Introduction to Odissi Dance

Odissi (or Orissi) is the traditional style of dance which originated in the temples of the state of Orissa in Eastern India, where it was performed by the devadasis.


It is one of the oldest surviving forms of dance, with depictions of Odissi dancing dating back as far as the 1st century BC. Like other forms of Indian classical dance, the Odissi style traces its origins back to antiquity. Dancers are found depicted in bas-relief in the hills of Udaygiri (near Bhubaneswar) dating back to the 1st century BC. The Natya Shastra speaks of the dance from this region and refers to it as Odra-Magadhi.

Over the centuries two schools of Odissi dance developed: Mahari, and Gotipua. The Mahari tradition is similar to the devadasi tradition; these are women who are attached to deities in the temple. Gotipua is a style characteristed by the use of young boys dressed up in female clothing to perform female roles which was a result of Vaishnava philosophy in Orissa in the 16th century.

Odissi dance was held in high esteem before the 17th century. Nobility were known for their patronage of the arts, and it was not unheard of for royalty of both sexes to be accomplished dancers. However, after the 17th century, the social position of dancers began to decline. Dancing girls were considered to be little more than prostitutes, and the "Anti-Nautch" movement of the British brought Odissi dance to near extinction.

Before Independence, the position of Odissi dance was very bad. The tradition of dancing girls at the temple at Puri was abolished. The royal patronage of court and temple dancers had been severely eroded by the absorption of India under the crown. The only viable Odissi tradition was the Gotipua. This had weathered the British Anti-Nautch movement simply because it was performed by males. Nevertheless, the Gotipua tradition was in a very bad state.

Independence brought a major change in official attitudes toward Indian Dance. Like the other classical arts, dance was seen as a way to define India's national identity. Governmental and non-governmental patronage increased. The few remaining Odissi dancers were given employment, and a massive job of reconstructing the Odissi dance began. This reconstruction involved combing through ancient texts, and more importantly, the close examination of dance posses represented in bas-relief in the various temples.

There were a number of people who were responsible for the reconstruction and popularization of Odissi dance. Most notable among them are Guru Deba Prasad Das, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Mahadev Rout, Guru Raghu Dutta, and Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra.

Today Odissi dance is once again deemed a viable and "classical" dance.


There are a number of characteristics of the Odissi dance. The style may be seen as a conglomeration of aesthetic and technical details. Odissi is characterized by fluidity of the upper torso (the waves of the ocean on the shores of Puri) and gracefulness in gestures and wristwork (swaying of the palms), juxtaposed with firm footwork (heartbeat of Mother Earth). All classical Indian dance forms include both pure rhythmic dances and acting or story dances. The rhythmic dances of Odissi are called batu/sthayi (foundation), pallavi (flowering), and moksha (liberation). The acting dances are called abhinaya.

One of the most characteristic features of Odissi dance is the Tribhangi. The concept of Tribhangi divides the body into three parts, head, bust, and torso. Any posture which deals with these three elements is called Tribhangi. This concept has created the very characteristic poses which are more contorted than found in other classical Indian dances.

The mudras are also important. The term mudra means "stamp" and is a hand position which signifies things. The use of mudras help tell a story in a manner similar to the Hula dance form of Hawaii.


The themes of Odissi are almost exclusively religious in nature. They most commonly revolve around Krishna. Although the worship of Krishna is found throughout India, there are local themes which are emphasised. The Ashtapadi's of Jayadev are a very common theme. Although incorporating a range of emotions and mythologies, the eternal union of Radha and Krishna (Gita Govinda) is central to the abhinaya in Odissi Dance.

Sculptures of Odissi dancers adorn many temple walls in Orissa.


The musical accompaniment of Odissi dance is essentially the same as the music of Orissa itself. There are various views on how the music of the Odissi relates to the music of greater North India. It is usually considered just another flavour of Hindustani Sangeet, however there are some who feel that Odissi should be considered a separate classical system.

There are a number of musical instruments used to accompany the Odissi dance. One of the most important is the pakhawaj, also known as the madal. This is the same pakhawaj that is used elsewhere in the north except for a few small changes. One difference is that the right head is a bit smaller than the usual north Indian pakhawaj. This necessitates a technique which in many ways is more like that of the tabla, or mridangam. Other instruments which are commonly used are the bansuri (bamboo flute), the manjira (metal cymbals), the sitar and the tanpura.

There was a move to classify Odissi as a separate classical system. This movement is generally considered to have failed for a number of reasons. The general view is that traditional Orissi singers and musicians have been so influenced by Hindustani concepts that they are unable to present the music in its "original" form.

There is a peculiar irony to this movement. Had they succeeded in having Odissi music declared to be a separate system, then it would be hard to justify calling it classical. It would fail to achieve any level, of ethnic transcendence and would essentially be reduced to the level of a "traditional" art form.


The current form of Odissi is the product of a 20th century revival.

Dance Vocabulary

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, dancer and teacher, was one of the leaders of this revival and one of the most popular proponents of Odissi.

Another famous Guru responsible for the modern revival of the art form was the late Guru Deba Prasad Das. Deba Prasad was a dynamic force whose dance captured not only Odissi's sensuous lyrical form, but was also infused with the wild, vigorous spirit of tribal dance and tantric forms.

Among Deba Prasad's brightest students was Malaysia-based Ramli Ibrahim, recognised by many as one of the foremost male dancers of Odissi in the world today.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Anonymous11:01 PM


    I am a Odissi dancer myself. I am the only student of Smt. Sanjukta Panigrahi. This page is a great way to make the world know about Odissi. I hope it helps to encourage the youngsters to persue learning this dance form.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. i am buddhaditya..national serial actor and an odia film hero..superb portrayal of odissi..liked it..crisp yet informative

  5. Anonymous2:24 PM

    Thanks for this site. However, its utter disaaponiting that few greatest names are missing from the dancer profiles: Surupa Sen, Bijoyini Satpathy, Madhavi Mudgal, Ayona Bhaduri .... pls pls pls get their profiles added!!

  6. Active bloggers who are dancers please do drop by my blog... I would love to follow!!!

    Seems a little quiet, this blog...

  7. Wonderful and colorful website...keep up the good work....many thanks, Halford E. Jones


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