A Brief History of Orissi
"Orissi [Odissi] may well claim to be the earliest classical Indian dance style on the basis of archaeological evidence, . . ." (Vatsyayan 34) affirms an eminent dance scholar, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, in her book, Indian Classical Dance.
Inextricably linked with the religious movements of Orissa, Orissi shows traces of Buddhism, Tantrism (Buddhist and Brahmanical), Saivism, and Vaisnavism, not only in the figures depicted but also in the messages conveyed. From its earliest evidence, Orissi was a dance performed by women (Maharis), whether in court or in the temple. Around 1600 A.D., male dancers dressed as females, known as Gotipuas, gained prominence.
The dance remained an oral tradition through the beginning of the twentieth century, in possession of semi-literates who were not aware of the existing Sanskrit texts on dance. Consequently, the movement patterns, body positions, and hand gestures existed in diluted, even debilitated, form without the technical terminology that structures a dance format. The dances were passed down, in the case of Maharis (female temple dancers), from mother to adopted daughter, and, in the case of Gotipuas, from teacher to the dedicated boys. Dance by Maharis was totally stopped in the temple of Lord Jagannatha after independence due to the opprobrium attached to the female dancers although singing continues to this day. Lack of patronage made it difficult to continue the Gotipua dance tradition in the temples of Orissa, and financial duress drove the young Gotipuas to jatras or roving theatre groups. (Vatsyayan 1974, 34) They earned their living dancing interludes to dramatic acts. Orissi had begun its move from temple to stage.
Orissi was revived in post-independent India, as a neo-classical form, by a group of scholars and dance practitioners/teachers, who formed the group known as Jayantika. Each one of the four dance teachers, revivalists of an old dance tradition, Pankaj Charan Das, Kelu Charan Mahapatra, Deba Prasad Das, and Mayadhar Raut, was characterized by a love of the dance, a struggle through poverty and adverse conditions in pursuit of their loved art form, and an exposure to the art of stagecraft.
Although Orissi moved from temple to theatre and lost some of its spiritual quality, except as a dramatic device, without this coming together of four great dancers and the move into a theatre venture, the dance would have been totally lost to posterity as an art form.
Orissi, the classical style of today in India, has developed from the gotipua repertoire, rather than the mahari repertoire and technique, and overcoming all growing pains, it has finally come into its own and taken India’s dance stage by storm. However, the dance needs to move forward beyond the reconstruction and technique. It needs to thematically encounter the 21st century. First and foremost, the dance needs to be secularized while maintaining the spirituality. Also, new themes have to be created, or old themes have to be repackaged for global tastes.
Excerpt from Ratna Roy, Orissi Dance: In the Context of Classical Dances of India, 2nd edition, 1996. Copyright Ratna Roy, 1997