Years ago when I was in Delhi, the late Indrani Rehman rang me up one day and very excitedly invited me to an Orissi performance by Vijayalakshmi Mohanty, one of the star pupils of her Guru, Debu Prasad. It was a great recital and was not only a revelation to me but inspired me later to seek out the Guru and undergo a course in this technique under him, not so much for the purpose of display, as for a desire to ‘know’ and understand this beautiful dance form which has been described by connoisseurs as “Visual Sculpture.”
Orissi, according to archaeological evidence, is the earliest of the existing classical dances. The carvings in the Rani Gumpha Caves of the second century B.C. are the first specimens of a dance with full orchestration found in sculpture and are considered to be earlier than the Natya Sastra which incidentally refers to the Odhra Magadhi (the precursor of the present Orissi), in fact, the Orissi style contains adaptations of karanas, hastas and certain bodily movements of the Natya Sastra which are not to be found in any other classical dance form today, which according to Oriyan scholars proves its antiquity.
Historically also, the earliest evidence of the existence of the art of dance in Orissa goes back to the second century B.C. The Jain king, Kharavela is mentioned in a cave inscription at Udayagiri as an expert dancer and musician. In another panel, there is a sculpture showing a king witnessing a dance performance. After this, for several centuries there was a dearth of evidence (a total absence of it) in a state where even the history of this period was blank.
However, from the seventh century A.D. onwards, things improved and there is a continuous history of the dance supported by sculpture and literature. The earliest performers were the famous Maharis or temple dancing-girls, to whom goes the credit for preserving this beautiful dance form. With the rise of Hinduism in Orissa, several temples were erected with dance sculptures. These include the Parasurameswara temple, the Vaital Deul and the Jagannatha temple at Puri, with its Natya Mandir where the Maharis were made to dance twice a day, once at midday (the Bhog) and once in the evening when the Lord was adorned and put to bed. The Geeta Govinda also began to be soon a part of the daily ritual. The Maharis were held in great respect, and were highly accomplished women. It is said that Padmavati, a princess from Kanchipuram married to King Purshottamadeva of Orissa, insisted on serving as a Mahari in the Jagannatha temple.
About the tenth century A.D., with the advent of Vaishnavism, the cult of Bhakti received a tremendous boost and the Geeta Govinda became a permanent part of temple ritual as also the works of Bhanumali, Devadas and Chaitanya. A wealth of beautifully illustrated manuscripts are available in Orissa showing the existence and development of a clear, regional style of dancing following the Natya Shastra in its divisions into Tandava, Lasya, Nritta, Nritya and Natya. The examples are Mahapatra’s Abhinaya Chandrika, Jadunath’s Nritya Manoraina, Gajapati’s Sangita Narayana-Nritya-Khanda (15th century A.D.).
The Maharis were of two kinds: the Bheetargari Maharis and Bahargari Maharis. The former was an exclusive group allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum to dance and sing there, while the other group was allowed to dance only in the Natya Mandirs, which were a part of the temple building or located outside near the flagstaff of the temple. The Mahari came to the temple after a purificatory bath and began her dance ritual after bowing to the Lord and to the Raja Guru. In the early 17th century A.D., a class of boy dancers called Gotipuas also came into being. These boys danced for the general entertainment of the people and their dances therefore were acrobatic and full of Nritta. Both the Maharis and the Gotipuas danced at the annual festivals held in honour of Lord Jagannatha – like the Chandan Jatra held in spring and the Jhoolan Jatra held in autumn.
After the 16th century A.D., the history of Orissa is chequered with conquests by Pathans, Moghuls, Marathas and the British and during this period of turmoil, naturally, the cultural aspect of Oriyan life was deeply affected. Many rituals were suspended and forgotten and the Maharis became employees of the court. They were soon associated with moral depravity and the art they practised was looked down upon. However, in the 20th century there has been a tremendous revival and Orissi has come into its own.
In technique, Orissi is highly stylised. Though primarily based on the Natya Shastra and the Abhinaya Darpana, it has its own regional elements found in certain Oriyan manuscripts. Orissi has a systematised vocabulary starting with the four Pada Bhedas or the positions of the feet, the five Bhaumis or movements of the dancer, the eight Belis or positions of the body, and last but not the least the Bhangis (basic poses and movements of Nritta in Orissi) and Kuranas or dance units. The Thribhanga or the “Tri-bend” with the hip curved out is most characteristic of Orissi. There are also the Bhandas (difficult contortions of the body in movement, pose and step) which are traditionally performed only by the Gotipuas, Nritta and Nritya are found together with pure Bhava. The music is classical and mostly based on the Hindustani system. Cymbals and the drum (Maddala) are used and the literary content of the songs is in Sanskrit or Oriya. The favourite items, however, are dances set to songs form Jayadeva’ s Geeta Govinda.
Orissi had no such thing as a ‘set-recital’; but now with its growing popularity and its shift from the temple to the theatre, a sort of repertoire has sprung up which will soon evolve into a tradition. It begins with Bhumi Pranam (salutation to the earth), and is followed by Bighnaraj Pooja where the dancer does simple mime to a song in praise of Ganesha. Next comes the Batu Nritya in honour of Shiva, being a combination of Nritta and Nritya set to a chanting of rhythmic syllables. This is followed by the Ista Deva Bandana, in praise of any deity, to be mimed and danced. The Swara Pallaba Nrita introduces melody and is a combination of Nritta, Nritya, Raga and Tala; Sabhinaya Nrita consists of mime based on Sringara and the Radha Krishna theme and the song is usually from Geeta Govinda. The finale is the Tarijham or Tarangi consisting of fast Nritta accompanied by recitation rhythmic syllables beginning with Tarijham. Contemporary dancers have changed the repertoire slightly by including pieces like Mangala Charana (invocation to Saraswati and Ganesha) and the Pallavi set to classical ragas performed with musical as well as dance elaborations and filled with statuesque poses drawn from temple sculpture. Abhinaya pieces from the Geeta Govinda are then done. The programme concludes with the Mokshya – a complex Nritta composition.
The Orissi dancer wears a colourful silk saree and adorns herself with beautiful and elaborate silver ornaments and white flowers. With hands and feet dyed vermilion, eyes blackened and forehead dotted with white spots, she looks like a painting come to life.
The credit, for reviving Orissi or rather for bringing it out on to the national stage and into the limelight from the temples of Orissa goes to the late Charles Fabri, dance-lover and critic who inspired dancers like Indrani Rehman to learn Orissi and include items from it in their performances, thus evoking worldwide interest in the art. Gurus Kelucharan Mahapatra and Debu Prasad Das were invited to teach at various centres in the country, and today we have a formidable array of dancers like Sonal Mansigh, Kumkum Das and MInati Misra.
It is heartening to know that even if Orissa had not been consciously “revived” it would never have sunk into oblivion for it is unique in being the one dance form that has total representation in the beautiful temple sculptures of Orissa. The greater if not the total part of its vocabulary has been sculpted in stone for posterity to see, admire and learn. It is no exaggeration to say that as long as these sculptures remain, the Orissi dance style cannot be forgotten.