The land of Orissa lies smugly along the eastern coast of India. Dotted with beautiful golden beaches and lined with marvelous historical architecture, this state is home to 'Odissi' or 'Orissi'. Odissi having undergone an era of suppression, revival and reconstruction, was successfully established as a Classical dance only in the 20th century. The earliest literary reference to the dance can be found in the Natya Shastra which refers to it as 'Odra Magadhi' originating from 'Odra Desha' or Orissa. It is suggested by scholars that Odissi is archeologically the oldest Indian classical dance form due to evidence that can be traced to the sculptures at the Udaygiri and Khandagiri caves dating back to the 2nd century BCE.
The Odissi tradition existed in 3 schools: Mahari, Gotipua and Nartaki.
The Maharis were the Oriya Devdasis or the temple girls married to the Lord and performed dance and music within the Sanctum Sanctorum and temple premises. Their name was derived from 'Maha' meaning great or divine and 'Nari' meaning damsel or woman. With the invasion of the Mughals, the highly respected Mahari tradition started its decline. The Mahari dancers ceased to be considered as servants to the Lord and were appointed to entertain the royal family and courtiers in the royal courts.
The Gotipua tradition emerged probably because Vaishnavism did not approve of women dancing. With the decline of the Mahari tradition, Gotipua provided continuance to the dance tradition of Orissa. The Gotipuas were initially trained by the Maharis. Gotipua derives its name from 'Goti' meaning single and 'Pua' meaning boy and is a dance form where young boys dress up as girls and perform. The dance has a number of acrobatic poses and is performed in praise of Lord Jagannath and Lord Krishna. Many of the Odissi Gurus (including PadmaVibhushan Late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra) were gotipua dancers.
Nartaki dance took place only in the royal courts before the rule of the British period. Mahari dance had lost its respect in society and it was only a matter of time till the sacred tradition withered away from the temples leaving only remnants of Gotipua. It was thus after India gained her independence that the laborious process of reviving and reconstructing Odissi to its present form took place.
Odissi is a highly sensuous and graceful classical dance form and is unique in its stance of 'Chouka', symbolising Lord Jagannath and 'Tribhanga' or the 3-fold bend with the body deviated at the head, waist and knee. Its beauty lies in the fluidity of the upper body, reminding one of the waves washing the shores, while the lower body remains stable. Odissi is a beautiful blend of the 'Tandava' and 'Lasya' elements of dance.
Odissi is performed to Odissi music which has codified grammars. It has a distinctive rendition style and has a pace which is neither too fast nor too slow. The Odissi music is lyrical in its movement and follows a very soothing tempo.
The jewelry adorning an Odissi dancer is made of intricate silver 'filigree' (meaning 'thin wire' in French) work. This filigree work is done by highly skilled local artisans and is called 'Tarakasi' in Oriya. The 'Mukoot' or the crown is made by the artisans of the devotional city of Puri. It has the 'Gobha' or the flower decorated round back piece representing the lotus flower with a thousand petals and the 'Tahiya' or the longer center piece representing the Temple spire of Lord Jagannath or the flute of Lord Krishna. The dancers wear the local handloom sarees and dhotis featuring traditional prints. The sarees used to be draped around in a unique way but are now stitched for convenience.