Odissi traces its origins to the ritual dances performed in the temples
of ancient northern India. Today the name Odissi refers to the dance style
of the state of Orissa in eastern India. Like other classical arts of India,
this ancient dance style had suffered a decline as temples and artists
lost the patronage of feudal rulers and princely states, and by the 1930s
and 40s, there were very few surviving practitioners of the art.
The current form of Odissi is the product of a 20th century revival.
Dedicated scholars and dance enthusiasts carefully researched manuscripts
and studied the sculpture, painting and poetry of the region. They also
met and observed the performances of the few existing performers, in order
to revive and restructure Odissi as a unique classical dance style adapted
to the requirements of formal stage presentation. Over the years Odissi
has become one of the most popular classical dance styles.
Like other Indian classical dance forms, Odissi has two major facets:
Nritta or non-representational dance, in which ornamental patterns are
created using body movements in space and time; and Abhinaya, or stylized
mime in which symbolic hand gestures and facial expressions are used to
interpret a story or theme.
The divine love tales of Radha and the cowherd God Krishna are favourite
themes for interpretation, and a typical recital of Odissi will contain
at least one or two ashtapadis (poem of eight couplets) from Jayadeva's
Gita Govindam, which describes in exquisite Sanskrit poetry the complex
relationship between Radha and her Lord.
The technique of Odissi includes repeated use of the tribhangi, or
thrice deflected posture, in which the body is bent in three places, approximating
the shape of a helix. This posture and the characteristic shifting of the
torso from side to side, make Odissi a difficult style to execute. When
mastered, it is the epitome of fluid grace and has a distinctively lyrical
quality that is very appealing.
Sculptural evidence from all parts of India and the surrounding region
points to a rich tradition of dance and music that flourished over a thousand
years ago. All over ancient India, it would seem, dance and music were
seen not merely as ways to celebrate but also as offerings of worship and
thanksgiving to the Divine. Over the course of time, the dance forms practiced
in the different parts of the country were codified and developed distinct
identities according to the geographic, socio-economic, and political conditions
of each region.
The dance form Kuchipudi developed in what is now known as the state
of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. Kuchipudi derives its name from the
village Kuchelapuram, where it was nurtured by great scholars and artists
who built up the repertoire and refined the dance technique.
The technique of Kuchipudi makes use of fast rhythmic footwork and
sculpturesque body movements. Stylized mime, using hand gestures and subtle
facial expression, is combined with more realistic acting, occasionally
including dialogues spoken by the dancers. In this blend of performance
techniques, Kuchipudi is unique among the Indian classical dance styles.
Kuchipudi today is performed either as a solo or a group presentation,
but historically it was performed as a dance drama, with several dancers
taking different roles. The themes are mostly derived form the scriptures
and mythology, and the portrayal of certain characters is a central motif
of this dance form. One example is Satyabhama, the colourful second consort
of Lord Krishna. Another unique feature of Kuchipudi is the Tarangam, in
which the performer dances on the edges of a brass plate, executing complicated
rhythmic patterns with dexterity, while sometimes also balancing a pot
of water on the head.
Kuchipudi is accompanied by Carnatic music. A typical orchestra for
a Kuchipudi recital includes the mridangam, flute and violin. A vocalist
sings the lyrics, and the nattuvanar conducts the orchestra and recites
the rhythmic patterns.
Manipuri is one of the most beautiful dance styles of India. Nurtured in
the mountainous region of the northeast, it takes its name from the name
of the area, Manipur, which is now a state. Manipur literally means a jewel
of a land, and the state is set like a gem in the verdant hills. The legend
goes that the gods drained a lake in the beautiful countryside in order
to find a place to dance. No wonder then, that dance is an inherent part
of the rituals of daily life, such as weddings and homage to ancestors.
The Lai Haroba, a ritualistic dance depicting the Creation, is considered
the precursor of Manipuri as seen today. The Lai Haroba is still an important
living tradition, while Manipuri has expanded and gained popularity as
a performing art in group and solo presentations.
Among the important constituents of the Manipuri repertoire are the
Sankirtana and the Raas Leela, based on the devotional theme of Krishna
and Radha. The Raas Leela depicts the cosmic dance of Krishna and the cowherd
maidens. The beautiful embroidered skirts of the dancers, long and flared
from the waist, and the transluscent veils, along with Krishna's costume
with the tall peacock feather crown, add to the radiant appearance of this
dance, as the performers sway and twirl to an ascending tempo.
Another vibrant feature of Manipuri is the Pung Cholam or Drum dance,
in which dancers play on the drum known as Pung while dancing with thrilling
leaps and turns to a fast rhythm.
The dance form of Mohiniattam was nurtured in the region of Kerala
in southwestern India. The name Mohiniattam literally means 'Dance of the
Enchantress,' and it does have a mesmerizing quality. The white and gold
costume, arresting hairstyle and the highly graceful movements in medium
tempo, contribute to this aesthetic effect.
Mohiniattam is characterized by swaying movements of the upper body
with legs placed in a stance similar to the plie position. The eyes play
an important role in accenting the direction of the movement.
Mention of Mohiniattam is found in some eighteenth century texts, but
the practical aspect of the style was revived in the reign of Maharaja
Swati Tirunal, a 19th century ruler who was a great patron of the arts.
Under Swati Tirunal, Mohiniattam crystallized as a solo dance tradition
with musical compositions set to the Carnatic style of music and a distinct
repertoire. Later, in the twentieth century, the great poet Vallathol established
the Kerala Kalamandalam to promote the arts of Mohiniattam and Kathakali.
Here, further research was done and Mohiniattam was codified and revived.
Over the past few decades, the repertoire of Mohiniattam has been developed
and expanded by dedicated performers who have ensured that this beautiful
dance style retains a distinct identity among the classical dance styles
of India. Apart from mythology, Mohiniattam contains a range of themes
Modern Dance in India has a relatively short history. Since the perception
of 'modern' or 'contemporary' can vary from dancer to dancer, this dance
form cannot be defined as easily as the classical dance styles of India.
It is also not codified in a detailed manner, as are the classical styles.
Uday Shankar, who was born in the early years of the 20th century,
is widely accepted as the Father of Modern Dance in India. This great dancer
had a very wide vision, and he appreciated the wonderful variety and scope
of expression afforded by the different classical and folk dances existing
in this country.
His search for a personal expression led him to learn several dance
styles, such as Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, and Kathak, in order to groom
his body to a state in which it would be ready to produce a varied, rich
and contemporary dance vocabulary. Uday Shankar was an idealist as well
as a wonderful showman. He was a catalyst in the renaissance of interest
in Indian arts during the 1930s and '40s, and he introduced audiences in
the West to Indian dance and music through the performances of his troupe.
He established an idyllic institution in the hills, where he invited
teachers from different genres to train his troupe. Some of Uday Shankar's
famous works include the innovative ballet, 'Labour and Machinery' and
a path breaking film, 'Kalpana,' on the theme of dance.
The institute established by Uday Shankar is now defunct, but his legacy
survives in the work of his children and his many disciples, who have their
own troupes and students. Today, in addition to the line established by
Uday Shankar, there are other practitioners of Modern Dance in India who
belong to other schools.