Agency and Gender: the New Identity of the Female Odissi Dancer in a National and Transnational Perspective

by Shilpa Bertuletti

Duet Dancers

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo


In this period of socio-economic change in the globalized world, the formation of individual cultural identity in India is marked by the contestation between national, global, regional and local socio-political forces, influencing also the world of Indian Classical Dance. Odissi, which is now practised throughout India and in other parts of the world is a classical dance form born in the state of Odisha. The narrative that I want to describe has emerged from my two identities: one, a scholar interested in the relationship between representation, identity and gender, and the other, an Indo-Italian Odissi practitioner interested in the long tradition of this dance and its relationship with the west. It was during my intimate association with the world of classical dance in India that I began to see some of its interesting relationships: using an ethnographic field methods, I saw how Odissi dance is transforming itself due to the changing conditions of patronage, national, regional and local politics and the increasing involvement in dance of middle class and lower middle-class women.


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A Country in Itself: Talking about Identity

by Laurence LeBail

“ Those who declare cultures to be irreducible one to the other,
do they ever wonder that one speech, from the very place from where it was born,
still gets through all obstacles and attains across the world, to be understood ? “[1]

Kurma Mudra

Photo Courtesy: Debiprasad Sahoo

If there is any art claiming for its regional identity, Odissi is certainly one of them, as stated by its name alone. In an interview conducted in a temple near Balasore in 2010, Guru Ramani Rajan Jena together with my guru, Smt. Sujata Mohapatra pointed out how deeply Odissi is rooted in the culture of Orissa, even in the most ordinary mannerisms, or ordinary technique of the body [2].  Those mannerisms are taken for natural, but they are not in fact more natural nor instinctive than the mother tongue itself : they are the inherited body language, early learned by simple imitation of the mother’s ways of moving. Both of the gurus agreed on saying that an American woman, or even a Bengali woman, would move her head and chin differently from an Odishan woman when calling her husband. Thus, when Dinanath Pathy writes : “Do foreigners taking up the dance corrupt it ?“[3], he may express a concern of the Odishan audience, sensitive to the special quality of ordinary movement and attitudes that innerves the extraordinary dance technique and exhale for them the very flavor of Odissi – that is the sap of lokadharmi enlivening natyadharmi. Yet there must be a strong element of universality in Odissi – otherwise not so many foreign audience would sit and clap nor would foreign dancers travel such a long way from their remote countries to properly learn the dance. “The toile de fond of dance in India is not only what a historian can describe, because it goes far beyond the history of an individual or of a nation” wrote Sanjukta Panigrahi[4]. [Read more…]