory Group, KAI (Knowledge-Arts-Initiatives) Trust, and the book Odissi: A Dance in Sculpture, which was published in 2011. They have also conducted extensive research in related aspects of Odissi dance. Dr. Tandon currently resides in Pondicherry, where she has recently completed a manuscript called “Petals of the Lotus-Background, Technique and Embodiment of Odissi Dance,” which is expected to be published this year. Dr. Tandon shares with us her journey as a creative artist, as well as her insights on Odissi.

GR: Please describe your early training in dance:
RT: I got into dancing at around the age of seven or eight. I had initially started with ballet with Laura Lorella, an Italian instructor when in Cairo. Indian classical dance training started while at Welhams in Dehradun, with Bharatanatyam, and some Kathak and Manipuri, depending on the part I had in the annual school ballet. I saw my first Odissi program at the age of 15 in Delhi, which happened to be Kiran Segal’s first performance of Odissi – I was immediately taken aback when I saw it, by the lyrical quality of the movements. I began my Odissi training with Guru Sri Surendranath Jena at Triveni Kala Sangam, and then continued with Guru Smt. Madhavi Mudgal, with whom I trained and performed for about eight years. I was also pursuing my MA studies in History of Art at the National Museum in New Delhi during that time. Later, when I joined the Laban Centre in London, I eventually stopped my training with Madhaviji. When I returned to India, I began working with Guru Trinath Maharana and learnt a pallavi, abhinaya and mangalcharan to specially commissioned soundtracks from him. He was not dancing much because of his hip injury, so that allowed me to start working with his movement ideas. He also allowed me to choreograph a thumri for which he played the pakhawaj, during which time he was a wonderful sounding board and offered honest criticism. I am very grateful to Madhaviji for giving me the precision and exactitude in my training, but with Trinathji, I was able to start doing my own work with his musical inputs over a sustained period, which I feel was so valuable. I had also spent some time with Guruji (Kelucharan Mahapatra) while studying with Madhaviji. All of this training spanned about 17 years.

By the time I relocated to Odisha, I did not want to work with anyone as I had already started my PhD and was in research mode, so I wanted to have access to everyone and everything to better understand different processes and approaches to Odissi. I also needed to create my own work as part of my practice-based PhD. For the first 3 years that I was in Odisha, every time Guruji (Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra) would see me, after the ‘Pranams’ and feet touching, he would immediately launch into scolding me for not attending class and “wasting my time”!

GR: At what point did you feel a need to find your own path in dance?
RT: Like most of us who are brought up with a very different learning environment in all aspects of our life, it was odd that I never felt like I really owned the area that was closest to my heart, even after 17 years of rigorous training. I was also part of the third generation of Odissi dancers – unlike the 2nd generation, who had an active part in the creative process. I realized this big difference while Madhaviji was developing her ideas for SoHam Asmi on Bindu Juneja and myself.

At the point I left finally for Laban, despite having so much knowledge in the body, I still felt I would have to seek permission or approval from my teacher if I ever wanted to do something new. There was a sense of claustrophobia about that. I was also longing to dance to Tagore and other writers that moved me so much, and not only in Sanskrit and Odia, which were not languages that I thought and felt in.

Photo Courtesy: Michael Weston

Photo Courtesy: Michael Weston

I needed to take a step back from being under supervision, and being with my Gurus, and really look at this art form which had become second nature to me, but which I still did not feel I was free to work with. When I was doing my MA in Art History in New Delhi, just looking at the temple sculptures and the whole process by which Odissi was created using the raw materials (temple sculptures, texts, Gotipua/Mahari, painting, etc.) made me wonder why one couldn’t follow in the footsteps of the Gurus in the true sense of the term, and use these resources in one’s own creative process. I sorely missed the fact that this had not been part of the dance class.

GR: How did you become interested in exploring contemporary dance?
RT: In Indian dance, there is a very close connect between sound and movement. In pure dance, the way the bol is articulated will affect, exactly, the way you stamp the feet. It is like a “sound mantra” for how you use energy. In the context of Abhinaya, the way a line is sung will affect all the movements of the upper body. Of course you will have the poetry and context, but the sound and movement are intrinsically correlated. Movement is therefore dictated by music. And I am not a musician. While I love listening and married a musician, I don’t dream in music. I dream spatially and kinesthetically.

In contemporary dance there are many approaches used for creating choreography and organizing principles can range for the organic feel of a phrase, to measuring time with breath, to just working in silence with thoughts and ideas, or relating to space/objects etc. You also learn how to perform any movement efficiently, and how to create new work. You are acquiring the tools with which to express yourself through dance. In the current system of Odissi, we learn repertory work not as spaces for exploration but as fixed compositions. If that becomes the primary basis of one’s understanding of dance, then its hard to deconstruct, internalize and reconstruct the dance form – and it is this experience that we are seeing across the board.

GR: Can you describe your experience studying dance in London?
RT: I went to London to be in a performing arts school and see how things were done. I was very interested in the study of choreography and the analysis of movement. The experience of being in London allowed me to look at Odissi from a choreological perspective in terms of how it engages the body, movement, space, sound and dynamics, and also develop a vocabulary to speak about this. To also appreciate how the same thing is perceived differently by different people depending on their cultural conditioning. I learned to appreciate Odissi as a movement system, identify its strengths, build on this with my own choreography, and share this understanding with dancers from different backgrounds.

And there is a lot it offers–apart from its sophisticated vocabulary and philosophical blueprint, in terms of the way we use energy. I have worked a long time with the intention of creating spatial, virtual yantras through the dance composition. Our basic stances are strong geometric shapes, formed by opening our knees, lowering the body , and grounding it . The symmetrical nritta sequences we dance create geometric diagrams with the lines drawn by our moving limbs. These lines can be seen to maintain distinct trajectories, marking fixed proportions and distances of the limbs to the central axis of the body. If these ‘virtual spatial progressions’ were to be recorded, the form created would be akin to a yantra, divisible into squares, circles and triangles.

It is remarkable that Indian dance forms had come up with this approach to the body in the first place. That led me to a study of the “body map” that was intrinsic to the yogic tradition and to its expression in ritual gestures. And to explore if I could use this technique, this energized space, to express ideas in any spoken or musical language while using dance as a meditative process. That has been the direction of my choreographic exploration always, even with the Gotipuas.

GR: How did you begin to integrate some of the contemporary principles into your Odissi choreography?
RT: Essentially, I decided to deconstruct the sound-movement nexus, and began working with text, melody and rhythm separately, to create movement material that was drawing from the only thing I did, which was Odissi.

So I used spoken word text in English of Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore to start constructing phrases that were emotive (which carried the emotion because of the language). I also started exercising and improvising to Michael’s piano music, while he practiced (usually in an adjoining room!). It resulted in him creating Caryatid Rests and us getting married. I also started working on Yantra using Beej mantras – these are ‘seed’ syllables to evoke Devi – which I had heard at Swami Satyananda’s Munger ashram in Bihar. These syllables were spoken from sunrise to sunset during the yagna which lasted I think four days, and over the syllables would be bhajans, lectures, and discourses. So there was this continuous layering of sound. After having witnessed this, the mind is bombed with this chanting – but the experience became the basis for Yantra’s soundtrack where different speeds of recitation were layered, and created a really interesting and powerful percussive meditation. To this, I began working with the idea of a pallavi, or blossoming, but by using isolated body parts for movement.

GR: Your dance is rooted in the practice of Yoga – Can you elaborate a bit more on this?
RT: When you do Yoga, you first learn a posture, and it has a certain effect. Then you learn the posture with the breathing, and it has a deeper effect. And then you learn the posture with the breathing, and with focus on the spinal vital points, and it has a completely different effect. These are all layers of effects which help the mind shift its identification away from the physical body into a more distilled state of awareness. Similarly, with any movement in dance, if you are doing it simply physically it has an effect. If it is getting to be more and more visceral, it will have a more engaging mental effect. You can try this with Chauka using simple, repetitive movements of sitting and standing- if you start inhaling when you sit and then exhaling when you stand for example, really focusing on the point of origin of the movement, you start working with the same principles as you do with Hatha Yoga. You can extend that awareness into the deviation of the torso, so that your upper body is grounded in the energy centre within the pelvis. Then you use your arms, and mudras, and eyes, to extend energy from your central axis, out into space. If you embody your basic postures with this centredness, then transitioning from postures in dance to asanas in Yoga becomes effortless because you are working from the same space in the spine. I found this very interesting with the Gotipua dancers, with whom I have been working for ten years. They would do incredible movements, but like circus tricks. But then if you slowed down some of their movements, you could do incredible transitions using their postures and Odissi’s vocabulary.

Photo Courtesy: Avinash Pasricha

Photo Courtesy: Avinash Pasricha

GR: How did you begin to work with Gotipua dancers and integrate the dance into your choreography?
RT: The process of working with Gotipua dancers started by accident in a sense. I was given a grant from INTACH to do some work with them in Raghurajpur. It was such an enjoyable experience, like handling plasticine, that I wanted to do more.

So I went from working with one Gurukul to working with several. We did some performances together, and it was brought to the attention of ICCR. We had new choreography using ritual music, a wonderful Sahiyatra mask, and back projections of paintings from Raghurajpur. It was a well-finished production, which integrated the Gotipua and Odissi vocabularies and ICCR was interested in sending it to Berlin and the UK. But then there was an issue of who owned the passports of these little boys. So I finally auditioned for over18 year-olds from the tradition and recreated some pieces on them. Some of them would have had to stop dancing if they had not got this break. What was really wonderful about working with these older Gotipua dancers was that they were like sponges – their bodies were extremely strong and flexible and they were so willing to learn and to try new things, it was a real joy working and dancing with them. You can always train someone to have clear articulations and to work spatially, but that sense of raw excitement about the work, to have so much ability in the body, and to really live dance was very special. When we returned from the tour, they were very keen to do more, and that was what really started the repertory group. We began to get more programs, the boys were earning money, they had a chance to travel and try all kinds of new things. We then got another grant from the Ford Foundation to document more songs and more mnemonic patterns, and to do video interviews of different Gotipua Gurus and musicians. So basically, one thing led to another and it developed, and we ran it like a dance company for about ten years.

GR: Was all of this happening when you were in Odisha?
RT: Yes, this happened in Odisha. Strangely enough even the Dhara production which went abroad through ICCR and was subsequently staged in so many venues in India has never been performed in Odisha. I was constantly being told ‘this is not Odissi this is not Gotipua,” so we can’t programme it. And without ever seeing it! This is incredible and sad when I think about it, but that is what happened. My studies in dance semiotics had also made me wary about forcing the issue! But it was uncomfortable and that is why I now live here near Auroville. I feel very grateful for everything because my environment here is so full of beauty.

GR: Can you tell us about your own creative process?
RT: Usually it [the idea] is something that gestates for a very long time with me. I don’t work fast. The whole process of wanting to explore movement for myself started with Tagore’s Gitanjali because I was carrying it around with me during architecture at SPA (School of Planning and Architecture) for three years. I would constantly be reading the lines and it had become like second nature to me, and so playing with the movement just evolved from that. Another piece that was not devotional writing but which I responded to with great delight was, “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou. I felt like Shakti and the Svadhinbhadra Nayika with it. It really got under my skin for a while, and so I started sort of playing with it, using once again, just Odissi movement.

Then I became interested in this idea of being in a place of stillness with movement, which developed from the idea of Mokshya, – of arriving at that stillness but not as a result of a cathartic state of movement, but starting with stillness and articulating movement from that state. And seeing where that breaks into not being stillness, but into vibrant movements, retaining the quality of a focused meditation. This was an area that I explored a long time, both on myself and with the Gotipuas.
The work with the Gotipuas took on a momentum of its own. I made several pieces from scratch using bhajans and mantras exploring their sheer physicality, and also worked extensively with songs I heard them sing while they were fooling around, or something they did already, but which I would redo differently using props and masks. It has been a very enriching journey.

GR: Do you think that we lose an element of the classicism of Odissi by applying a contemporary framework?
RT: It is important to be on the same page about what the words classical, traditional and contemporary, actually mean. Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan’s writings on classical art being a way of sadhana, or a tool for the transformation of consciousness, is really useful to read and remember. I feel traditional practice does not generally work with sadhana as its focus, at too many important levels. If work is created using Odissi’s movement language, and contemporary approaches to choreography, but has remained true to the ideals of sadhana, the tradition would be enriched by embracing it. That we don’t seem to accept at all!

The whole technique works by generating potential energy. Remember that a transformation of consciousness is what is perceived as the purpose of the dance. I think this is the strength of the tradition and gives it a timeless quality. Going back to the previous discussion on yantras and understanding Odissi’s form energetically, your footwork is activating the lower part of your spinal cord, where the center of your body’s energy lies. When you sit in Tribhangi, the torso shifts laterally off the central axis from the spinal cord, which is connected to the lower chakras. So the torso deflection becomes a means of drawing energy into the upper body from the lower body through a movement at the emotional heart centre. And on top of that, there is a psychological transformation that abhinaya is allowing you to be part of, where you can enter into a dialogue with the deities you are dancing to. In essence, it is designed beautifully to serve the purpose of classical art i.e. to be a transformative experience, in a codified way. This is not how contemporary dance uses dance, views dance, or views what happens during the course of the dance. But we can certainly use contemporary approaches to creating new choreography using the Odissi technique, without compromising classicism.

GR: So this is more of an internal journey 
RT: Very much an internal journey, very much a journey that you embark on after you have a mastery of technique, and an understanding of how it works. And also, you need the desire to dance as your path of transformation. If you have this intention, it doesn’t matter if you are working with Odia or Sanskrit, or any particular form of music necessarily. In my understanding, you are working within the classical parameters, your movement vocabulary and approach is completely grounded in the traditional technique – the intention is grounded in what the tradition has always claimed as its purpose. Then you are free and can do what you need do to. I don’t think issues of identity are issues anymore. It is not necessary to have a regional identity because Odissi has gone way beyond that. It is a global art form now. Its practitioners come with so many different inputs and ideas. Odissi is big enough for all of it.

GR: Students in Odissi are often discouraged from creating new work (because they are considered inexperienced or lacking enough knowledge) until much later on in their dance careers. How can we change this mindset?
RT: I disagree with that. I think that the ability to choreograph comes from an ability to play with movement elements, and that ability can be inculcated from the time you learn your basic steps. It’s a gift from the teacher to the student. It is possible to learn good technique without learning it in such a rigid way. There is no need for everybody to face front and stand in line to do basic steps every day of their lives- you can change the location in space, the orientation in space, the space itself, or you can experiment by alternating the sequences of steps amongst groups. You can have students choose different combinations of steps. There are so many things you can do to give a student room for playful decision- making. If students start working with these elements right from the beginning, they will build the space to create easily.

Also, steps are learnt much better when working simultaneously both from outside-in (as we do in tradition) as well as from inside –out. Correct movements come from the inside-out far more easily. A supplementary yoga practice will show you that and the field of somatics has established that for dance training.

GR: A one-dimensional approach to teaching also paralyzes dancers who are forbidden to deviate from this approach:
RT: That is why I am saying, instead of being in fear and throwing the baby out with the bathwater; we have to get a grip of what the baby is. And you can get that grip by understanding the technique and how it uses energy. You will then have your own yardstick for understanding why something is right or wrong because you have an experiential understanding of what constitutes correct, energetically ‘plugged’ movement vs. incorrect, ‘unplugged’ movement. And once you have that, you will also begin to realize that a particular teacher’s way of embodying movement is what works in their own body. It may not apply to your body. If you work with different teachers in Odissi, very often they will tell you to do things differently and learn the basics from the beginning, because their understanding of the movement is particular to their body. If you approach your own technique with this perspective, then you can bypass the early psychological barriers, and come to your own experience of what is right and wrong.

GR: Do you think the emphasis on group work detracts from the individual path of a dancer? What is your advice for dancers seeking to find their own voice in the tradition?
RT: It certainly detracts from the individual journey because the whole effort of the school is to create a production for the next festival. That is where the funding comes from, that is where the demand is. You can never arrive at a state of fulfillment or completion if you are hiding or trying to brush under the carpet, any unrest you may be feeling. For the individual dancer I think it is important to really reach a point where you wake up and be honest with yourself about what you love about Odissi, and have the guts to go after it. It is very worth it. There is a lot of insecurity now and an inability to collaborate – and that is because the dancer is not coming from a true enough place inside. It is a matter of deciding what you want to do, and then start doing it.

GR: Where would you say you are now as an artist?
RT: In a new landscape. Because of a knee injury last year in January, I have been doing little dance work on my own body, and exploring alternative therapies. I have also been using the time to write and do Vipassana meditation, and this has been a real turning point for me … in terms of everything!

I have been looking for Krishna with a sense of separation for so many years. I am beginning to see that the space of dance was a wonderful space which allowed this play of being with him as “the other” to be lived and re-lived. Now I do not feel the need to reach out to him as this “other”, whether through nritta or through abhinaya. I am beginning to see Krishna as an aspect of myself. The state of consciousness embodied by Krishna is really not Krishna, the other, but my own witness consciousness. And I am really interested in looking at all these years of dancing the Krishna Lila from this new perspective.

My knee is almost back to normal but I don’t know where I am going with this. I do feel though, that I am closing a chapter in my life and am opening a new one. After the present book (Petals of the Lotus) is out of my system, I think I will be restarting with more words, perhaps my own this time, but they haven’t fully crystalized yet.

For more information about Dr. Rekha Tandon’s choreography, research, writing, and other initiatives, please visit:




  1. Good to hear the thoughts.

  2. a wonderful and insightful interview. thank you global rasika for the right questions and thank you rekha for your straight from the heart replies.
    “If work is created using Odissi’s movement language, and contemporary approaches to choreography, but has remained true to the ideals of sadhana, the tradition would be enriched by embracing it.”
    this is so perfectly said rekha my dear, i loved it. your language is so clear and communicates distinctly.

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