Odissi is the classical dance style from Odisha, Eastern India that has roots as an elaborate daily ritual, performed by devadasis, temple dancers considered to be wives of God, for about six hundred years. This ritual began in Hindu Shaivism, and later flowered in Vaishnavism, between the 10th and 16th centuries, after which the region went through a politically unsettled time up to India's Independence in 1947. Such elaborate temple rituals, which were traditionally patronised by powerful Hindu rulers, disintegrated and only fragments survived through folk gotipua troupes and other indigenous performing arts, supported by local religious maths and rich landowners.
Efforts to re-vision this dance as a classical performing art for theatre audiences started in the 1950s in modern India. This was assisted by a study of ancient and medieval manuscripts on dance, diligent reference to temple sculpture and, though not often acknowledged, a careful observation of bharatnatyam in Tamil Nadu. Movement templates, folk songs and drum patterns were borrowed from the folk traditions and built on by odissi’s first choreographers. Several of these individuals belonged to the gotipua tradition in their youth, and by the 1970s and 80s became venerated Gurus of odissi.
Odissi is characterised by a particularly fluid use of the torso, while the lower body marks bound rhythms. Its repertoire is dominated by shringara rasa and, like other classical forms, has two aspects, nritta or pure rhythmic movement celebrating joy, and nritya or dance that brings text to life by evoking bhava (emotion) and rasa (flavour).
Michael Weston and Rekha Tandon have co-authored the book and DVD, “Odissi-A Dance of Sculpture”, outlining odissi’s history as a temple ritual by devadasis in medieval Odisha. This publication is presently available at the Auroville Visitor’s Centre and at Skandavan.