A curved figure, slender yet strong, draped in a colourful saree and an elaborate bun decorated with Seenthi crowns her head. This breathtaking figure is an Odissi dancer. She moves with grace and precision, her fingers elegantly curved in various mudras while her eyes belies emotions that her body narrates through the Indian classical dance that emerged from the ancient Hindu temples of Odisha in India. She dances across the stage, her feet stamping to the beats of the mardala (a two-headed barrel drum) intertwined with the lilting notes of the flute and elegant strum of the sitar. As an enraptured audience admire her every move, it is evident that this is no mere dance as her fluid form channels the spirit of centuries of Odissi dancers before her – and it is a tale worth telling.
To immerse oneself fully into the roots of this exquisite dance, a sojourn to the birthplace of Odissi is called for. This is how I found myself in Odisha, an unassuming coastal state on the eastern seaboard of India. And my guru to this historic land is none other than Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, the doyen of dance, the maestro Odissi, who returns to Odisha with Sutra Dance Theatre to perform the tale of Ganjam at the Konark Dance Festival, one of the biggest dance festivals in India. It’s also no secret that Datuk Ramli is a stalwart of Odissi. Since his introduction to the dance in the 1970s, he has been one of the strongest advocates for Odissi and this decades-long dedication has earned him numerous accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award recently bestowed upon him by the Karthik Fine Arts in Chennai, India.
The odyssey into Odissi is about to begin and Bhubaneswar becomes the epicentre of this voyage. “This is where my journey began,” recalls Datuk Ramli. It was 1978 and the young ballet dancer packed up everything he owned to seek out Guru Debaprasad Das to learn everything he could about the dance. “Back then, Bhubaneswar was just one big village with throngs of people, rickshaws and, of course, the ubiquitous cows!” he exclaims with a laugh. “But I keep coming back. There’s something special about this place and the people.” Looking out at the vast expanse of Odisha’s capital city, I’d soon discover why. While Bhubaneswar prides itself as an emerging information technology (IT) and education hub in modernday India, this city first emerged around the first century BCE as the ancient capital of the Kalinga Empire of yore. From atop the hill of the Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves – natural structures carved with ornate figures of dancers and musicians during the reign of the Jain king Karavela in the second century BCE – I marvel at the legions of ancient temples dotting the city’s skyline. From this vista, it is abundantly clear why Bhubaneswar is also known as Ekamra Kshetra or Temple City.
History claims that over a thousand temples stood tall in the ancient city, but many have fallen to the passing of time, leaving only a hundred or so of these structures left, some of which are in various states of ruin, while others remain active to this very day. Kalinga temples are distinct in that their structures consist of two parts: the deul is a sanctum that towers over the rest of the temple, while the jagmohan is an assembly hall for worshippers to congregate and offer their prayers. The walls of both structures are lavishly sculpted with a profusion of figures and deities, each significant to the divine being that resides in the sacred deul. While the magnificent construction of these temples are worthy of admiration, it is the lavishly carved figures and sculptures that catch my eye.
“They look like they’re dancing,” I think out loud. Turning to me with a glowing smile on his face, Datuk Ramli says: “Because, my dear, there is divinity in the art of dance.” He points to the nearby sculpture of a deity whose figure curves gracefully, forming an ‘S’ shape. “This is the Tribhanga pose,” explains Datuk Ramli and proceeds to replicate the pose, his neck, waist and knees curving into the same gentle ‘S’ form. “It is a posture used often in Odissi and I find it absolutely charming. When I first encountered the dance, it was this pose that called out to me. I couldn’t help but admire the softness and sensuousness of this pose.”
Delving into the history of the dance, Odissi is believed to have evolved from the Natya Shastra, an ancient Hindu Sanskrit text of performance arts dated between 200 BCE and 200 CE, with some estimates varying to between 500 BCE and 500CE. One of the earliest known forms of the dance was performed at temples by maharis, who danced in adulation at ornate dance halls that stood on the same grounds as the ancient Hindu temples. In Bhubaneswar, evidence of these temple dancers is abundantly clear at the Lingaraja Temple.
Deemed the epitome of Kalinga architecture, the temple, built by the kings from the Somavamsi dynasty, towers over the city with a 180ft tall deul. Surrounding this imposing structure are the jagmohan, bhoga-mandapa (hall of offerings) and natamandira, a festival hall which welcomed the twirling maharis.
This welcome would not last long, however, as foreign invaders in the form of the Mughal Empire and subsequent British Raj reduced these dancing worshippers to nothing more than concubines and prostitutes. Temples were invaded, dancing statues defaced, dance halls destroyed and the act of temple dancing was banned. The maharis were no more, but the people of Odisha could not be stopped and, thus, the Gotipuas rose to prominence.
BOYS LIKE GIRLS
While the maharis used to dance for the deities within the temples, Gotipuas mirrored their movements outside the precincts of the temple. Albeit with added acrobatics that were, perhaps, a bit easier to perform as these dancers were not women, but young boys who donned feminine garb to perform their dance of devotion. Datuk Ramli explains that while it may be a folk dance, it has significant influence on Odissi. It is not uncommon for Gotipua dancers to go on to become Odissi dancers once they’ve hit puberty. To witness this raw dance, we ventured into the Raghurajpur artisan village that sits on the banks of river Bhargabi in Puri, famed for its Gotipua dance troupes.
“Compared to Odissi, Gotipua is a bit more playful on the expressions. There are acrobatic movements and more acting in the dance, and movements are more playful as well,” Datuk Ramli enlightens me as I peer curiously at the long-haired young boys who are confidently painting their faces with white and red powder, and deftly applying kajal (black eyeliner) around their eyes. As they stepped onto the stage, I notice the familiar tribhanga pose briefly before the theatrics begin. Their supple bodies contort into twists and turns, interspersed with gentler movements that allowed me to see shadows of Odissi in their movements. I recognise the chouka pose – a square-like stance symbolising the Lord Jagganath – and the familiar stamping of the feet across the stage. I am beginning to understand the essence of Odissi.
Though I’ve barely scratched the surface on comprehending this sensuous classical dance, the time had come for Sutra Dance Theatre’s awaited performance at the Konark Dance Festival, set against the backdrop of the ancient Konark Sun Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A shrine for the Sun God Surya, the temple is constructed in the image of his magnificent ornamented chariot, with 24 intricate colossal wheels carved into its walls. While only the jagmohan remains standing today, it stands as an awe-inspiring sight, especially at dawn when the breathtaking chariot-temple appears to rise along with the sun, carrying the golden orb into the heavens above as it emerges from the shadowy depths of the Bay of Bengal.
The performance of Ganjam by Datuk Ramli and his troupe is, indeed, the culmination of all that I learnt from Odisha. Together with Guru Gajendra Kumar Panda, the Sutra Dance Theatre reanimated the dormant history of Ganjam – a culturally-rich region in southern Odisha. A mesmerised audience sat in awe as the region’s maritime might, culture and history were brought to life by lithe movements tinged with the tribal traditions of the district. The folk influence in the dance and music were unmistakably felt as the dancers emitted a powerful energy that reverberated through the crowd. This was Odissi at its finest and it was truly an incredible sight to behold.
THE NEW AGE
“To understand Odissi, you must understand Odisha,” says Aruna Mohanty, Odissi exponent, recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award and close friend of Datuk Ramli. “It is the dance of the people; it speaks of our culture, our beliefs and our way of life.” She adds: “Odissi is Odisha.” Indeed, evidence of Odissi’s historical roots can be found in hundreds of archaeological sites peppered throughout the coastal state, and seen in the beaming smiles of Odians who eagerly share their love of the dance. While the ancient structures may serve as reminders of the Golden Period of Odisha in the past, the present day resurgence of the land’s art forms are clear hallmarks of a new Golden Period of Odisha, one that promises to be as profound as the old.