Odissi: Evolution and Threats

Posted by Tanima Ray
March 14, 2017

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The state of Odisha (India), earlier called as Kalinga, was renamed during the British Rule on the basis of the language of the state, ‘Odiya’. Odiya then was the certified language of the state and subsequently the dance form of the land of Odiyas, the people of Odisha, was named as ‘Odissi’. This dance form is an amalgamation of Nrutya (Odissi), Swar (Odissi Vocal) and Vadya (Instruments)[Natya Shashtra]. The performance that we see on stage and identify as Odissi is the replication and expression of Hindu, Jain and Boudh sculptures, scriptures, mythology and spirituality through fluid body movements, Mudras (palm and finger forms), facial expressions and foot work. It’s identity also includes a different form of music and vocal used along with the dance, as Odissi has its own set of Talas(beats), songs(Like that of Jayadeva) and instruments. This form of vocal music is categorized as ‘Odissi Vocal’. Sanskrit and Odiya are the only two languages used in this form of vocal music.

In the far East of India, lies one of the most beloved holy places (Dhams) of Hindus, known as the land of Jagannath and named as Puri. As per religious beliefs, Lord Vishnu, the creator of universe, bathes at Rameswaram, dresses at Dwarka, takes his food at Puri and sleeps at Badrinath. These four places are enlisted as the holy Dhams in Hindu scriptures.

Puri, the abode of Lord Jagannath, is not only dwelled by the king, priests and citizens but was also once the home of women named Debadasi or Maharis, who danced for the lord and dedicated their entire lives serving as his wife. The decline of the debadasi — or Maharis, as they are known in Odisha — tradition is believed to have started in 1955, with the state government taking over the administration from the royal family. Duties of a Mahari included dancing before the Lord during Chandan Yatra, Nanda Utsav and Jhulan Yatra and singing the Geeta Govinda for the Lord. The last Debadasi, Shashimani Devi, died on 2015, ending the 800 year old tradition of Maharis. This dance form of Maharis propagated to Raghurajpur where young lads dressed as men enacted on stage and were called Gotipuas. Since then the dance has had a long journey of evolution leading to the present day Odissi and the changes don’t seem to cease yet. The three epitome Gurus of Odissi, namely, Guru Sri Debi Prasad Das, Guru Sri Pankaj Charan Das and Guru Sri Kelu Charan Mohapatro were the ones who laid the foundation of the new age Odissi. They differed slightly in their forms and followed the same basics. Guru Debi Prasad Das passed away at an early age and left no strong legacy behind. Yet he is still followed and revered by his disciples and sub disciples who have passed on his form. Debi Prasad Das could be called the puritan of Odissi dance as he stuck to old and basic principles of Odissi and so do his disciples. After his passing, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatro lived for another 20 years, in which he propagated, transformed and publicized the dance form extensively. He deserves the largest share of credit in promoting Odissi dance to international level. Many of his disciples were from other states and even from other countries.  He, after his demise, has left a legacy of number of phenomenal dance Gurus who are both of Indian and foreign origin(Ileana Chitaristi, Sharen Lowen,etc.). Along with his modern and visionary approach to the dance form, Kelu Babu also went for experiments. He encouraged his disciples to bring changes to the pieces, though only after gaining expertise. Sri Kumkum Mohanty, disciple of Kelu sir, was the next dancer who incorporated fusion of other literatures and tactics in her dance. Then started the propagation and modification of this dance form by various artists in Odisha, other states and abroad. Such evolution has emerged to be a big matter of concern. Yet when dance experts and Gurus go for blending art and literature forms and the outcome is beautiful i.e. Shruti(auditory) and Drishti(visionary) Madhur(perfect or beautiful) then it should definitely be praised and welcomed. But when such pieces are performed, they should never be introduced as forms of Odissi, but contemporary or fusion art forms. Unfortunately, artists tend to confuse the audience by introducing an experimental piece as a form of Odissi. The dance is now highly commercialized, so, the artists do not judge the expertise of their disciple before sending them to stage, as a result, their performance, especially experimental pieces turn out to be misleading.

With such mutations, the original dance form is under great threat. Artists in Odisha, especially the ones trained in Odissi Vocal are now at stake. The dance form which is named after the language of Odiyas and has its identity imbibed with the language is losing its roots and there are no big oppositions to this phenomenon. Think of the picture after say 50 years, this entire dance form will be a mixture of languages and even the basic principles might change.

It is true that the dance has changed dramatically over years, starting from clothing to ornaments to performers. Yet the dancers kept the basics and Odiya language intact all through. The only question and objection to the experimenters is that if dance in itself is a language, then why does one need to change the original vocal language to convey. If other pieces of literatures or dances are planned to be expressed, then those pieces should be clearly identified as fusions and the original dance pieces or pieces in Odiya and Sanskrit (mother Indian language) should always stay the true Odissi.

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