By Donovan Roebert
My intention here involves nothing more ambitious than an attempt to clear up for myself the workings of a certain congeries of factors that went into the reincarnation of Odissi. In trying to do so I am aware that I am re-examining matters that are already quite obvious to others. I therefore don’t expect to arrive at conclusions that can pretend to be original.
In recent days I have been reading, and in some cases re-reading, a number of books and articles on the work of the Jayantika movement, whose toils can nowadays quickly become the object of heated debate. About the issues that prompt these fussy quibbles I won’t say anything here. They have nothing to do with, and indeed are rather a distraction from, the kind of summary and conclusion I am hoping to make here on my own behalf.
In reading these books and articles, then, I have been insistently accosted in afterthought by recalling that the name ‘Odissi’ was hit on by Kalicharan Patnaik in 1948, and then only as useful tag for the Oriyan songs he was broadcasting on his newly-founded Cuttack radio station. And this denomination was then immediately adopted by the gurus who were working to re-imagine a classical, though regional, form of dance. It was adopted, and it stuck, though it had never been heard before.
The story of the gurus’ labours, frustrations and successes is a marvellous one but also one that is so well known – at least in outline – that I need not recount the details here, except to remind myself how very few resources in every way these practitioner-researchers had at their disposal. Theirs is a narrative that stretches from poor rural villages and street theatre to culminate in a classical Indian dance recognized in the capital cities of the world, the dance that we know as Odissi today.
Before its new name was spoken, ‘Odissi’ consisted of a loosely interrelated number of instances that had not yet been drawn together into a new whole, and these so fragmentary and debilitated, so worn out by age, misadventure, mishap and neglect that their fundamental unity could only have been discerned by individuals driven by a relentless obsession to find and re-embody them into a new unity.
In that sense, the synchronic one, the gurus of the Jayantika movement were archaeologists. Their work was in the first place to excavate whatever material could still be uncovered to give a fuller and more elegant form to the classical dance whose dimensions they had already essentially imagined. What they found in the main were the following :
The dance of the maharis
The dance of the gotipuas
Songs and poetry
Texts on dance
Sculpted relief panels depicting old dance postures
The revivalist materials available at Kalakshetra.
Drawing on and collating these materials, they sought to re-imagine :
An aesthetic structure or repertoire
An applicable conception of classicism
An underpinning mythico-philosophical trope
The dance of the maharis (mahari nacha) turned out in the end to be the most valuable source for achieving the final cultural goal they had in mind, the grounding of their reincarnated dance in an antiquity that also rendered a strong sense of cultural and spiritual continuity. Yet the mahari nacha, in the depleted and devitalized state in which they then encountered it, was not an extensive source for the steps and structures that they were envisaging. The maharis themselves were a rapidly dwindling institution whose repertory in the temple consisted of a sakala dhupa once daily and a song from the Geet Govind at night. Their mudras were few, their abhinaya expressons limited, and their postures and steps insufficient to guide the gurus towards a more enriched repertoire. Yet, five bhumis and five charis (which include the all-important chauka) were still contained in the extant choreography.
There was a repertoire, albeit rather shapeless and brief – a dance sequence that lasted from ten to twenty minutes and which lacked anything resembling the sinuous glamour of the postures depicted in the temple and cave sculptures of Orissa. In order, however, fully to exploit whatever was still excavable from the mahari tradition, the founders of Jayantika – years before the association was actually established – took lessons in mahari nacha from Pankaj Charan Das, the dance teacher to the maharis.
It is important to note at this point that, as regards their vocation as dance archaeologists, the members of Jayantika themselves only realised this much later in life, during the period when it became clear to them that Odissi was a distinct and necessary possibility. The lessons they received in the surviving forms of Oriyan and other dance were taken from the days of their childhood up, at various times in their careers, and not in a continuous, systematic manner. It was only later that all their acquisitions evolved and coalesced into a single idea and ideology of dance.
The dance of the gotipuas (gotipua nacha) was more serviceable to them than that of the maharis because it was much more elaborate, in part because it was popular as a public entertainment and therefore needed to be kept up as well as expanded and re-embellished from time to time. It was, in a word, a more truly living phenomenon. Its supple liveliness, intricacy and grace seemed much closer to the ideal of a secular classical dance that could be staged on the proscenium. It had only to be trimmed of its vulgar acrobatic element (the bandha nritya) in order to provide a rich source of steps, postures and lasya bhangis. Its repertoire consisted of a flux of nritya-abhinaya pieces interspersed with nritta ornamentations, known then as palevi. At the end of the recital they danced a natangi item, very sprightly and also incorporating bandha elements. The natangi prefigured the lively steps of the moksha, the final item in the repertoire as we have it today. The gotipuas sang as they danced, usually vernacular versions of the Geet Govind ashtapadis which were episodes of the Rasleela. In this regard, their abhinaya was a Vaishnavite one, expressing the many emotions associated with the love between Krishna and Radha.
It is well to bear in mind that the Jayantika gurus were themselves trained gotipua dancers, so that this item of their archaelogical materials had already been metabolized, so to speak, into their own flesh and blood.
They were also familiar with and danced certain folk dances, such as the Paiko and Naga dances, as well as the military Chhau, aspects of which were later woven into the paddhati of Debaprasad Das. But, on the whole, these folk dance influences were removed from the finalized Odissi repertoire in order to render it, as the gurus described it, more natyadharmic (i.e. more classical in the general sense prescribed by the Natyashastra, which distinguished between the marga or natyadharma form and the folk or regional lokadharma).
The poetry and music to which these dances were set were derived from the great Oriyan poets, the greatest among whom is Jayadeva. It was his verses that were sung to the deity by the maharis in their evening ritual, and many of the songs to which the gotipuas danced were vernacular renderings of Jayadeva’s Sanskrit ashtapadis. But other lyrical medieval songs were also used in the repertoire, all of them reflecting the dual carnal and transcendent planes enacting the love-sickness of the sringara and sringara-bhakti rasas.
As to the texts, it seems that by 1954, after a decade of archaeological work by the Jayantika movement (which did not in fact adopt that name until 1959) they had remained mostly unconsulted. Most of the gurus had not even heard of them. It was only after the presentation of a proto-Odissi performance (a single continuous item combining nritta pieces with an abhinaya sequence, the whole lasting about twenty minutes) in Delhi in 1954 that old dance and natya texts were recognized as seminally important to the entire endeavour of unifying into a single classical form the whole range of regionally excavated materials. After this point, with the subsequent involvement of dance critic Charles Fabri, and especially after Mayadhar Raut had spent four years studying at Kalakshetra, the texts played a prominent role in their classicizing mission. Among others, these texts included the Abhinaya Darpana, Abhinaya Chandrika, Sangeet Ratnakara, and Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra. Even then, these were mostly read at second hand, in vernacular or English translations, and probably only partially. Still, they proved a rich resource for re-identifying and expanding the scope of dance steps, postures, mudras and so forth, and for re-imagining the kind of formal structure that a classical dance was supposed to exhibit.
The sculpted temple dance reliefs yielded visual information of a similar kind. The gurus travelled widely in Orissa and elsewhere to study, photograph, sketch and document these stone-bound postures. These were painstakingly incorporated into the Odissi work-in-progress and made to stand out prominently if momentarily in the new choreographies. Their presence lent a gravity and antiquity to the repertoire, as well an aesthetic stamp that marked the nascent dance form as distinct in itself, dissociating it especially from the new Bharata Natyam of the South with which it had been wrongly bound up along the early course of its slow reincarnation.
Mayadhar Raut’s Kalakshetra interlude may be regarded as a catalytic force, a force that drew the other materials more clearly to the surface, rather than as itself item of archaeology – and this would be a valid interpretation of the part it played. But I am listing it under the archaeological materials because it also offered so much of the modifying material that was added to the other items.
Kala Vikas Kendra, the first proto-Odissi gurukul, was already partially established in Cuttack when Mayadhar chose to study at Kalakshetra on a rather meagre scholarship awarded him by the Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi. There, under the fiercely benevolent rule of Rukmini Devi, he had his first opportunity to become more closely conversant with the Abhinaya Darpana and the Natyashastra (probably in the form of the recensions/translations of Manmohan Gosh). These texts were revelations insofar as they confirmed the direction that should be taken by the gurus’ classical vision and the details of codified construction that would have to be implemented. Apart from these texts, Mayadhar learnt a number of Kathakali items, basic Bharata Natyam, and a wealth of mudra and abhinaya techniques from Gauri Amma. In the main, it was these elements that he would take back, after four years of study in Chennai, to his fellow gurus and their associates in Cuttack. These were enrichments that finally tilted the balance in favour of the design of a five-movement repertoire that mirrored the movements in Bharata Natyam.
In addition, the experience he gained in staging Kalakshetra natya-nritya productions infused the maturing Odissi-idea with those elements of western, orientalist, balletic dance-drama that were embedded in the Adyar revivalist movement. It became apparent that Odissi could be imagined as a regional Oriyan classical dance, yet also one of pan-Indian and eventually international import. Which is in fact how it really turned out.
And at this stage it becomes crucially important to remark that the idea of the Jayantika movement can’t be authentically entertained without the inclusion of its female members, the dancers themselves. In fact it was the most prominent of them, Sanjukta Panigrahi, who first went to Kalakshetra in 1952, at the age of eight. There she was taught Bharata Natyam by Rukmini Devi, as well as the elements of the two main texts that Mayadhar Raut would later study. It is a fact that even as a child at Kalakshetra, Sanjukta would return to Cuttack during the summer vacations and impart the knowledge gained at Kalakshetra, including abhinaya and viniyoga, to Kelucharan Mohapatra. She was thus part of the archaeological and imaginative force which drove Odissi onward to its future as a classical form, a form which to which she later imparted her own choreographies while elevating its status through her excellence as a practitioner. And something of this sort holds true for the other girl- and women-dancers too.
The above list of items then, roughly speaking, makes up the tally of the excavated materials finally available to the gurus, the dancers, their supporters and collaborators. These components, as they had been gradually unearthed, examined, tried and refashioned over a period of about twenty years, would go into the melding and moulding of the neo-orthodox form of Odissi that was, across that period of time, being coerced and coaxed into a cumulative emergence from its prototypical structures and patterns.
These materials would also, by a sort of diachronic inevitabilty, give rise to the new myth about the reconstruction of Odissi that rested on the old one drawn by Jayantika from the archaeological materials themselves.
I have already spoken above of the movement’s need to re-imagine, on the basis of the materials available to them :
An aesthetic structure or repertoire
An applicable conception of classicism
An underpinning mythico-philosophical trope
In Part Two of this essay these will be addressed.