Odissi dance can provide an alchemical space, where the two dimensions of matter and spirit have a means of dialogue. The tradition teaches that the ability to use it in this way is acquired through a Guru’s blessing and rigorous training. The effort required from the student is disciplined practice and a surrender of the ego. These values are questioned now, but the traditional odissi classroom in New Delhi, between 1978 and 1994 while I was a student, adhered to them, cocooned away from the fast changing social currents of urban cosmopolitan India.
After years of such entrainment, there was a perception that if one strayed from what had been so diligently learnt, one would lose the magical ingredient of ‘spiritual efficacy’ that odissi offered. This deep seated conditioning, acquired alongside the process of learning technique, would overwrite my growing discomfort at always dancing to texts sung in languages that I did not think and feel in, and to musical structures that I wanted to change given odissi’s unified sound-movement nexus. I also had limited ability to critique my practice or to play with odissi’s symbols, forms, shapes, colours and textures in space, a common outcome of rigorous training.
Moving on from this conundrum became possible in 1994 through a scholarship to Laban in London, a contemporary dance school at the forefront of discourses in Choreological Studies. The dual engagement with both western and eastern knowledge systems allowed for understanding and articulating why all classical Indian dance techniques provided a means for psychological transcendence through movement. This reiterated the case for embodied experience to be recognised as a valid form of knowledge. It also proved however, that traditional Indian dance practice could be greatly enriched by shedding its blinkered worldview and exploring perspectives provided by contemporary dance studies.
After completing my PhD in 2005, I directed a research project with performing artistes living in the vicinity of Puri, Odisha, from the gotipua and other folk traditions, and subsequently ran a repertory company with such artistes for ten years. This sustained interaction with gurus and rural performers allowed for observation of how gestures, pneumonic patterns, and melodic phrases had been ‘classicised’ by Odisha’s cultural revivalists. The process had been full of experimentation, trial and error, borrowing and assimilating ideas from all available resources. Following these early footsteps closely, helped appreciate odissi’s success as a syncretic construction of cultural raw materials available in the mid-twentieth century. In retrospect, this was in marked contrast to how odissi had been transmitted to my generation in the 1980’s and 90’s as a finished product, with the subtext that it was an ancient legacy that needed to be kept as intact as possible.
The phenomenon of transcendence through dance practice ran as a continuous thread in the discussions with traditional performers in Odisha. My interest in this central purpose of Indian dance had grown over two decades through intermittent interactions with Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, who positioned all such arts as forms of yogic sadhana. This had been reiterated by my dance guru but without explication. Choreological perspectives allowed me to empathise with the working processes of different traditional choreographers and to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of their practices, in achieving this end objective.
Exploring the principles of yoga in Indian dance and building a tangible artistic practice based on this understanding is the focus of this present work. It describes an approach to expanding and relaxing odissi’s traditional form, while still adhering to classical values. Furthermore, it presents the case that a shift in emphasis in classical dance training from choreographic compositions, to internalising fundamental movement and philosophical premises of both yoga and tantra, can enrich odissi in the 21st century. These knowledge systems form the bedrock of all Indian temple dance forms and in them, lies the strengths of such artistic traditions. In the light of this, contentions that odissi would be compromised if its choreography embraced other languages, musical structures, themes, and costumes, seem superficial. In any case, odissi’s identification with the best of Odishan culture is far too well established already for such concerns to remain on centre stage.