Some Reflections On Odissi Dance

Odissi dance has come a long way from what it was only 50 years ago. Wha t we call Odissi today has very little resemblanc e to wha t the mahari-s or the devadasi-s used to dance in the temple s and the akhad a pilla in th e matha-s. The dance compositions which constitute the present Odissi repertoire are products of the last part of the 20th century; they were created keeping in mind the secular environment of a proscenium stage presentation. The enormous growth which the style has witnessed both in terms of technique and dance compositions is to be attribute d to the creativity and versatility of the present-day practitioners.

The urge to be creative, combined with the demand of a diversified public and of an overgrowing competition among the artists, are responsible for the expansion and variety of the repertoire. With increasing performance opportunities, each artist is forced to find new themes to present in successive performances; and, the technique has to expand to accommodate the diversification of themes.

Ideally, assessment and codification of the theoretical aspects should take place side by side with the expansion of the practical vocabulary, in order to ensure that the style stays with in a unified and comprehensive framework. Unfortunately , this is what is lacking in the present scenario of Odissi dance. The theoretical aspect has not grown side by side with the practical one. In fact, the work of codification of th e tenets of the style has not been adequatel y done until now. This work has been left incomplete since the time of Jayantika , th e association which was formed in the late nineteen fifties with the intent of codifying the style . During the all too brief span of Jayantika's existence, the people involved with it were more preoccupied with laying down guidelines in regard to costume, make-up, repertoire and structur e of the items than with the work of codification of the technical components of the style.

It was during this time that the text of Nandikeswaras Abhinaya Darpana was relied upon than other works as a reference text on Odissi dance. Since than it has continue d to hold this position, despite the fact that many definitions contained in it do not suit the Odissi style and many of the basic stance s of Odissi are not included in it. Other texts, such as Abhinaya Darpana Prakasa by Yadunat h Singh Mohapatra , perhaps mor e relevant, at least insofar as hasta mudra viniyoga (usage of hand gestures) are concerned, have not received due attention.

An attempt to fill the lacuna in the field of codification was undertaken 25 years late r by the Odissi Research Centre. Two booklets published by the Centre since its inception are a step forward towards a more comprehensive understanding of the technical vocabulary of the style, but the work is far from being complete.

Furthermore , a much more scientific and broadbased approac h is re ­ quired to draw a list of all basic stances of the Odissi dance as it is practised today, taking into account the guidelines contained in the classical texts and the different 'gharana-s' tha t have emerged over the years. This can only be done by a forum of practicing artists, teachers and scholars, willing to share, discuss and assess new developments and undertaking the work on a regular basis. The referenc e points cannot remain static in a living art tradition such as dance and , at the same time, the growth of the dance-form should not go totally unchecked. Nowaday s most of the performing artists are also teachers and composers. Having to deal with old and outdate d syllabi followed in various institutions where Odissi is taught and examinations are held they do not take into account the more recent developments in the style and , in the absence of a well defined framework of directives, each artist acts in isolation and according to her own interpretation of the scattered texts.

There is a need for a comprehensive text where all the tenets of the style are classified chari, utplavana , bhramari , mudra and so on. Take the utplavana , for example: there are more than 15 types of jump s which we us e in practice but, when we deal with the theoretical aspect, we mention only the five which are included in the Abhinaya Darpana. Similarly, many of the hasta viniyoga-s described in the Abhinaya Darpana are not actually used in Odissi. But when we teach theory we have to go according to this list. So what theory we teach in reality does not always correspond to practice. The same is the case with the classification of the tala-s used in Odissi dance. The classification according to the Carnatic system is studied side by side with the one used in the Hindustani system, thereby creating confusion in the practitioner's mind. A full-fledged indigenous classification has not yet clearly emerged. However, these are details one would need to deal with in much greater detail.

 In this situation, it is difficult to talk of deviations or aberrations. In a living art tradition such as dance, nothing can be taken absolutely as 'original' or 'pure'; the stamp of authority on a particular rendering of a movement is given by consensus among and acceptance by the practising artists, the scholars, and the discerning public at a given point of time.

In a way the guru-s and scholars who took part in Jayantika years ago, had, in order to give Odissi dance the present form, to deviate in many ways from what was available to them at that point of ime. The reconstruction of the dance from the debris it had become, required both scholarship and creativity. Whatever guidelines were laid down at that point of time, may or may not be relevant and acceptable 50 years later, in a different social context.

If we try to bind the creativity of the new generation of artists in the name of rules laid down by experts of the previous generations, we will succeed only in stifling the growth of the art and in pushing each one towards working in isolation. What we need on the contrary at this point, is to bring together concerned practising artists and scholars who, with open minds, can share doubts, compare views and broaden their collective horizon.