Odissi is a classical dance form originated in Orissa (East India). Its movements are fluent, graceful and firm at the same time. Its forms remind of the elegantly carved temple figures of ancient India.
There are three major sources for the Odissi Dance: (1) Traditional temple dance culture (Devadasis, Maharis and later the Gotipuas), (2) classical Sanskrit literature on visual and performing arts (most importantly, the "Natyashastra" and the later "Abhinaya Darpana"), (3) establishment of Odissi in the time after Indian independency (mainly by Pankaj Charan Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Deba Prasad Das).
The basic technique of Odissi consists of two contrasting positions: (1) the strong edgy "Chouka" and (2) the bended elegant "Tribhanga". An Odissi choreography encompasses a wide range of combinations of these basic forms. Thereby, the movements can be filled either with the male quality, "Tandava", or with the female one, "Lasya".
The Chouka position: Although the torso is straight upright, knees and elbows are bended in a right angle. Arms and legs are held as outward as possible. By this the body shapes an edgy pose. One rectangle is indicated by the arms and shoulders. Originally, another rectangle appeared between knees and toes by having a wider distance between the feet and having bent the knees even more.
The name "Chouka" probably derives from the Sanskrit word "Chaturkoṇa" (= rectangle).
The Tribhanga position: The name "Tribhanga" derives from the Sanskrit "tri" (= three) and "bhaṅga" (= bend). The three bends are achieved (1) by shifting the weight to one leg and bending the knees to the side, (2) by keeping the shoulders horizontal (or by bending them further down, as in "Atibhanga") and (3) by bringing the head to the side, to which the weight was shifted.
The traditional Odissi Dance music instruments are drums, flute, string instruments, vocals and a spoken beat, called "bol". The rhythm of the music is accompanied by the strong foot work of the dancer, which is highlighted by chains of bells around the ankles, called "Gungurus" (see the picture).
The music is individually recorded for every item. Following instructions of a choreographer, the musicians first develop the basic melody and rhythm and record a long piece with a number of variations. The Odissi master selects different parts of this record and prepares a raw choreography. In accordance with this, the musicians make the final record, that is used to elaborate and to refine the actual item. This intense work that involves a dozen of professionals takes weeks or even months. Therefore, each item and its music are so precious and unique.
A classical Odissi performance consists of five different types of items: (1) "Mangalacharan", a praise to a particular Divinity, to the stage and to the audience; (2) "Sthayee" or "Batu" that introduces the techniques of Odissi Dance; (3) "Pallavi" that creates a particular sentiment through abstract forms; (4) "Abhinaya" that enacts a traditional story about the deeds of a specific God/ Goddess; (5) "Mokshya" that transcends all the participants to a higher spiritual level.
Spirituality constitutes an important facet of the Odissi Dance. It is primarily the devotional aspect that finds its expression in the dance. Various Gods and Goddesses of Hindu pantheon personify different spiritual qualities that are embodied by a dancer. The most popular Divinity in the tradition of Odissi is Lord Jagannath.
It is said that a dancer can raise her-/ or himself as well as the audience to a higher spiritual plane through the performance of Odissi Dance.
The chariot wheels of the sun temple in Konark in East India are emblems of the state of Orissa and can be found embroidered on the local textiles (saris etc.) These wheels became symbolic for the revived Odissi Dance, as their round shape reminds of smooth and rounded forms of its movements. Every year in February, the biggest Odissi dance festival takes place at the delightful background of this magnificent temple.