Dance for the Gods

DIVINE ART

Dance for the Gods

ARTISTIC MOVEMENT Odissi is the youngest of India’s classical dances.

When the cult of Maharis came into existence in the temples of Orissa, dance was given a high spiritual standing. This votive dance of ceremonial gestures, mimed song and plastic movements, unfolding the mystic formulae of adoration, has existed for at least a thousand years in Orissa, and abides with the Maharis, even today, as a living art.”

The practice of dedicating girls to Hindu temples is as old as history. Such women were attached to temples in Orissa too, but little is known of the nature of the dance they performed in the early times. Devadasis in Orissa were known as Maharis and they were the first to accept Geeta Govinda as part of their repertoire. They had to dance twice everyday in the temple of Jagannath and it was part of their daily worship.

In the same period, a class of young boys, known as gotipuas, were also employed. They dressed themselves as girls and danced in temples as well as secular places. Their dances were mainly ornamental and rendered much bending and contortions of the body, an element that later came to be cleverly fused with the Odissi style. Odissi is a dance of delight. It has its own distinctive technique that is spelt out in ancient texts written on the art. The flavour of the dance is essentially lyrical. The position of the feet, legs, torso, arms, hands and head are geometrically precise. The style is rich with poses, ornamental and suggestive, and though these are static, they are never cold. They exude life.

Expressionally, Odissi has the curious quality of being at once intense and tender. This is not surpassing, for it constitutes the essence of Geeta Govinda, the focus of Odissi. The Geeta Govinda is a work of infinite beauty, impregnated with passion. In Odissi, the dancer is required, above anything else, to project the sentiment of love and this sentiment is rich, pure and in its exuberance sensual, perhaps even carnal. Odissi was designed for the temple and acknowledged as divine art.

Though the tradition of dance in Orissa is very old, the form recognised as Odissi is the youngest of India’s classical dances. The stage presentation of Odissi follows the pattern adopted by Bharatanatyam closely.

The performance begins with mangalacharan, an invocation, which is in praise of divinities like Saraswati, the goddess of learning and art, or Lord Ganesha, the one who eliminates all obstacles. Next comes pallavi, the counterpart of jatiswaram of Bharatanatyam. These are varied passages of abstract dance, set to a lilting melody rendered through the singing of musical notes. The tillana of Bharatanatyam is moksha or deliverance. There is also the abhinaya or varnam of Bharatanatyam, which are alternative passages of expressional and ornamental dance.

The dancer is adorned with a variety of ornaments on the head, face, neck, arms, wrists, fingers, waist, ankles and toes and all are made of silver. The costume worn by the Maharis were made of brocade, but today, the dancer has a readymade ensemble, very similar to that of a Bharatanatyam dancer.

Music is chaste and orthodox and is a blend of both Hindustani and Carnatic classical traditions. The beauty of Odissi can be experienced by the spectator alone.

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