Odissi or Orissi is one of the pre-eminent classical dance forms of India which originated in the Hindu temples of the eastern coastal state of Odisha in India. Its theoretical base trace back to ‘Natya Shastra’, the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text on the performing arts. Age-old tradition of Odissi is manifested from Odisha Hindu temples and various sites of archaeological significance that are associated with Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, the sculptures of which adorn dance postures of this art form. A form of illustrative anecdote of mythical and religious stories, devotional poems and spiritual ideas emoted by dancer with excellent body movements, expressions, impressive gestures and sign languages, its performance repertoire includes invocation, nrita, nritya, natya, and moksha. This dance form includes themes from Vaishnavism and others associated with Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Surya and Shakti.

History & Evolution

The antiquity of this dance form is evident from its roots that trace back to the ancient Sanskrit Hindu text called ‘Natya Shastra’ which deals with different performing arts. All the 108 fundamental dance units elucidated in ‘Natya Shastra’ are similar to this art form. It encompasses thousands of verses that are structured in various chapters. Dance is divided in two specific forms in this text namely ‘nrita’ and ‘nritya’. While ‘nrita’ is pure dance that focuses on perfection of hand movements and gestures, ‘nritya’ is solo expressive dance that stresses on the aspects of expressions. Natalia Lidova, a Russian scholar, says that the text enlightens on several theories of Indian classical dances including that of Tandava dance of Lord Shiva, standing postures, basic steps, bhava, rasa, methods of acting and gestures. Reference to four popular styles of vrittis that is methods of expressive presentations namely ‘Odra-Magadhi’, ‘Panchali’, ‘Dakshinatya’ and ‘Avanti’ is found in the text, of which Odra refers to this performing art.

Sites of archaeological and historical significance like caves and temples in Puri, Konarak and Bhubaneswar bear carvings that are historical manifestations of ancient art forms like music and dance. The heritage site of Udayagiri, the largest Buddhist complex in Odisha, houses the Manchapuri cave belongs to the reign of Kharavela, the Jaina king of Kalinga from the Mahameghavahana dynasty who ruled sometime around the 1st or 2nd century BCE. The cave depicts carvings of musicians and dance. Reference of music and dance are also found in Udayagiri’s Hathigumpha Inscriptions that were inscribed by Kharavela. The antiquity of Odisha’s musical tradition is also palpable from the account of discovery of a lithophone by the archaeologists that is made of polished basalt with 20 keys. It was unearthed in the archaeological site near Angul, Odisha called Sankarjang that dates back to around 1000 BCE.