The Odyssey of Odissi Dance

The first time I saw Odissi live on stage was in 1999. It was Kargil time. I was in active defense service and was posted in a forward position. We used to receive the love of citizens in many forms, one of them being an Odissi dance performance. Sonal Mansingh with her troupe had flown in to give an exclusive performance for the soldiers in front line. I had seen Odissi earlier on Television. But watching a maestro and her troupe live was mesmerizing, sublime and ethereal.

The second time I saw Sonal Mansingh was a couple of years back. She had come to Bengaluru Literature festival to promote a book written about her. This time it was her talk that enthralled me. It was the enthusiasm of a person whose life has become a dance. It is no ordinary dance. She is an exponent of Odissi and Bharatanatyam both of which have deep roots in spiritual India.

Sonal Mansingh was candid about many things that happened in her life. Born into a family of high social standing (her grandfather was one the first five governors of India) it was not easy for her to pursue her passion in dance because of the stigma attached to the dancers in 1950s.

Ironically it was not so a century earlier. Many of India’s ancient dance traditions were kept alive by the temple dancers known as devadasis. They were seen with high esteem and were generously patronized by the kings. They did not do anything else other than being a part of the temple worship rituals. Under the British rule, their patronage declined and some of them, to sustain their livelihood, engaged in dubious activities. Eventually there came a time when the British banned the custom of devadasis.

Maharis were the temple dancers of Puri Jagannath Temple. The word mahari is a derivative of two words – mahan and nari. From the high pedestal of reverence and greatness, maharis too met with the same fate under the British rule.

Thankfully in the villages surrounding Puri a devotional dance tradition was kept alive by groups who trained and encouraged small boys. These boys dressed as girls to do the role of Gopi or Radha. While they performed regularly in their vilages, they came to Puri on special occasions to perform for Lord Jagannath.

Sonal Mansingh’s Odissi guru Kelucharan Mahapatra was one such gotipua when he was a child. He was a person of multiple talents. Like many people of his native village Raghurajapura, he was an adept pattachitra artist. He was a master percussionist. Perhaps his way of self discovery was to want more out of life. He did extensive research on the dance forms of Odisha whose earliest mention can be found in Bharat’s Natya Shashtra of 500 BC, whose earliest trace can be found in the Udayagiri caves of 200 BC, whose elaborations are frozen in millions of sculptures in thousands of ancient temples found in Odisha, and whose imprints have been passed on through generations of maharis and gotipuas.

After the British left, Indian classical dance forms saw a revival in many parts of India. Odisha was not behind. Padma Vibhushan Kelucharan Mahapatra was one of the leading pioneers of not only reviving Odisha’s traditional dance form, but also giving Odissi its distinct features.

Sonal Mansingh also recounted how dance has been her way of self discovery through spiritual awakening. Indian classical dance postures and mudras are closely linked to the yogic postures and mudras. Since these are dance forms, all the emotions including the erotic too are present. The expert dancer does not suppress any kind of emotion, but transcends and merges them in the ocean of divine love. When the expert dancer meets the discerning audience, the emotional upheavals and transcendence of the dancer becomes contagious.

Of course these days some dancers experiment with non spiritual themes. But at the core, dance forms like Odissi or Bharatanatyam remain a journey of self discovery for the dedicated dancer.

Even though they sound similar I don’t know whether Odyssey and Odissi have common roots. But the word Odyssey has two meanings. It means a long journey. It also means a journey of self discovery.

PS : This is alphabet O post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.

All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.

28 thoughts on “The Odyssey of Odissi Dance

  1. This was the first time I learnt about Padma Vibhushan Kelucharan Mahapatra. On learning his capabilities, I was in awe of this gifted personality. When one comes across the personalities of his stature, one realises the how dwarf one is. A moment of reckoning and at the same time, a moment of submission!
    Thank you for sharing information about Sonal Mansingh and Padma Vibhushan Kelucharan Mahapatra.
    PS: My father had a leather suitcase and it was named Odyssey! And it is still in good condition but its more of a showpiece than a utility now.

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  2. Odissi is one of the 8 classical dance forms of India, and like all of them, extremely graceful. Back in my hometown Kolkata most girls learn one or more classical dance forms. I learnt Kathak and bharatnatyam, while some of my friends are adept at Odissi.

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  3. Thanks so much for highlighting about the artists and the dance of our state. Odissi dance is truly one of it’s kind. I have not been born and brought up in Odisha but I still love Odissi dance the best…. The costume… The dance forms… Everything about this art is just unique… Wish more people were aware of it.

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  4. That was a refreshing enlightenment on Odissi. The associations with its connoisseurs and exponent par excellence, Sonal Man Singh, have lent a rare grace to the post. The historical aspect of the art in India has found thoughtful mention in the discourse.

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  5. I loved the title of your post.
    I was very small…Seven I think when Sonal Mansingh was invited to perform at a function in my small home town. My mother being a classical dancer was invited as well. I was asked to greet the dancer on stage and gift her a bouquet. The memory of her beautiful dance and of that evening is still vivid in my mind. This made for an enriching read.

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  6. I didn’t know Kelucharan Mohapatra was Sonal Mansingh’s Guru…I may have passed by the Kelucharan Mohapatra institute a thousand times, never actually thinking about this man’s contribution to the field of art. Your posts are such a revelation.

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  7. Odissi is believed to be oldest form of Indian dance according to the various sculptural evidences available. Temples has been the basis of cultural life in this state therefore Odissi dance has been closely connected with their routine activities. Odissi dances show signs of Buddhism, Tantrism, Shaivism, and Vaishnavism.


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