The Art of Odissi Dance

The ancient art of odissi dancing finds its origins in the eastern state of Orissa on the Indian subcontinent. Commonly called orissi, the intricate dances are performed at many religious Hindu ceremonies and milestones in life (see Anne-Marie Gatson 81-82). It is thought that this art form has dated back to antiquity based on the findings of carved reliefs in caves throughout the foothills of Udaygiri in the province of Orissa (see Kyriakidis 155). Although typically performed by a devadasi (a servant or “wife” of a deity) there emerged three separate sectors of the dance, one of which included young men: mahari (nachuni) the temple dancers, nartaki (bahar gauni) the dancers of the royal court, and gotipua the acrobatic dance where young men portray the role of women (see Vankataraman 69). Mahari dancers, also known as the devadasi, are the temple dancers.

Odissi is a dance founded around a Vaishnavite frame of mind, so typically one would worship Lord Visnu or one of his reincarnations or the Lord Jagannath [Lord of the Universe] (see Anne-Marie Gatson 80-81). If one is to be considered a devadasi they are initiated into the lifestyle with the tying of a strip of cloth from the Jagannath idol around their head. From this point on they are considered to be a wife of the Lord; they are not to indulge in home cooked food and are forbidden to look at an audience while performing because of the sakta and tantric approach portrayed within the dance. A devadasi represented ultimate sakti and procreation (see Venkataraman 68). The nartaki style of the dance is usually performed as a theatre dance or outside of the temple for various festivals and celebrations usually pertaining to the Lord Visnu or Krsna. Gotipua is the style in which young men dress as women to portray roles of a story, usually centered around Krsna. An important characteristic of this style is the acrobatics incorporated into the piece along with the traditional musical score and steps [soon altered by Guru Debaprasad Das, who changed the melody of the song into a poetic meter making it easier for men to follow (see Venkataraman 75)] (see Venkataraman 69).

Holding a strong sense of cultural pride this stylistic art held as a strong tradition throughout Orissa up until the 17th century when invasions from various Mughal emperors as well as the British imperialistic movement into India, caused the art form to deteriorate into almost complete disuse (see Venkataraman 69) female dancers were now considered little more than courtly mistresses to the British generals and army men. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the art of odissi finally began to flourish once again into a strong revival thanks Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Mahadev Rout, Guru Raghu Dutta, and Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra in the early 1940s (see Venkataraman 69). Its blossoming and acceptance into everyday Orissa culture was a slow process but by the 1960’s, after the finalization of the fundamental aspects of the dance, it was a strong part of everyday activity for many young men and women drawn to the use of traditional song and dance (see Venkataraman 69-70).

Usually beginning with a floral offering to Lord Jagannath, as well as either Bhumidevi [Krsna’s mother] or Visnu, the performance follows a very strict movement vocabulary and rhythmic syllable format (see Venkataraman 70). The purpose of this dance is to usually portray a story, many based around the life of Krsna and Radha, so the pallavi [thematic line of a song: “pa” coming from the sanskrit word padam meaning word or phrase, “lla” coming from layam meaning poetry or rhythm, and “vi” vinyasam meaning imagination (Subishka Subramani] is vital to the dance. Melodies of verses for the devadisi to perform to are usually sang by four men who read from the Gita Govind [written by the great poet Jayadeva, whom is said to be the husband of princess Rajasundari, who within her dowry was accompanied by dancers and musicians which were the foundation of the temple ritual we know as odissi today (see Venkataraman 64:50], a book which portrays the events of Lord Krsna and more notably his relationship with a particular gopi named Radha, his lover (see Rodrigues 80-81). Mentioned earlier as first being discovered in ancient reliefs throughout Orissa, the dancers have been described as portraying such stances throughout their dance as though they were preparing to be placed upon the walls; for many Indians these stances reflect pure femininity and womanhood (see Rodrigues 80; Venkataraman 67). One of the most characteristic stances of odissi is the tribhanga posture which separates the body into three sections: the head, torso, and lower half of the body [note that there are no sharp hip movements, but rather torso isolations that give the perception of hip work (see Venkataraman 69)]. Another integral aspect of the stances throughout the dance is the use of mudras, commonly seen as only hand gestures, which each stand for or symbolise a certain aspect of life or object that one might use, such as Krsna and his flute. Mudra literally means “stamp” or “seal” as to bring together and finish a certain step and complete the story which is being portrayed, even the tribhanga could be considered a mudra seeing as they can involve the whole body or just separate aspects such as the hands, feet, or eyes (see Venkataraman 60-80, margin notes).

Throughout its initial presence in history and its revitalization the tradition of odissi dancing has been influenced or altered due to other aspects of Hindustani music and classical dance, as well as some influences from Buddhist traditions such as chanting within the music and some postures which are taken throughout a scene (see Venkataraman 64). Although the odissi dance we have come to know today is but a revitalization attempt, and not the original art form it was centuries ago, many natives to the state of Orissa are quite picky and staunch as to how far they believe one can alter the way odissi is performed. The most accepted and practiced version of the dance is the style that was created by Guru Pankajcharan which is famous for the delicacy and liberated approach to women although it was Guru Kelucharan and Guru Bhubaneswar who set the framework for the styles to build upon (see Vankataraman 69-70). Although originating in India, this dance has not stayed within its borders, Guru Debaprasad Das is known for putting odissi dancing on the international map, as well as for altering some aspects such as the tempo and speed of the music, gaining some inspiration from tribal and non-classical Orissan art and groups, as well as adding a strong gotipua aspect (see Venkataraman 75) which has inevitably allowed a love and large student body for the dance to develop in the modern century.

Although odissi dancing is thought for many to be nothing but a national identity or temple practice, many of those who perform the ancient dance have noted that it is more than just a tradition used for temple worshiping; it is more than just a dance for an audience and a god, but it brings stories to life, is the expression of ultimate and fulfilling devotion, as well as an act which brings Indian philosophy to life and liberation of the spirit (see Anne-Marie Gatson 82).



Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Kyriakidis, Evangelos (2007) The Archaeology of Ritual. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute Publications.

Venkartaraman, Leela (2002) Indian Classical Dance: Tradition in Transition. New Delhi: Lustre Press.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Temple Rituals

Temple Dances




Gita Govind

Classical Indian Dance

Orissan Culture

Revival and Reinvention of Classical Dance

Hindu Rituals




Mohini Attam




Anti-Nautch Campaigns


Class/Caste Structure in Hindu Societies

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Shelby Zuback (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.