Returning to Form: Odissi as Creative Practice
In the Fall of 2017 a group of people who work in the fields of dance, music, visual art, curation and academia gathered at an art gallery in Toronto for a ‘class’. The focus of the discussion was on choreography for non-traditional performance spaces (such as art galleries) and I was one of only two Indian classical dancers in the room. The discussion was based on three readings we had been asked to do for the ‘class’ and touched upon questions of the relationships between presenters, choreographers, the audience and dancers, how art and its makers respond to the demands of the market, processes that lead to traditions of dance becoming crystallized or transforming through individual or community efforts, and much else. I would like to bring a question from that conversation to the discussion this issue of Global Rasika attempts to initiate, with an eye on the historical development and present eco-system of Odissi: What is the task of the dancer?
In the extensive writings on the ‘construction’ of Odissi in the second half of the twentieth century, the history of the form is largely framed through the personal stories of individuals who contributed towards its development. Differences exist within the world of Odissi depending on who tells the story but most Odissi students learn about the roots of the form in the Mahari and Gotipua traditions; the contributions of gurus who came from these traditions especially Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das and Kelucharan Mohapatra, as well Mayadhara Raut who is now less acknowledged; writers and researchers including Charles Fabri, Kalicharan Pattnaik, Dhirendranath Patnaik, Mohan Khokar; first-generation dancers/performers like Indrani Rehman, Priyambada Mohanty, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Minati Mishra, Kumkum Mohanty, and many from this and following generations, recognized or not for their work in Odissi. In the absence of an existing form that could speak to a national and global audience, those working in the 1950s all the way up to the eighties and nineties took on the tasks of defining, codifying, structuring and advocating for the case of Odissi as a classical dance form, which paradoxically was a creation of contemporary times. While there was no single living tradition from which Odissi developed, its roots were drawn from a wide scope of living ritual and art practices of Odisha; its movement and repertoire were informed by sculpture, painting, literature, theatre, music, and other performance traditions. In addition, information from existing classical dance forms, brought to Odissi through Mayadhara Raut and Sanjukta Panigrahi’s training at Kalakshetra, Chennai, was useful in the Odissi Classical Dance project._
The significant work done individually and collectively_ in the early decades of Odissi’s existence set the tone for how the dance would be practised, presented and received by students, performers, presenters and audiences across the world in the future. Work on pedagogy and repertoire was critical to this—from the beginning the focus of training was on creating performers who would spread Odissi nationally and around the world. In the current context, after covering basic steps, theory, and other elements of the form (which could differ depending on the teacher), the training largely consists of learning choreographed ‘items’ that together form the margam or repertoire of Odissi.
The pedagogical system in our art form is particular in the way it is structured between two individuals, each with a specific role in the relationship—the guru as knowledge-giver, the student as knowledge-receiver. The specifics of each guru-shishya relationship obviously differ based on the people involved but largely, outside institutional settings and sometimes even within them, the creation of an Indian classical dancer and dance itself happens through this relationship.
One of the standard repertoires for Odissi—Mangalacharan, Batu, Pallavi, Abhinaya, Moksha—created by the Jayantika collective and developed further by gurus individually is still taught to the majority of Odissi students across the world. As Odissi developed and gained recognition, and more students outside the centres of Odisha, Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai began learning the dance, a process of the repertoire becoming canonized started occurring. At the same time, the system of transmitting knowledge between guru and shishya also informed what was transmitted over time. If the early gurus and their students engaged creatively through the process of constructing a complex and layered classical dance form, subsequent generations became responsible for preserving it. With the pedagogical emphasis still on creating performers, newer generations of Odissi dancers have received the dance as a totality, learning technique and repertoire that earlier generations developed.
What now is the task of the Odissi dancer? In contemporary times, how is the traditionally-rooted form taught and presented, how are new choices and histories made by individual dancers and supported by different players in the Odissi ecosystem? There are real challenges facing Odissi dancers at present. As the Odissi ‘community’ grows globally, the response in terms of training and presentation opportunities has been to shrink time and focus on the ‘product’. In the sphere of training, workshops to learn ‘items’, once a way for dancers with many years of training to work on specific elements, are now par for the course. Numerous presenters now offer 10-12 minute spots to dancers in festivals that frequently offer no remuneration and feature upwards of 10 dancers in one evening, however, apart from the cosmetic change in the duration, many elements of the presentation remain unchanged: wearing the Odissi costume and make-up, located on the stage both facing and separated from the audience, performing a single item placed outside the logic of the full repertoire, dancers competing for visibility face the prospect of becoming just-another- name-on-the-list in these spaces.
If this picture is gloomy, it is not without hope. For all the years and hard work Odissi dancers put into training and performing, it might once again be time to acknowledge the contemporary moment and begin searching through the traditional form as we know it. Due to the very nature of Odissi’s origins as a constructed form it is inherent and necessary for dancers to turn to process as their task to personally deconstruct, rediscover and understand the qualities of the form. For inspiration from senior artists on their creative journeys in Odissi as teachers, performers, and choreographers, watch Sharmila Biswas’s lecture-demonstration ‘Interpreting Tradition’ presented at the Gati Dance Forum’s Ignite Festival of Contemporary Dance 2015 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arRYw04XzsM) and Ranjana Dave’s interview with Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy (https://pad.ma/DZO/player). For anyone interested in the form, recordings of workshops and interviews with artists, as well as performances, are available on the wonderful Odissi archive at pad.ma.
Having urged my fellow Odissi dancers to return to the personal, I conclude with a glimpse into my own journey. I started training in Odissi in New Delhi in 1990 with Kiran Segal, my first guru under whose guidance I worked for twenty years as a company dancer, solo performer and Odissi teacher. In 2013, as a young performer and teacher I felt it was necessary for me to keep developing both my skill as a dancer and my perspective on Odissi and I sought out Ambika Paniker and Aloka Panikar as teachers to help me with this. Around the same time, a back injury that had been developing for some years flared up enough to force me to pause from performing regularly. In learning to work with my changing body I have turned to practices outside of Odissi, including yoga and more recently the Alexander Technique and engaged in conversations around dance and the body, which led me back to the form I have practiced all my life with fresh eyes. Over the last two years, I have been living away from India and the environment of training and performance I grew up in. In an environment where I could not take for granted my audience or students’ awareness of Odissi, I decided to put myself into the same space of not knowing this form and discovering it anew, through the material I have learnt from my teachers. My process has been one of working backwards—identifying aspects of the body, movement, theory and literature to break down the complex form and seek clarity through its various connected elements.
Over the last two years I have performed in traditional theatre spaces, open-air venues, dance studios, art galleries, and homes. The length of my performances has varied between 7 minutes at one show to 3 hours at another. In all these spaces, it is the material I have received from my gurus that enables me to present Odissi in contemporary contexts of space, time and audiences. With all the obstacles of limited support, funding, and opportunities that most dancers know only too well, this journey is one of searching, sharing, experiencing the generosity of others, staying respectful to a form, and in the process, discovering a path for myself through Odissi as a creative practice.
 Several authors, including Ratna Roy in ‘Neo Classical Odissi Dance’, have written about this history.
 The Jayantika group of the 1950s was a collective of individual artists who worked together with the goal of having Odissi recognized as a classical dance by the Indian state through the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
 Dinanath Pathy describes differences between members of Jayantika in framing the Odissi repertoire in his book ‘Rethinking Odissi’. Guru Aloka Panikar told me that when she performed Odissi (1960s-1980s), solo Odissi recitals using this repertoire commonly included two pallavis, abhinaya based on ashtapadis from the Gitagovinda and Sabhinaya nritya based on an Odissi song, making the duration of each performance at least 1.5 hours or more.