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Odissi dance

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Even visitors who don’t normally enjoy classical dance cannot fail to be seduced by the elegance and poise of Orissa’s own regional style, Odissi. Friezes in the Rani Gumpha at Udaigiri attest to the popularity of dance in the Orissan courts as far back as the second century BC. By the time the region’s Hindu “golden age” was in full swing, it had become an integral part of religious ritual, with purpose-built dance halls, or nata mandapas, being added to existing temples and corps of dancing girls employed to perform in them. Devadasis, literally “wives of the god”, were handed over by their parents at an early age and symbolically “married” to the deity. They were trained to read, sing and dance and, as one disapproving early nineteenth-century chronicler put it, to “make public traffic of their charms” with male visitors to the temple. Gradually, ritual intercourse (a legacy of the Tantric influence on medieval Hinduism) degenerated into pure prostitution, and dance, formerly an act of worship, grew to become little more than a form of commercial entertainment. By the colonial era, Odissi was all but lost.

Its resurgence followed the rediscovery in the 1950s of the Abhinaya Chandrika, a fifteenth-century manual on classical Orissan dance. Like Bharatanatyam, India’s most popular dance style, Odissi has its own highly complex language of poses and steps. Based on the tribhanga “hip-shot” stance, movements of the body, hands and eyes convey specific emotions and enact episodes from well-known religious texts – most commonly the Gita Govinda (the Krishna story). Using the Abhinaya and temple sculpture, dancers and choreographers were able to reconstruct this grammar into a coherent form and within a decade Odissi was a thriving performance art once again. Today, ironically, dance lessons with a reputed guru have become de rigueur for the young daughters of Orissa’s middle classes.

Unfortunately, catching a live performance is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The only regular recitals take place in the Jagannath temple. If, however, you’re not a Hindu, the annual festival of dance at Konark, in the first week of December, is your best chance of seeing Orissa’s top performers. If you’re keen to learn, a number of dance academies in Bhubaneswar run courses for beginners.

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