Odissi on High: A transnational production displays the dance form's synergy between male and female elements

Odissi is a source of endless beauty and wonder. From its stunning sun motif costume, to its curvaceous, graceful movements — that swaying torso which miraculously avoids the obscene, that tribhanga and the chaukha, langorous music, the resonant pakhawaj, with Krishna’s love and worship of Jagannatha at its heart, Odissi is beautiful.

It evokes wonder and teases the mind – male dancers swaying their torsos and necks in delicate feminine movements, female dancers swirling around to come back to the chaukha, their legs and arms spread out to form a square, a very masculine posture. It all fits; male, female, grace, vigour, delicacy, strength all co-exist without jostling for space.

 Odissi on High: A transnational production displays the dance forms synergy between male and female elements

All photographs courtesy of Aalaap

Equally wondrous is the music – names of many of its ragas and talas are found in Carnatic music: Sankarabharanam, Mukhari, Chakravakam, (not Ahir Bhairav), Triputa tala, Eka tala. They are however rendered in a style closer to Hindustani music.

Odissi is a young dance form, though it has assimilated and is born of ancient temple dance traditions, music, poetry, and devotion to Jagannatha. Reinventing itself as a classical dance form of India, it has a repertoire of pure dance as well as of abhinaya.

Bharatanatyam, thanks to the Tanjai Nalwar or the Tanjore Quartet, is perhaps the most systematised among our dance forms; the adavus or groups of dance steps give it a strong system of basic building blocks, not found in other dance forms. But Odissi had brilliant gurus like Kelucharan Mahapatra, Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das and others who created a repertoire that is definitive of the dance form.

Pallavi is usually the first item, after the mangalacharan, to be performed and is a “pure dance” item, one without abhinaya. Pallavi begs comparison with the Alarippu of Bharatanatyam – both mean sprouting, blossoming. Delicate movements of the neck, the arms, the hands, the wrist, the eyes, the eyebrows, the head, and in the case of Odissi, of the torso, and the hip too, enticingly bring the body of the dancer alive for the audience. Angika as described in the Natyasastra is the focus here.

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Alarippu, however, is performed standing centre stage and then creating a squarish area where the dancer draws straight lines in movement, while Odissi explores the whole stage in sinuous movements drawing circles within circles. The Pallavi arguably was designed for one dancer to present a beautiful range of stylised movements bringing the angas alive. It is “pure dance” with place for no other emotions or rasa, if you will, than the sheer joy of movement. Each delicate movement, each circular movement of the arms, each sway of the torso demands audience attention with the promise of exquisite beauty and joy. When it is presented in a group, one wishes for a thousand eyes, as that poet said (kaana kaN ayiram vendum).

Odissi on High (ticklishly abbreviated to 'OOH') pushes the boundaries of Pallavi on both these counts to present it in a group and to weave in bhava/moods. OOH is the coming together of Sutra Foundation, Ramli Ibrahim’s dance school in Malaysia, and Rudrakshya Foundation, the dance school of Guru Bichitrananda Swain in Bhubhaneshwar with “boundless verve and audacity”, a description that turned out to be apt and justified.

OOH was premiered in Chennai by Aalaap before a houseful audience with senior Bharatanatyam dancers attending in warm support. This was the penultimate show of their India tour of seven cities.

A smoke screen and the sound of the flute ushered in a languid mood, though the smoke screen did raise misgivings, since one associates it with slightly reduced artistic seriousness.

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The dancers were all fabulous, costumes exquisite and the themes varied enough to keep the attention piqued and engaged. Male and female dancers moved in and out with grace and rehearsed perfection, forming quick patterns and dissolving as quickly. The themes ranged from love for Krishna, the divine flute player, to the personification of the Raga Mukhari (identical with the Carnatic Mukhari, except for the absence of the flat Dhaivat), to the apsaras tempting a renunciate. The most outstanding piece was Tala Taranga, a dance composition of Guru Bichitrananda Swain. The all-male-ensemble presentation was brilliant because of its choreography as well as the performance. It achieved striking masculine vigour with quintessential Odissi movements – movements that only easily lend themselves to execution with feminine grace. Using the Pallavi in Chakravaka (another Carnatic connection here) to depict the temptations of the senses and a renunciate’s struggle was quite a novel idea. Recast by Sutra Collectives, it laudably avoided explicit sensuality.

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While the idea of suggesting or depicting themes and moods is entirely welcome, one wonders about Odissi in group performances. All our classical dance forms are essentially for solo performances, if we discount the theatre aspect of Kathakali. Why would one want to cast any of them in group performances? Group performances can create patterns, visual shapes and movements of lines and circles that a solo performance cannot. For this a dance form with straight lines like Bharatanatyam is more easily suited, because co-ordination is easier to achieve. Perfect group coordination is harder to pull off in Odissi with its curves and waves. Movements of the arms above the head in a sideways arc, for example, had different arms at different points. One wanted to devour each single dancer’s exquisite movements separately; the group effect was not always easy to see. One wonders if it is not excessive to present Odissi in a group of such fabulous dancers, rendering it difficult to absorb fully.

A word about the artistic exuberance of Datuk Ramli Ibrahim, Bringing together two dance schools in different countries, conceptualising and executing an entire production based on one item of the Odissi repertoire, not backing off from a bit of “audacity” at that, raising funding for it and taking it on extended tours is no easy achievement. Politically alert and outspoken, culturally informed, and artistically adventurous – he is a phenomenal combination.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com.

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Updated Date: May 22, 2019 09:50:26 IST