The Tradition Of Odissi Music

The following article is by JIWAN PANI, an Oriya poet and lyricist who has travelled widely throughout the country surveying and documenting various forms of traditional, folk and tribal performing arts. He has written extensively on music, dance and theatre.

About 30 years ago, a few sensitive scholars and leading guru-s awakened to the fact that the dance form now known as Odissi had come under corrupting influences, and that, if these were not removed, this lyrical and beautiful dance-form would soon be transformed into a sloppy display, aiming at nothing more than cheap entertainment. The task of restoration would have been extremely difficult had the tradition been entirely an oral one. But, fortunately, a few treatises on the dance are extant, of which the most important is Abhinaya Chandrika, written by Maheshwara Mahapatra in the 15th century. This invaluable work and the countless dance sculptures on the walls of several ancient temples of Orissa, together give a comprehensive idea of this tradition and clearly indicate what should be considered authentic or otherwise. When the scholars and guru-s set themselves the task of cleansing the form of its corrupt elements, they used this evidence as a touchstone of authenticity. Although they seem to have acted arbitrarily while naming the generic numbers of the Odissi repertoire— for instance, they have identified sthayi-nritya as batu, sabhinaya nritya as bhava-pallavi, and mokshya nata as either natangi or batu— they rightly rectified errors in such aspects as in the use of hand gestures, the costuming of an Odissi dancer, the execution of codified dance phrases, etc. However, due attention was not paid at that time to the aspect of music, which also needed the same treatment. Consequently, while the dance moved closer to tradition, the music drifted away. And now, shorn of its distinctive character, Odissi music is often found to be under the total influence of the towering Hindustani system. Only a few characteristic tala-s, such as Athatali, Nihsari, Jhula, etc., distinguish it somewhat from Hindustani music. But these do not have an identity of their own.

Orissa, however, did have a distinctive tradition in music. This is unmistakably indicated by more than half a dozen treatises which were written between the 16th and the 18th centuries and are even now extant. The more important among these are:

·         Geeta Prakasa by Krishnadasa Badajena Mahapatra (1565 A.D.);

·         Sangeeta Kalpalata by Haladhara Mishra (circa 1623 AD.)

·         Natya Manorama by Raghunath Ratha(1696 A.D.)

·         Sangeeta Narayana by Cajapati Narayana Deva (1750 A.D.J; and

·         Sangeeta Muktavali by Harichandana (after 1750 A.D.).

 The last named work was published in 1955 by the Utkal University, Bhubaneswar. The editor, Pandit Banambar Acharya, dates it to 1590 A.D., but since the work contains quotations from Sangeeta Narayana, it must have been written after 1750 A.D. The Orissa Sahitya Akademi, Bhubaneswar, published Natya Manorama in 1959 and Sangeeta Narayana in 1966. Recently, the Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi has published Geeta Prakasa. The other treatises have not yet been published but are in the collection of the Orissa Museum, Bhubaneswar, in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts.

Krishnadasa Badajena appears to have been received at the court of Akbar and rewarded for his learning. Raghunath Ratha remarks that a king of Kerala, pleased with his knowledge of the performing arts, offered him generous patronage.

About 44 raga-s have been named and defined in Geeta Prakasa, 46 in Sangeeta Kalpalata, and 74, including 12 of the mixed variety (sankeerna), in Sangeeta Narayana. There are a few raga-s which may be found in one work and not in the others. But the majority of them are listed in every treatise and the manner in which these have been defined points to a consistent tradition. A careful study of these treatises leads one to the conclusion that, as late as the 18th century, the tradition of music in Orissa followed the ancient practice of jati singing under the grama moorchana classification system. The definitions of raga-s Mallara and Gandharva given in Sangeeta Narayana confirm this. These two pentatonic raga-s, according to their definitions, omit both sa and pa, which is unthinkable now in the raga music that accepts the shadja as the fixed universal tonic for every raga without exception. Thiswas not the practice in the jati singing tradition since the Arshabhi and the Dhaivati jati-s used to omit both&r and pa in their pentatonic varieties. Although sa, corresponding to 'do' of the Western solfa system, used to be considered as the first note, it was not always the tonic. In fact, in a particular grama (shadja or madhyama or gandhara, the latter two seem to have gone out of use even by the time the Natya Sastra was written), different moorchana-s were obtained by adopting different notes of the octave as the initial note or tonic. In the jati system, the name for the tonic was graha and that for the dominant note was amsa. Many jati-s have the same note for both graha and amsa, but there were exceptions such as Nandayanti which had ga as graha but pa as amsa.

Raga-s born of jati-s became so popular that, by about the 16th century, they totally eclipsed the latter both in the North and the South, but perhaps not so completely in Orissa. All the treatises mentioned above often describe raga-s as born of jati-s and as having characteristics such as graha, amsa, nyasa, apanyasa, limits of movement in mandra (lower) and tara (higher) octaves and other elements which are now seldom used in raga music.

It is significant that none of the treatises written in Orissa mentions mela or thaat, while most of those written elsewhere in India during the period between the 16th and the 18th centuries, mention either one or the other of the two systems. This is because, at that time, both the Carnatic and Hindustani systems of music, discarding the moorchana system, strove to formulate some kind of grouping pattern that would be scientific, convenient, and acceptable to all. In 1660, Venkatamakhi formulated the melakarta scheme with 72 mela-s and it has since been followed in Carnatic music. The Hindustani system of music, influenced more or less by the music traditions of the Middle East, has not found a satisfactory system even today. About 60 years ago, Bhatkhande suggested a scheme of 10 thaat-s which was generally accepted. But eminent scholars like K.C.D. Brahaspati have challenged the scientific validity of the scheme which is considered quite inadequate for the purpose of accommodating rationally all the raga-s in the repertoire of the Hindustani system. The music tradition of Orissa— which, for the sake of convenience, we shall call Odissi music followed, at least till the 18th century, the moorchana system and did not perhaps seek to consider any other. This view is strengthened by the fact that Sangeeta Narayana and Natya Manorama have different names for the moorchana from those given by either Bharata or Narada. Table 1 shows the names of the seven moorchana-s under the shadja-grama as it was followed in the Odissi tradition and the corresponding names according to Bharata and Narada.

Table 1

According to the Odissi traditon
       According to Bharata
          According to Narada





The names of the moorchana-s under the other two gramas also bear no resemblance to those mentioned by either Bharata or Narada. The Odissi tradition also accepts 22 sruti-s in an octave, but again their names differ from those mentioned in the Natya Sastra. The view that Odissi music used to follow the ancient moorchana and jati system is further strengthened when the definitions of the raga-s given in the said treatises are closely examined. Sangeeta Narayana deals with the maximum number of raga-s and mostly follows the line of Geetu Prakasa. In its description of the raga-s, it clearly indicates from which jati-s or grama-raga - s they are derived.

In Table 2 a few raga-s are listed with the corresponding jati-s from which they are said to have been derived. The list ,suggestive rather than exhaustive.

Table 2

Odissi raga-s                   Jati-s from which the raga-s are derived

Vasanta                           Shadjamadhyama

Bangala                           Kaishiki

Amrapanchama              Andhri

Kamoda                          Shadji

Saindhavi                        Panchami

Dhannasi                         Shuddhakaishika

Deshakhya                      Gandharapanchami

Abhiri                              Dhaivati

Gandhara                        Madhyama

Nilotpala                         Dhaivati

 These are also a few Odissi raga-s which, according to the Sangeeta Narayana, were derived from grama or bhasa or bibhasa raga-s. The descriptions of raga-s found in (he Odissi treatises are very similar to those in the Sangeeta Ratnakara, which is now also followed in practice to some extent in Carnatic music. Thus, the Odissi tradition had perhaps more affinity with the Carnatic rather than with the Hindustani system.

 Let us now take a raga and closely examine it theoretically to see how it should be rendered in conformity with the tradition. The first raga defined in the Sangeeta Narayana is Sree. It is a raga of the sampoorna variety, using all the seven notes of the octave, and has been defined to indicate that the jati, nyasa (note of rest), graha (the initial note, the tonic) and amsa (the dominant note) of the raga is shadja. It uses panchama infrequently and knowledgeable musicians employ this raga for songs which express love or heroism. The raga comes under the shadja grama.

The Sangeeta Ratnakaia defines the raga as follows: The raga Sree, born of shadji jati under shadja grama, uses panchama infrequently. Its nyasa and amsa is sa, and the other notes get equal importance. Its movement is between the third of the lower octave and the fourth of the higher. The leader of the karana-s [the epithet Sreekaranagrani is meant for the author, Sarangadeva] says that this raga is to be used for songs of heroism or for those denoting a sense of punishment.

There is practically no difference between the two definitions except perhaps in the style of singing for which the raga could be used in the Odissi style both heroic and love songs. There is no disagreement about the use of the swara-s.

It is in the shadja grama and its tonic is sa. Therefore, it comes under the Uttaramandra moorchana (in Odissi tradition, the moorchana is called Lalita). The sruti intervals between two successive notes should then be:

Sa-3-Ri-2-Ga-4-Ma-4-Pa-3-Dha-2-Ni-4- Sa

If an interval of two sruti-s is taken as a half-tone and that of three or four sruti-s as a full tone, then the above scale has two half-tones, one between the second and the third, and the other between the sixth and the seventh. For the sake of convenience, we take the notes of the Bilaval thaat of Hindustani music as the suddha swara-s. Then, the third (ga) and the seventh (ni) of the above scale are flat (komal) and it corresponds to the Kafi thaat of Hindustani and the 22nd melakarta (named Kharaharapriya) of Carnatic music.

In practice, at present, the Hindustani style has drifted away from the tradition and Sree raga is sung with the second and sixth notes as flat and the fourth as sharp. It is therefore grouped under the Poorvi thaat. There are again two types of Sree: one is audavasampoorna, which omits the third and the sixth in ascent, and the other is shadava-sampoorna, omitting only the third in ascent. This is certainly not in conformity with the tradition since even Tulaji Rao Bhonsle in his Sangeeta Saramrita, which Hindustani music more or less follows, indicates that the raga is sampoorna and that the third and the seventh notes are flat. Tulaji wrote Sangeeta Saramrita around 17 70. Therefore, the wide drifting must have taken place during the last 100 or 150 years. It is significant that Bhatkhande in his Sangeeta Sastra does mention that Venkatamakhi in his Chaturdandi Prakasika includes the raga Kafi under Sree mela.

Carnatic music is not so far away from the Odissi tradition since, in practice, it groups even now the raga Sree under the Kharaharapriya mela, but it is an audava-sampoorna raga, omitting the third and the sixth in ascent.

Sree raga has now become rather rare in Odissi. However, if one wishes to render it in conformity with the tradition, it should be treated as sampoorna, with ga and ni flat; sa as both vadi and nyasa; and ma as samvadi. Infrequent use of pa will bring it, at times, closer to Bagesri. In fact, Sree raga in Odissi is in some ways a combination of the Bagesri and Kafi of Hindustani music.

If, however, the raga Vasanta (which is now not as rare as Sree) is examined, it will be clear how Odissi music has drifted away from its tradition. The raga is at present more often rendered with both ri and dha flat— resembling, more or less, the style of Carnatic music. A few musicians, besides using these two notes flat, employ both sharp and flat ma, in a way similar to the Hindustani Basant. But the raga has been defined in the Sangeeta Narayana thus: The raga Vasanta is born of Shadjamadhyamika jati and the note shadja is its nyasa, graha, and amsa. Knowledgeable musicians sing it at any time during the spring season.

Vasanta, according to Sangeeta Ratnakaia, is a raganga born of Hindola which belongs to the Kaisiki jati. Thus the raga Vasanta of Sangeeta Ratnakara is different from the Vasanta of Sangeeta Narayana.

Shadjamadhyamika jati belongs to the Matsarikrita moorchana which in Odissi tradition is called as Matangaja. In this moorchana, the sruti distances of the notes are:

 Ma-4-Pa-3-Dha-2-Ni-4-Sa-3-Ri-2-Ga-4- Ma

We are now so accustomed to the fixed tonic sa that the characteristic of the moorchana can best be understood when the initial note ma is regarded as sa. Then the sruti intervals can be rewritten thus:

Sa-4-Rj-3-Ga-2-Ma-4Pa-3-Dha-2-Ni-4- Sa

Again, if an interval of two sruti-s is equivalent to a half-tone, and that of three or four sruti-s is a whole tone, and the former is denoted by H, and the latter by W, the pattern of intervals covering an octave of the Bilaval thaat— the same as a major diatonic scale of Western music, and regarded in Hindustani music as comprising all suddha note can be written as WWHWWWH and the above moorchana as WWHWWHW. This, in comparison with the former, has the ni flat resembling the Khamaja thaat (Harikamboji in Carnatic music). The Odissi Vasanta belongs to this scale. Therefore, if the raga is rendered in conformity with the tradition, it should have only ni as flat and all other notes should be suddha. It should also be of the sampoorna variety, using all the seven notes of the scale both in ascent and in descent, withthepaasthevadi (dominant note). All main musical phrases should begin and end on the note pa.

Of course, according to the rules governing the Shadjamadhyamika jati, it can take either of the two sadharana swara-s: antara gandhara and kakali nishada, or both. If it takes the antara ga, then ni becomes sharp and thus similar to Bilaval thaat (Dheerasankarabharanam of Carnatic). If the other, then ma is augmented by a half-tone to become teevra ma and then it resembles Vachaspati, the 64th melakarta of Carnatic music, which has no corresponding thaat in the Hindustani system and, therefore, can be said to have Kalyana in poorvanga and Khamaj in uttaranga. If, however, both the sadharana swara-s are taken, it resembles Kalyana of Hindustani, corresponding to Mechakalyani of Carnatic music. In no case can the Odissi Vasanta have ri and dha flat unless it drifts away from the tradition owing to the influence of Hindustani music.

Similarly, it can be proved that the way the more popular raga, now wrongly called Saveri, is rendered, does not conform to the tradition. Its correct name is Shavari and, according to the above-mentioned Odissi treatises, it is a hexatonic raga whereas it is being rendered as pentatonic in ascent, very similar to the raga Jogia of the Hindustani style. Other raga-s which do not at all conform to the tradition are Todi, Bhairava, Mallara (also Malhara) and Hindola. Many typical Odissi raga-s, such as Deshakhya, Hunchika, Ghantarava, Pulindi, Madhukiri, etc., are now not heard at all, whereas borrowed raga-s like Kafi, Khamaj (at times called Harikambhoji), Keeravani, Arabhi, etc., are often heard. There is of course, no harm in borrowing a raga, but if the borrowed ones outnumber the traditional ones, then the tradition is obviously in danger of becoming extinct sooner or later.

The Odissi tradition has also a fascinating and strong oral component in the chhanda style of singing. Chhanda, derived from the root chhand (to move rhythmically), is basically a metrical scheme used in Oriya poetry, especially the Kavya (long narrative) literature which was popular from the 17th century to the first few decades of our century. There are about a hundred different chhanda-s, each with a fixed metrical scheme, and they are primarily meant to be sung. Many chhanda-s are named after raga-s to which they were perhaps originally set. At times, the tala is also indicated. In a few chhandas such as Ashadhasuklavani, the raga is not mentioned in any of the music treatises. They are, however, now also sung in fixed traditional tunes. Therefore, it can be assumed that, right from the beginning, they might have been just names of metrical formulae or of raga-s which went out of use by the 16th century, leaving behind their names only to the literary tradition of chhanda.

Some chhanda-s have a simple arrangement of syllables in their metrical schemes. For instance, in the chhanda called Bangalasree (which according to the Sangeeta Narayana is a mixed raga), each stanza has two lines and each line has a 6 + 6 + 8 arrangement of syllables or rather beats. The metrical scheme may, however, be quite complicated. For instance, one of the popular chhandas is Chokhi. No raga of this name is found in the treatises. Only Sangeeta Kalpalata mentions a raga named Chokhari which might have originally inspired this chhanda. A stanza of Chokhi has four lines, having the following arrangement:

 1st line : 8+8+(8+5)

 2nd line : 8 + 8 + (8 + 5)

3rd line : 9

4th line : 8 + 8 + 13

 A number of beautiful poems have been written in this chhanda.

It is unfortunate that such an interesting and distinctive tradition of music is now crumbling under a thick moss of decadence. Kalicharan Patnaik was a well-known musicologist in Orissa and was the seniormost among the scholars and guru-s who were responsible for the revival of Odissi dance. Because of his long experience in the field, he was also the most respected. Unfortunately, he assumed very wrongly that the Odissi music tradition had always been following the Sangeeta Parijata of Ahobala, which was written towards the later part of the 17th century. Badajena wrote the Geeta Prakasa at least 130 years earlier. Besides, raga-s are defined by Ahobala in a very different way from the manner in which the above writers defined them. That the assumption of Kalicharan Patnaik was totally baseless was convincingly pointed out by Nilamadhava Panigrahi, perhaps the only scholar in Orissa who has studied in depth the musical systems of India. Strangely, nobody paid due heed to his arguments, such was the influence of Kalicharan Patnaik in the field of Odissi dance and music. Two talented musicians— Balakrishna Das and Bhubaneshwar Mishra— guided by Kalicharan Patnaik, contributed much to the present-day Odissi music, especially to that which now accompanies the dance. Balakrishna Das, though learning Odissi initially, later became a disciple of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Naturally, his kind of Odissi is more or less influenced by Hindustani music. He has, however, a rich and powerful voice and sings beautifully. He therefore immensely influenced the younger musicians. Bhubaneshwar Mishra had initial training in playing violin under the renowned Carnatic violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. He later took to the Hindustani system. These two musicians had the right training and ample talent and could have admirably worked for the restoration of Odissi music had they been properly guided insofar as the theoretical aspect is concerned. Damodar Hota is currently engaged in studying Odissi music in depth but he is more a musician than a scholar. In 1971, when he published his notation of Kishorachandiananda Champu, he echoed the opinion of Kalicharan Patnaik. If he has not changed his opinion after carefully going through the above mentioned treatises, much cannot be expected from him. It is indeed a pity that Odissi musicians have not yet taken Nilamadhava Panigrahi seriously. What he says may not be 100 per cent correct, but he certainly does not deserve to be ignored.

Whatever may be the fate of Odissi music in the future, the treatises mentioned above deserve far closer study and deeper analysis than what they have hitherto received. They may bring to light the lesser known aspects of Indian music as a whole.


The notable books on Odissi published during the decade include:

·         The Odissi Dance Path Finder, Volume I, (Odissi Research Centre, Bhubaneswar). Published in 1988, it is an illustrated guide to body bending, movements (head, neck, eye), positions (body, foot), gestures, footwork, jumps, turns and spins used in Odissi dance.

·         Odissi - Indian Classical Dance Art. A 1990 Marg Publication, it is a joint product of the endeavours of Sunil Kothari (writer) and Avinash Pasricha (photographer).