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by Rahul Acharya, Bhubaneswar

Oct 2001

Dance is probably the oldest of the arts. Early human beings instinctively engaged in rhythmic movements to express themselves. Indeed, dancing is older than the human race; birds and animals have their dances of courtship. The instinctive nature of dance can be seen in the very young, for children, even babies, move naturally to rhythms they feel inside themselves.

Early human beings first danced by themselves instinctively. They found that the repeated rhythmic movements had a powerful effect on the mind and produced a supernatural feeling. From this they developed an idea of magic power. When they repeated their dance, they found that they could recreate the feeling of magic power. Then the group dancing developed. Patterns such as the closed circle, open semi-circle, two-facing lines, or a wavy line were used. Primitive people still dance to celebrate the birth of a child, puberty rites, marriages and funerals. Some people perform dances for good crops. All of these dances vary with the emotions of the occasion. As humankind developed, religious rituals and ceremonies grew out of the primitive magic dances. The dance took on more formal patterns and was an important form of worship in the temple of the ancient gods. The dancers were priests or slaves in either the temples or the houses of the wealthy. They danced at births, marriages, funerals and all royal functions. Not only was dancing the major part of all religious ceremonies, and a source of entertainment, but it also became the real basis of all theatre and drama. The word "choreography", meaning designing and planning dances, stems from the Greek. Plato, the great Greek philosopher once said, "to sing well and to dance well is to be well educated". In the orient, from ancient times to the present day, the dance has been used largely for religious expression. In some Asian countries there is no secular dancing at all. The oldest and the most advanced form of dance is found in India. There are some temples, which still have their resident Devadasis. These are women who train for years and spend the rest of their lives as temple servants, singing and performing sacred dances at religious ceremonies. After India's independence in 1947, a revival of dance as an art form produced many famous dancers, men and women who performed in public. Their dances retained in theme and form much religious character.

Music in India has a history of at least a thousand years. The Vedic hymns, like all Hindu poetry, were written to be sung; poetry and song, music and dance were made one art in the ancient ritual. The Hindu dance, which, to the beam in the occidental eye, seems voluptuous and obscene as western dancing seems to Hindus, has been through the greater part of Indian history, a form of religious worship, a display of beauty in motion and rhythm for the honour and edification of the gods; only in modern times have the Devadasis emerged from temples in great number to entertain the secular and profane.
To the Hindus, these dances were no mere display of flesh; they were in one aspect, an imitation of the rhythms and processes of the universe. Shiva himself was the god as the dance, and the dance of Shiva symbolized the very movement of the world. The secular Hindu dance has been revealed to Europe and America, in which every movement of the body, the hands, the fingers and the eyes conveys a subtle and precise significance to the initiated spectator, and carries an undulating grace and a precise and corporeal poetry, unknown in the western dance.

Musicians, singers and dancers, like all artists in India, belonged to the lowest castes. The Brahman might like to sing in private, and accompany himself on a Veena or another stringed instrument; he might teach others to play, or sing, or dance; but he would never think of playing for hire, or of putting an instrument to his mouth. Public concerts were, until recently, a rarity in India; secular music was either the spontaneous singing or thrumming of the people, or it was performed, before small gatherings in aristocratic homes. Akbar, himself skilled in music, had many musicians at his court; one of his singers, Tansen, became popular and wealthy and died of drink at the age of thirty-four. There were no amateurs, there were only professionals; music was not taught as a social accomplishment and children were not beaten into Beethovens. The function of the public was not to play poorly, but to listen well.

For listening to music, in India, is itself an art, and requires long training of ear and soul. The words may be no more intelligible to the westerner than the world of the operas which he feels it his class duty to enjoy; they range, as everywhere, about the two subjects of religion and love; but the words are of little moment in Hindu music, and the singers, a sin our most advanced literature, often replaces them with meaningless syllables. The music is written in scales more subtle and minute than ours. To our scale of twelve tones it adds a ten 'microtones', making a scale of twenty-two quartertones in all. Hindu music may be written in a notation composed of Sanskrit letters; usually it is neither written nor read, but is passed down 'by ear' from generation to generation, or from composer to learner. It is not separated into bars, but glides in a continuous legato, which frustrates a listener accustomed to regular emphases or beats. It has no chords, and does not deal in harmony; it confines itself to melody, with perhaps a background of under-tones; in the sense it is much simpler and more primitive than European music, while it is more complex in scale and rhythm. The melodies are both limited and infinite: they must all derive from one or another of the thirty-six traditional modes or airs. But they may weave upon these themes an endless and seamless web of variation. Each of these themes or ragas consists of five, six or seven notes, to one of which the musicians constantly return. Each raga is named from the mood that it wishes to suggest - Dawn, Spring, Evening Beauty, Intoxication etc. - and is associated with a specific time of the day or the year. Hindu legend ascribes an occult power to these ragas; so it is said that a Bengal dancing girl ended a drought by singing, as a kind of "Rain-drop Prelude", the Megha-Mallar raga, or rain-making theme. Their antiquity has given the ragas a sacred character; he who plays them must observe them faithfully, as forms enacted by Shiva himself. One player, Narada, having performed them carelessly, was ushered into hell by Vishnu, and was shown men and women weeping over their broken limbs. These, said the god, were the ragas and raginis distorted and torn by Narada's reckless playing. Seeing which, we were told, Narada sought more humbly a greater perfection in his art.

There is no way of recapturing the exaltation of art form of the past, without recapturing the mood or the faith, which led to the creation of that form. For instance, one has to ally oneself with the passion of the poet-saint Jayadeva, for Krishna, before one can sense the flame of love between Krishna and Radha in the Geeta Govinda. Or one has to be mad as a dancing Dervish before one can see that the realization of Godhood through dance is possible. The maids who abandoned themselves to the ecstasy of movement in the temples of Greece were enacting a ritual, which was as instinct with devotion as were the rituals in the temples of ancient and medieval India.

Impulsively did the poet Rumi shout: "whosoever knoweth the power of dance dwelleth in God." And he stated the underlying truth of the highest and subtlest form of rhythmic movement. The ancient Indians went much further. They submitted all the creative techniques and arts to the dominant concept of the ways of life or their faiths. And, in the main, they refused to compromise with feeble sentiment, decorative impulse or the mere entertainment values of these techniques. For the fundamental passion was to rise from this world to the other world, to bridge the gap between mundane living and the ecstasies of union, between the dull receptive routines of feudalism and the aspiration to live on the pinnacles of those inner worlds of faculty and experience, which have been almost impossible aspirations for the bulk of mankind. As the chief Indian faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism have been continuous nearly till our own day, some of the techniques elaborated by each of these religions have survived in howsoever broken a form. But what is unique about these techniques is that, from the primitive passion of the earliest of our ancestors, they did not die out altogether. They were embodied in gradually more and subtle varied expressions of a classical order which codified the exhilaration of the soul, developed the various trends of feeling into a pre arranged effort for the realization of those energies which may lead upwards and perhaps enable him to control his destiny. Not always did the coded allow the flight of the imagination to the noblest vision. But the codes themselves were often imaginative enough, and here and there, a master craftsman wrought miracles which were almost beyond the reach of men, the master piece of sculpture in the mass of good-bad carving and the tender insights of the flow of life, the utter pain of separation from the beloved in certain songs and dances.

And the finality of the attempts to rise above the human situation to godhood was made a comprehensive doctrine. The Shikharas of the temples must rise to the sky and become Mount Kailash (the highest peak of the Himalayas) or Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. All the layers of stone must be carved out to interpret the true order of ascent from the lower vegetable and animal world to the human order and further to the divine spirits, Apsaras, Gandharvas and beyond to the gods. There is no decoration in the best temples. Architecture is sculpture as truth is beauty. And as the inspired words, which state the fundamental concepts of the faith are behind the whole ritual, informs the very roots of the shrine and permeates it everywhere and infuses its rhythms into the hearts of the worshippers. And as dance was the earliest expression of the man to control his destiny, to overpower demons and to realize good harvest from the gods, the rhythms of dance are importantly woven into the texture of architecture become sculpture. But while, in the primitive periods, the dance was a means to bring into oneself the spirits of nature and then to exorcise them, to heal oneself and others, to achieve victory over the enemy and to earn blessings of plenty for the fields and for the tribe, in classical art it is ordered into a conscious effort to raise man through the insinuations of all the most delicate movements into becoming part of the creator, preserver and final hope of the man.

The classical dance art of Orissa is one more manifestation, among our classical dances, of a tree which grew in the eastern region, put on many fresh leaves, decayed and blossomed again, almost to collapse with the ill winds that blew, but which is now resurgent with new shoots upon its tender branches.


The first record of dance in Orissa is found in the manuscripts pertaining to the rituals of Lord Jagannath at his world famous temple at Puri. Dance as a ritual finds mention in Utkala Khanda of Skanda Purana, Niladri Mahodaya, Madala Panji etc. besides many other texts. There it was extensively practised by Devadasis or temple dancers (only females) as an ongoing ritual for the pleasure of the Lord.

The Devadasi dance at the temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri was also known as the Mahari dance. The Devadasis were called Maharis, which literally means, according to some, one who is deeply in love with the Lord. Dancing has remained a very important and indispensable item in the daily rituals (seva) of Lord Jagannath since the time of Ganga rulers of Utkal. Besides the inscriptions of the Ganga rulers, there are also some treatises and literatures which hold the proof for the oldness of this ritual in the temple of Lord Jagannath. We also find dancing as a ritual in the temple of Lord Jagannath mentioned in Agni Purana, Vishnu Purana, Srimad Bhagavatam, Padma Purana and Vamadeva Samhita.

Chodaganga Deva who ruled Utkal in the twelfth century is credited to have first given a legal dimension to the Devadasi dancing at the temple of Lord Jagannath. He established seven localities (sahis) for the servants (sevayats) of the Lord and one of the streets known by the name of Anga Alasa Patana was intended for the Maharis alone. Chodaganga Deva introduced many ceremonies (Jatra) of the Lord in a year. It is interesting to note that dancing and singing were associated with almost all these ceremonies. The Maharis in olden days enjoyed a place of esteem in society. Girls of respectable families took it as an honourable profession. The Maharis were of six categories: Bhitara Gauni, Bahara Gauni, Nachuani, Patuari, Raj Angila, Gahana Mahari and Rudra Ganika.

Much improvement was done in the Devadasi or Mahari dancing during the 16th century. Prataprudra Deva was a great patron of dance and music. He introduced one more item, Ekanta Seva or Palanka Pokhari Seva in the daily services of the Maharis. Ramananda Pattnaik, a great Vaishnava and poet of the time used to dress up the Maharis himself and teach them the arts of Abhinaya and techniques of Nritta. Later two officers Mina Nahaka and Sahi Nahaka were posted in the streets to regulate the services of the Maharis. These officers were supposed to see that the Mahari led a chaste and honorable life and remain dutiful in their services.

I heard many old Maharis quoting names of Shastras such as 'Devadasi Nrutya Paddhati' of Narayan Mishra, 'Nachuni Vidhi' of Madhu Pattnaik, ‘Niladri Nacha' of Mukta Mahari. Unfortunately none of these manuscripts have come to my hands as yet.

Almost contemporary was the Gotipua tradition. To Ramachandra goes the distinction of paving the way for bringing into being an ingenious if cute dance- the Gotipua. This was towards the end of the 16th century. The last in the sequence in the dynasties of Orissa had collapsed, and the Mughals and Afghans were locked in rivalry to be in power. Ramachandra was Raja of Khurda, a small principality in Orissa. He had found Akhadas to give shelter to Mughal soldiers who had been routed by the Afghans on Oriya soil and thus had earned the favour of Emperor Akbar by being designated as Gajapati or the King of Orissa, with allegiance to the Mughal Viceroy. He was also appointed as the superintendent at the Jagannath temple in Puri, a position of some authority, since it was the hub of religious life in Orissa.

Ramachandra was as enlightened a man, as he was a ruler. From his time Maharis or Devadasis attached initially only to the temples, came to be patronized by royal courts. It was in his time, too, and on his initiative, that another tradition of dance, comparable to that of Maharis, came to make a beginning- the tradition of Gotipuas, the boy dancers. The Gotipuas are boy dancers who dress as girls. They are the products of the Akhadas or Gymnasia, set up by Ramachandra Deva in Puri, to induct and groom young people to protect the temple and the town from intruders. The Akhadas were rather like clubs, brought up in seven streets in the periphery of the temple, to encourage physical culture as well as cultural activity. The main concern of the Akhadas was physical exercise, gymnastics, to help equip oneself in the art of defence. But side by side, the Akhadas served as nurseries for training Gotipuas. Physical culture formed one stream, the Gotipua another and there was no overlapping. Because they were generated by the Akhada system, Gotipuas came to be known as Akhada Pilas- "boys attached to the Akhadas".

Another reason and an interesting one sometimes put forth to explain, and even justify the emergence of the Gotipua system, is that a section of preachers and propounders of the Vaishnava religion did not approve of dancing by women as a pretext for worship. They introduced the practice of dancing by boys dressed as girls. The boys were not a substitute for the Maharis, for they had no link at all with the temple; yet, what they danced had a strong affinity with what the Maharis offered. The dance style co-existed, each independently, but with palpably common roots. From both the essence has been drawn, kneaded and moulded to shape the Odissi dance of today. The word Goti means 'one', 'single' and Pua, 'boy' or 'lad'. But the Gotipuas always dance in pairs. Not in duet where each is a partner in a composition devised for two. The Gotipuas go through their paces together, identically, in total unison. Even in expressional pieces, accompanied by singing, both dance as if they were one.

Unlike the tradition of the Maharis, that of the Gotipuas faced any contempt or derision. Boys are recruited about the age of six and continue to perform till they are fourteen, then become teachers of the dance and join dance parties or seize any opportunity that comes their way. They are no longer connected with Akhadas, though some Akhadas still survive, providing a facility of sorts for young men to flex their muscles. Gotipuas are now part of professional teams, known as Dals, each managed by a Guru.

Though youngsters achieve training for about two years, during which, having imbibed the basic technique rather casually they are taught items of dance, both ornamental and expressional. At this tender age they evidently understand little; so what they perform is by and large an imitation. Like the Maharis, they neither know nor can explain anything of a dance step or movement, a raga or tala. They follow blindly what the Guru instructs them, and reproduce what they have learnt. As they are boys in their formative years, the Gotipuas can adapt their bodies to dance in a far more flexible, versatile way, than the Maharis.

This is further reinforced by giving the boys an oil massage, every morning, coupled with stretching, bending and twisting the limbs. The dancing, that involves the body, contrasted with dancing which is expressional and demands a certain maturity in the performer- the Gotipuas conveniently score over the Maharis. One of the most demanding aspects of the dance tradition in Orissa- the Bandha, which includes incredible contortions and positions of the body- is the monopoly of the Gotipuas, for the Maharis, as adult women, could not, even if they tried, have met its demands.

A Gotipua presentation is supported by a set of three musicians, who play the Pakhawaj, the Gini or cymbals and the Harmonium. The boys do the singing themselves, though at times the party has an additional singer. In decorative items, where there is no song and therefore no play of expression, sometimes the boy stands in a pose and recites the phrase or line of rhythmic syllables like a refrain, while the other dances, generally the Bandha pieces. They then switch roles. Earlier, the Gotipuas danced with the feet planted on the edge of the metal tray or with a lighted lamp or pot on the head. The presentation was far more organized than that of the Maharis, and some items bore names such as Panchadevata Puja, Bhumi Pranam and Battu. Today, a Gotipua performance generally begins with Bhumi Pranam, salutations to Mother Earth, and is followed by varied items of dance, with or without song and ends with Bidahi Sangeet, a farewell song and a dance number; the whole performance lasts about three hours.

The Gotipuas have no place in the temple set up, as neither they nor their Gurus are listed as Sevayats, servitors. But in the past, on a major occasion, they had an indispensable role to play. This was during the Chandan Jatra festival, when, apart from the Maharis, the Gotipuas were carried in independent boats down the Narendra Sarovara, a sacred tank in Puri, to dance and sing before the sacred images. But the Gotipuas had their day when they appeared in a religious festival, where the Maharis were never given any room. This is the Jhoolan Jatra celebrated every August. Though the Jagannath temple also observes this, it is only incidentally. It is the Mathas or religious endowments that celebrated the occasion in a big way. Puri at one time bristled with Mathas, though there are now no more than a dozen that continue to be functional. Most Mathas carry, in the portico, a tall iron framework. In case of the Jagannath temple, the facility is provided in a gallery called the Mukti Mandapa. During Jhoolan Jatra, that begins ten days before full moon, the whole structure is lavishly decorated with models made of pith and adorned with coloured paper, tinsel and the like. Figures of dancing girls, drummers, birds and monkeys are common. A special place is allotted to the Jhoola, or swing, which is of metal and no longer than two hands. Metal images of Madana Mohana representing Jagannath, Sridevi and Bhudevi are placed on the swing. Occasionally a priest sits in front of the swing and gently pulls the chord or chain fixed to the swing to set it in motion. In the open space in front of the makeshift shrine is spread a cotton durrie, and it is here that the Gotipuas dance. Performances take place a number of times during the day, and the early part of the night, and generally more than one party appears before the venue. The festival culminates on full moon night.

Today, the surviving Gotipua dals belong to villages and some leading teams are from Dimirisena and Raghurajpur from Puri, and Darara, near Bhubaneswar. Formerly, Gotipua dancers were well patronized by zamindars and were also in demand during festivals like Dola Purnima, or Holi and Dusshera. Today they live a genuinely precarious existence, for very few offers come their way. For a night's performance a troupe is paid between Rs 100/- and Rs 200/-. The boys receive no salary, but they get food and clothing, are well looked after and in some cases provided with education. The government extends help to some parties, but not in any significant way. It is no surprise, therefore, if, like the Mahari, the Gotipua tradition fades out in the not too distant future.

Much of Odissi owes to these two traditions, but gone are the days of the Maharis and Gotipuas. Now there has been a lot of adulteration in the traditional Odissi repertoire.

Odissi dance, today, has established itself to be the most fascinating dances of the world. Having been projected throughout the world, Odissi dance by virtue of its sheer beauty, has been able to win the hearts of all those who witness it. It is now seen mainly as a female dance although the appeal is not only in its femininity but in its masculinity as well, along with sculpturesque poses and imbibed spirit of the dance, which is spontaneously catered around to move any heart, or soul that the dance is not meant for the human being but for the gods. It is therefore undoubted that more and more of the dancers are attracted to learn this form within the country and abroad.

Unfortunately there are a lot of differences between the gurus. It is very easy to note the differences. This can be examined by putting some top dancers (disciples of different gursu) together on a stage at a time. Ask them all to put a particular dance number based on a particular raga and tala at a time. Well.... even a layman can visualize.., the wide differences in their basic postures, gestures, movements and styles. The reason being it is an admitted fact that till now no real good research work has been done on this dance form. It is not revealed that whatever little has been recorded till now has not been in the acceptable way. This is evident from the styles of dancing, the chronology of its repertoire and the basic grammar, which is adopted differently in the hands of different gurus. The worst problem that we are facing today is that more of the armchair scholars who confine themselves mainly in compilations are posing themselves as experts and without even he barest knowledge of aesthetics, they fail to identify between the crudities and beauties. And then the history and background of Odissi dance? The proof of its heritage. The evidences of antiquity. To put it in a very secured place where none can dare to question, put it to the pre-historic period first and next to the earliest possible rock carvings of caves. Then to the stone temples. They are there, the dancing girls and the accompanying music players. They are there at the Rani-Gumpha caves, at the Parashurameshwara temple, at the Rajarani temple, the Lingaraj temple, the Jagannath temple, the Konark temple and the thousand and one temples all around us to see.

Well, there is of course more than enough of evidence that dance, music and dramatics to Orissa is as old as its history. But do they all at all prove that the present form of Odissi dance is the replica of the old? And there is the dress and costumes, the ornaments, the accompanying instruments and the way of presentation. Have these been very sincerely excavated and adopted?

All these seem to have undergone transformation. When we boast "handed down by a tradition of over more than five thousand years", we must also answer whether we have truthfully kept it the way it used to be or even recorded the gradual transformations, which had taken place from time to time. We have not done that. A lot of imagination has gone into our statistics. So what is left for us is a lot of mysteries. To put it in order and to set it in an acceptable pattern, our research must forge in a very clear chronological pattern with distinct documentation with the specific order of time period.

A thorough probe into these will certainly bring out an authentic idea as to the gradual development and transformations, which have taken place in our dances, time to time.

Art is not confined to limited contours. It is plastic and only the creative artists do have their right of innovations. It is a sad state of affairs where we find the geniuses are criticized on vague points by petty researchers. We do have a right to criticize the one who does not keep the identity of the kind of the distinct form or mixes arbitrarily different forms.

Rahul Acharya, disciple of Guru Durga Charan Ranbir is doing research on Jagannath Culture and the ritualistic aspect of dance under the able guidance of Shri R.N Rathsharma and special guidance from the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri. He is also being trained in the field of Vedas and Shastras, by Shri R.N Rathsharma, who himself is an authority on Jagannath Culture.

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