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Odissi Classical and

Sacred Temple Dance of India


In ancient India the temple was the center of learning, culture, religion and art. In Odisha, in north eastern India, in the temple of Lord Jagannath, 'Lord of the Universe,' religious rituals, music, and dance were combined together to create the highly sculpturesque and devotional dance style, Odissi


According to archeological evidence, Odissi is one of the oldest surviving dance forms of India, dating back to the 1st and 2nd century BC; Mahari legend and oral tradition hold that its origins date back even further.


In the Natya Shastra, an ancient text on music, dance, and drama, considered to be the 5th Veda, the sage Bharata Muni describes Odissi as the dance from Odra-Magadhi and Utkal, the traditional names for the region now known as Odisha. The graceful and flowing movements of this art form have been captured in stone in many temple sculptures throughout Odisha.


This devotional dance was an intrinsic part of the temple worship. The Devadasis (servants of god/temple dancers), also known as the Mahari in Odisha, dedicated themselves to singing and dancing for the pleasure of Lord Jagganath in the inner sanctum of the temple. Later, the Gotipua (young boys dressed as girls) performed the same art for religious festivals and fairs outside the temple.


The basic postures in Odissi, which portray different deities, are chouka and tribhangi. Tribhangi depicts Lord Krishna's three-fold bending form (neck-torso-knees), and chouka, a square and centered stance, depicts Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Odissi dance. By combining these basic postures with intricate torso movements, hand gestures, facial expression and elaborate footwork, various stories from ancient texts are brought to life.


During the British rule in India, Odissi dance came close to extinction. Due to cultural misunderstanding and insensitivity, the Anti-Nautch Bill was passed which outlawed dance by the devadasis in the temples throughout India. It was only later, in the 1950's, when India gained Independence, that Odissi was slowly revived. It was brought back to its former glory by Gurus of both the Mahari and Gotipua styles, using ancient texts, temple sculptures, and paintings in an effort to reconstruct the dance. Among these experts were Pankaj Charan Das (son of a Mahari), and Kelucharan Mohapatra, Dev Prasad Das, and Mayadar Rout (all of whom were once Gotipuas).


Today, though Odissi dance has stepped out of the temple into mainstream society, it continues to inspire and awaken beauty and grace in the hearts of artists and spectators alike. In increasing numbers it is brought to life through dedication and devoted work, allowing it to evolve and thrive as it passes from teacher to student, building a future with ancient history and culture into the new millenium.

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