Odissi is the traditional dance form of Orissa and probably owes its origin to the temple dances of the 'Devadasis' (temple dancers). Possibly the oldest classical dance form, one must sit through a performance to experience its sheer lyrical grace. Mentioned in inscriptions, it is depicted on sculptures, in temples like the 'Brahmeswara' and the dancing hall of the Sun temple at Konark .
In fact in the 1950's the entire Odissi dance form was revitalized with the help of the "Abhinaya Chandrika" and sculpted dance poses found in temples.
Odissi is the classical dance form that originated in the ambience of the temples. It is a lyrical form of dance with its subtlety as its keynote. The intimate relationship experienced between the poetry and music in Odissi is a feature on which the aesthetics of the style is built. It is a dance "sculpturesque" style of dance with a harmony of line and movement, all its own.
The history of Odissi dates back to somewhere between the 8th and the 11th century, when the kings took great pride in excelling in the arts of dance and music. It is during these centuries that inscriptions referring to "Devdasis", the women who were consociated to the worship of the deity, were carved at the Brahmeshwar temple. "Devdasis" apparently played an important part in the temple ritual and were required to perform from early evening to the bedtime of Lord Jagannatha, the temple deity of Puri .
Jayadeva's "Geeta-Govinda", the Bible of an Odissi dancer, written in the 12th century, has stupendous influence on the arts of Orissa. The "Ashtapadis" were marked with specific 'ragas' and 'talas'. Around the 15th century, during the reign of 'Surya' Dynasty, the element of "Abhinaya" or expressional dance entered Odissi. During the same time 'Maheshwar Mahapatra' wrote his "Abhinaya Chandrika", an elaborate treatise on Odissi dance style, and today, the basic to any study of it.
By the 16th century, there were three kinds of dancers in Orissa: the "Maharis" in the temples, the "Nachunis" in the royal court, and the "Gotipuas" in the gymnasiums - who performed for the public. The religious revival of the 18th century saw a return of temple patronage to the arts. But the "Maharis" were slowly disappearing and their place was being taken by the "Gotipuas", young boys dressed as girls. These boys were trained in physical culture in the "Akhadas", and it was them who preserved the basic for restructuring of the ancient dance tradition.
The technique of Odissi is based upon the "Chowka", a manly posture, and the weight of the body is distributed equally on both the sides. It is the posture of Lord Jagannatha of Puri and reflects the balanced, all-encompassing and universal quality of "Dharma" of Lord Jagannatha. It is a "Sambhanga" or equally distributed position in terms of weight.
Next comes the "Abhanga" position, in which body weight is displaced to any one side due to deflection of one or the other knee, in either standing or half sitting posture. Then comes the "Tribhanga" position, the three-bend posture, in which a series of triangles are formed in the body. The bends are made at the knees, the torso and the neck. It is an extremely feminine posture represented in sculptures of female figures and is based upon the Hindu concept of iconography.
What is interesting about Odissi is that body position is not merely a part of the vocabulary or framework. The posture by itself conveys a particular mood or message. The names of these postures too express the moods they represent.
The verses used by the Odissi dancer for narration are extremely ornate in content and suggestion. The finest example of these is of course, the "Ashtapadis" of the "Geeta-Govinda". Several considerations would contribute to the description of these items for expressions in dance. They would mainly involve the spiritual and devotional aspect on one hand, and the "Sringara" (the aspect of love) on the other hand.
Quite simply, this could signify the human element in God and the element of Godliness in man. The "Abhinaya" in Odissi is evocative and classical in its stylization and is often interspersed with "Nritta" (the pure dance), which interludes as connecting link between two verses or ideas.
+Items presented for an Odissi recital form are a pattern of development, which is both physically practical and aesthetic. The "Mangalacharan" is an offering made at the start of the programme. "Rangamancha-Pravesh" is the entry on to the stage with floral offering. "Rangabhumi Pranam" is the salutation to the stage and the earth, and is the first concept or idea.
This is followed by the "Ishtadeva Vandana" - an obeisance made to the dancers' favourite deity. The "Trikhandi-Pranam" follows, where salutations are made to the goda, the guru, and the audience, thus concluding the item with "Anjali-Hasta" - a gesture of greetings and devotion.
The "Batu" is an item of pure dance that is derived from the influence of the Tantric worship of 'Balukeshwar Bhairav', an aspect of Lord Shiva. The "Pallavi" is an elaboration of both dance and music. "Abhinaya" comes next, involving enactment of a lyric, followed by the concluding item "Moksha", which is liberation - which is the main aim of life and possibility of attaining is through devotional practice of the art of dance.
The costume of the Odissi dancer is a silk saree draped in a practical and comfortable style. The wears the head ornament called the "Mathami", "Kapa" on the ears, "Kankana" on the wrists, armlets called "Bahichudi" or "Tayila" and an elaborate belt. She wears on her ankles bells strung together on a single cord. A "Padaka-Tilaka", a necklace with a locket rests on the chest. An Odissi dancer has elaborate hair-do in a knot adorned with the "Tahiya", which represents a temple tower. Garlands of flowers are woven into the hair. Palms and soles are painted with a red liquid called the "Alta".
The musicians accompanying the dancer are mainly the 'Pakhawaj' players, the flutist, and a singer. Dance is an expression of man's joy through rhythmic and spontaneous movements. This pure expression and energy, when put in a classical mould must strictly adhere to the codes of a systematized technique, and Odissi bases itself on a wealth of such techniques, which make this dance aesthetically appealing and visually delightful.