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History and ritualistic significance of Odissi dance today
- Monica Singh Sangwan ©

September 10, 2015

Abhinavagupta, the commentator on Bharata's Natyashastra says that the origin of dance (and of Art) is not something that can be traced. It is as ancient and ever existing as the knowledge contained within the Vedas themselves. Every generation rediscovers it, re-interprets it and gives it its own identity according to their own evolution, state of mind and understanding.

Dance, the representation of joy through our only vehicle, our body, seems to hold universal appeal and continuity. Yet, because we are human and contain intellectual facility to think, to reflect and to wonder and then to come to a conclusion about our place in the universe, a stylization enters that elemental representation of joy and beauty.

The aim of dance according to him is to either entertain or to enlighten. The universe in its abstractness and vastness holds a mystical power over the human mind. The human body is endowed with an incredible tenacity to display the most mystical and vast phenomenon of the universe through its minutest gestures. Dance is that representation of the infinite through the finite and perishable body of a human soul.

While the history of Odissi dance too is as clouded and obscure in the passage of time as any ancient art is, historical evidence of the dance form suggests a 2000-year-old antiquity and beyond. The caves of Udaygiri and Khandagiri in Bhubaneswar bear the stamp of state patronage under the Kharavela ruler of that time. He was a great connoisseur of art and was said to hold regular festivals of music and dance. A place of meditation by monks was also a site for art. This is a deeply significant connection, which connected spiritual emancipation and artistic ability. Spirituality has always been the core of all Indian arts. Each art points to a mystical representation in codified language to a deeper truth that needs to be unraveled.

Utkala, the ancient name for Orissa, meant a place of the highest arts. The uniqueness of political and religious movements in this ancient land has left a remarkable stamp on all the arts of this land. Orissa is home to many ancient tribes mentioned in the Mahabharata. Their way of life and living have not changed much even today despite the massive threat to their environment by big mining companies ready to poach on the ores that lie beneath their sacred lands. The city of Bhubaneswar is a city with a thousand temples replete with splendid figures of dancers and their dance clearly distinct from its south Indian counterpart. The temples are all from different times with varying influences of those eras.

Historically, there were clear waves of Shakti worship followed by periods of Buddhism with tantric Buddhist influences which incorporated the Shakti principle in its fold. Then followed the influence of the Shaivite cult being followed by Vaishnavite fervor that then culminated into the present day Jagannatha temple. Each wave of new religion used dance as a ritual of aesthetic offering and celebration. Each wave left on the dance form many influences and undercurrents of philosophy, body technique and an influence of bhakti to different sources.

Odissi dance today is a reflection of these waves. The Konark temple stands as a first pillar, a prime example of the importance of dance with its almost still preserved and intact Nata mandapa. Sometime between the 4th to the 12th AD, the tradition of consecrating young girls of pre puberty age to the temples started. Known as Maharis or Maha Nari (the great women), they were representative of the Indian tradition of auspiciousness in relationship to fertility and the worship of Shakti through the feminine form. They were also known as the Chalanti Devi or the living goddesses. These women followed a matrilineal form of life and were cared for through State patronage .They lived their entire lives in the care and grooming of the temples they were consecrated to. The Madala Panji, the record keeping text of the Jagannatha temple at Puri, is our strongest evidence of the importance of these women to the culture of the socio religious fabric of the times.

To understand Odissi better one needs to understand that Odissi was not a centralized and singular living entity that only existed in the main ancient cities of Orissa. Different variations and applications of similar shastric codes existed across the whole of Utkala. Reflecting its multiplicity and multiutility, dancing was used in one space and time as ritualistic tantric practice and in another to entertain the villagers during festivals and harvest time. On sacred occasions the dancing existed as religious representation of gods and goddess by the dancers. All these variations have influenced the texture of the style.

Odissi dance is mentioned in texts such as the Natyashastra as the Odra Magadhi style that existed in present day Odisha. The regional texts such as the Abhinaya Chandrika describe its many shastric points that make it differ greatly from the other existing styles. There seems to have been a complete interpolation and congruence of interest between the dancers, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and other art forms. This is seen clearly and evidenced by the detailed and exquisite work done representing that time and era on the temple walls, in the paintings and even the many texts that have survived and exist to this day.

After the decline of the Mahari tradition suggested due to constant political unrest that effected the status of the women in the temples, the continuation of the dance was taken over by the Gotipuas. Goti means one, pua means a boy.

The story of the Gotipua's is linked to the landlords or Zamindars who were allowed to keep a standing army to defend themselves and also help the rulers during invasions. It was in these Akhadas or gymnasiums that young pre-puberty boys were taught Odissi as a form replete with Yoga asanas and acrobatics to suit the physical ability and mental temperament of young boys. The Abhinaya Chandrika mentions Bandha Nritya, which could only be done by bodies that were as young and supple as the Gotipuas. The Bandha Nritya did not exactly carry the grace of the temple women but it was rich with folklore, mythology, regional rituals and folk influences. This has not only enriched the art form but also contributed to its continuity during the colonization of India as temple dancing was banned in 1937 by the Victorian morality brigade. Most of the Odissi dance gurus came to us from the Gotipuas.

However, to truly understand the depth and significance of this dance and its collective usage in ritual or entertainment one needs to go back in time to the essence of all art and of human life itself. According to Patanjali's Yoga sutras the purpose of human life is to regain one's divine inner vision and complete one's journey back to the source. This is achieved through the various steps enumerated in the texts, which point towards a way clouded in secrecy. The reason for this secrecy it seems came from the need to protect the source of knowledge from each generation that comes along interpreting the text according to their needs and availability of the surrounding material and cultural influence.

To go more in-depth into understanding the source of Odissi, we need to look at the Jagannatha temple. It was said to have been built on the remains of a previously existing Shakti temple. This, despite the seemingly Vaishnavite representation of Jagannatha as Vishnu/Krishna along with the presence of Subhadra and Balabhadra. They are actually representative of all the three influences (Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism) . Vaishanite Jagannatha with Shakti present in the form of the female Subhadra. The temple also contains the temple of Vimala, a direct tantric heterodox representation of Shakti. Balabhadra is the representation of the Shaivite influence as he was celibate and known as a Shiva bhakt. Within this temple then, is a complete coming together of all the three main religions that influenced the arts of Orissa. In addition is the Buddhist tantric influence all over the state that impacted immensely the practices both cultural and artistic.

The anthropologist Frederique Apffel-Marglin in her works has described the right hand path and the left hand path of worship that took place at the Jagannatha temple. Various misinterpretations of these forms of worship represent the collective gross misunderstanding that existed at that time and still does in the consciousness of present day Hinduism about the essence and practice of ritual.

The right hand path's belief is in the pancha makara tantric offering of the 5 M's as mentioned in the Shastras or sacred texts. This was first put into practice by a rice offering called menda mundia khichidi which means 'sheep's head' and represented the first M i.e. MEAT. The Ada Pachedi preparation represented the second M or MATSYA. The gram flour preparation went as the third or MUDRA. Coconut milk offering stood for the fourth M or MADYA. The fifth offering of MAITHUNA was completed by the dancing of the Maharis which was believed to produce a Shakti Uchhista i.e a 'leaving' produced from the dancing of the divine women that was much sought after by devotees as they rolled on the floor trying to bless themselves after the Maharis completed their morning ritualistic pure dance. Without this all offering was considered as non-efficacious.

In contrast to the right handed ritual, the left-handed ritual was performed at a secret location in the temple and at night when the temple was closed to the general public. The ritual was done for the Ruler, by the Raja guru or the Pujaka, the Chief Temple officiate. It involved an extensive ritual offering consisting of cooked and raw MEAT. The Pujaka ingesting cannabis to make his body divine through MADYA, his body placed in specific postures completed the MUDRA, the cooked fish offered as MATSYA, with a non-menstruating Mahari seated naked, her yoni exposed and the ensuing coitus to obtain the seminal feminine fluid completed the MAITHUNA part of the ritual. A rather complex ritual would then ensue that would involve extensive knowledge of ritualistic acts to obtain the said blessings required by the Ruler.

Such tantric practices continue to exist around the country and are not just exclusive to Orissa. The involvement of the Maharis as women who represented Shakti and hence their auspiciousness is of significance in understanding these ritual practices. How these practices, religious rites and rituals color and influence our present day art form is further left open for us to try and research to further understand.

Now coming to the spiritual significance of the 5 Makaras as mentioned in tantric texts a paragraph in the Kularnava tantra seems to hold the key. It says:

If by drinking liquor man achieves siddhi then let all drunkards attain siddhi
If by eating meat one attains virtuous life then let all meat eaters be holy men
If by having unity with women one attains liberation, then let all men who unite with women be liberated.

People with a small and narrow understanding of the spiritual significance of these texts and practices have interpreted them materially, suggesting a tendency to enjoy the world only through the gross senses neglecting the inner deeper ability to go within. But the true spiritual significance of the 5 M's mentioned may then be elaborated as follows interpreted from the tantric texts in the Dharma O Pujadi Mimangsa by Yogi Panchanan Bhattacharya.

MADYA …the life giving nectar that flows from a yogic mudra involving the brain that brings about life giving energy to the practitioner (this has to be learned from a true yogi)
MANSA, the restrained tongue put into the upper palate cavity is the eating of the meat or the GOU; Hathapradipika (The protection of the Gou is actually the placing and protecting of one's tongue to restrain speech and to tranquilize breath not the literal cow or Gou)
MATSYA….He who eats two fish that move between two rivers is a Matsya Sadhaka. The two rivers are the Ida and Pingala, the fish are the incoming and outgoing breaths in the two nerves.
MUDRA … The Agamsar says inside a seeker's body exists a thousand petals between the eyebrows. to establish oneself in that inner self is mudra sadhana
MAITHUNA….the steps of Maithuna involve Alingan, Chumban, Abahan, Naibedya, Raman, Retapat. When one practices the sixfold kriyas of the yoga path (that have to only be learnt from a true Yogi, never from any books or hearsay), the Maithuna part completes itself.

While the stilling of breath to a state of complete tranquility that leads to self realization is the essence of the tantric 5 Makara the gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the present culture prevalent have influenced our art form as well.

The Jagannath temple in the 12th century was a centre of ardent Vaishnavite fervor. The famous Vaishnavite Chaitanya Mahaprabhu also known as Gaurang Dev brought in the richness of Sakhi Bhava to the rituals of dancing and singing to the Lord. The Vaishnavite practioner was also a Sadhaka of Sahaj Karma. The Gita Govinda written by Jayadeva was commissioned as the only poetry to be used in the adoration of the Lord. Today Odissi is deeply influenced and intrinsically woven around this Raagakavya.

What is lost is the knowledge that the earlier Vaishnavites had towards the inner meaning of their texts like the Vivrata Bilas. They are coated in Sandhya Bhasa, which means the shadow language. In this language the meaning is embedded in a way that the practitioner of the Sahaja Karma understood its technical inner aspect while an outsider just chanted the name, danced and sang to the outer meaning.

Sadly today what we see around us reminds one of those followers who have forgotten the essence of their own path and just go around singing, chanting and creating outer spectacles. The dancers are not far removed from this ignorance leading creations with no depth or bhava. Dancing just for the sake of creating a dazzle of movements, facial expressions that shock and awe only leads to folklorising and pimping an art form that is meant to be a physical pathway and representation of the inner world. True creation of rasa comes only when the dancer, the audience and the environment it is presented in are united in its spiritual purpose.

Dance, which is a divine representation of inner joy and beauty, is now removed from its spiritual context. And the Odissi dance form of today which we consider to be a continuous tradition of 2000 years and beyond is a fragment of re-constructed movements that were painstakingly put together in the post colonial revivalist movement Jayantika. It involved all our senior most gurus - Late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Late Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Late Guru Debaprasad Das - scholar Charles Fabri, Late Kalicharan Patnaik, late scholar Mayadhar Mansingh and various musicians, painters and scholars of Orissa. Today's generation adds its own understanding and inspiration to the ever-growing popularity of Odissi. The music of Odissi was distinctly different to the Northern and Carnatic styles prevalent but is mostly lost and even though a lot of time and attention has been paid to research, it is still not up to the same shastric mark as the other two styles are.

What dancers of today have to understand and practice with their art form is the true spiritual significance of the dance form, its requirement and usage. This cannot be done without stripping it of its glamour, its competitiveness and excessive embellishments that add nothing to the essence of the style or to the texts is it danced to.

Essentially practioners of dance need to have a lifestyle that embraces Yoga in its truest form which is a union with one's own self. Yoga that is done just to tone one's body and add flexibility or embellish the dance with neo yoga usage, is not what one is talking about. One needs to go back and find the true bhava within oneself to dance.

We need to once again ask ourselves why we dance and for whom do we dance. Maybe the answer that will then come from inside through a deep soul searching will bring about new energy, vitality, beauty and joy back into Odissi dance.

Monica Singh Sangwan is an Odissi dancer based in Melbourne since 2010. She is the founder of Sohamasmi School of Performing Arts.

Thank you, Monica Singh Sangwan, for such a captivating exploration of the history and ritualistic significance of Odissi dance in your article. Your detailed insights have not only shed light on the roots of this ancient dance form but have also beautifully emphasized its contemporary relevance.
- Prachiti (Jan 15, 2024)

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