The Odissi (Orissi) dance is the Indian classical dance from the Eastern state of Orissa. It has a long, yet broken tradition. Although dance in Orissa may be traced back more than 2000 years, it was brought to near extinction during the colonial period. Therefore, modern Odissi dance is a reconstruction.
Like other forms of Indian classical dance, the Odissi style traces its origins back to antiquity. Dancers are found depicted in bas-relief in the hills of Udaygiri (near Bhubaneshwar) dating back to the 1st century BC. The Natya Shastra speaks of the dance from this region and refers to it as Odra-Magadhi.
Over the centuries three schools of Odissi dance developed: Mahari, Nartaki, and Gotipau. The Mahari tradition is the devadasi tradition; this is the use of women who are attached to deities in the temple. The Nartaki tradition is the school of Odissi dance, which developed in the royal courts. Gotipau is a style characterized by the use of young boys dressed up in female clothing to perform female roles.
Odissi dance was held in high esteem before the 17th century. Nobility were known for their patronage of the arts, and it was not unheard of for royalty of both sexes to be accomplished dancers. However, after the 17th century, the social position of dancers began to decline. Dancing girls were considered prostitutes, and the “Anti-Nautch” movement of the British brought Odissi dance to near extinction. The royal patronage of nartaki had been severely eroded by the absorption of India under the crown. The only viable Odissi tradition was the Gotipau. This had weathered the British Anti-Nautch movement simply because it was danced by males. Yet even the Gotipau tradition was in a very bad state.
After Independence, like the other classical arts, dance was seen as a way to define India’s national identity. Governmental and non-governmental patronage increased. a massive job of reconstructing the Odissi dance began. This reconstruction involved combing through ancient texts, and more importantly, the close examination of dance posses represented in bas-relief in the various temples.
Today Odissi dance is once again deemed a viable and “classical” dance.
One of the most characteristic features of Odissi dance is the Tribhangi. The concept of Tribhang divides the body into three parts, head, bust, and torso. Any posture, which deals with these three elements, is called Tribhangi. This concept has created the very characteristic poses, which are more contorted than found in other classical Indian dances.
The musical accompaniment of Odissi dance is essentially the same as the music of Orissa itself. The music of the Odissi relates to the music of greater North India that is flavor of Hindustani Sangeet
There are a number of musical instruments used to accompany the Odissi dance. One of the most important is the pakhawaj, also known as the madal. This is the same pakhawaj that is used elsewhere in the north except for a few small changes. One difference is that the right head is a bit smaller than the usual north Indian pakhawaj. This necessitates a technique, which in many ways is more like that of the tabla, or Mridangam. Other instruments, which are commonly used, are the bansuri (bamboo flute), the manjira (metal cymbals), the sitar and the tanpura.