Sunday, July 8, 2007

Characteristics, Vocabulary, Repertoire

Odissi combines pure dance and intricate footwork, sculptural poses and story telling. It is performed in the form of Bhava (statement), Raga (melody), Tala (rhythm), Nritta (dance) and Nritya (expression).

Odissi is highly lyrical and graceful dance in all aspects: costuming, jewelry, music and body movements. It’s a plethora of visual delights: the beautiful poses of Odissi bear close resemblance with the relief sculptures of the Konark Sun Temple where the art once flourished. The striking features of Odissi are its intimate relation with the sculptures, where one feels the illusion of the sculptures coming to life in the dance.


Odissi is characterised by its curvaceous movements, sculpturesque poses full of languid grace and an imposing demeanour at the same time.

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.

The two main postures used in Odissi are the tribhangi (or tribhanga) and chaukha. Tribhangi is a three-body-bend in essence, and is very feminine in nature. 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 posture is based on deflection of weight which gives the body aesthetic sensuousness and a curvy, sinuous appeal. The deflection of the limbs is achieved by shifting of the weight and movement of the torso in the opposite direction of the head and hip.

The other common position is Chaukha or chowka in which the weight is equally distributed and altogether four right angles create a perfect geometrical motif. The chaukha of Odissi is comparable with the araimandalam used in Bharatanatyam, except that chaukha is essentially wider than araimandalam.


The Odissi repertoire has a wide range of dance items evoking different emotions, and telling different tales. Some items are soft and sensuous while others are extremely dynamic; even ferocious.

A typical Odissi repertoire consists of the invocatory item 'Mangalacharan', a tribute to Mother Earth, Lord Jagannath and the other Gods, also with stanzas to welcome the audience and to thank one's Gurus.

There are 'Pallavis', which are pure dance pieces performed to 'bols', which are strings of rhythmic syllables (which don’t mean anything literally, but are used to emphasize movement – I think). A pallavi weaves graceful and intricate patterns of movements, lyrical dance passages that run parallel with rhythmic syllables of music based on a Raga.

'Abhinaya' which means 'action', is a dramatic piece where mudras (hand gestures), facial expressions and body language are used as tools to emote, describe and tell a story. In Odissi, abhinaya pieces are performed to both Sanskrit and Oriya songs, conveying the meaning of the lyrics.

The repertoire ends with 'Moksha' or 'Mokshya', the dance of liberation. It is a pure-dance piece where the dancer tries to merge with the divine in a final flourish of rhythm and movement.

Other common items include Dashavatara, a dance describing the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, and Batu Nritta, based on Lord Shiva.


Note: This section is a work in process; more terms will be added as and when I come across them. If you spot any errors or inaccuracies, or can offer additional info on any entry, feel free to email me. Thank you!

ABHINAYA – a dramatic piece where mudras, facial expressions and body language are used as tools to emote or describe. Essentially, it's like dance drama or "acting dances". In Odissi, abhinaya pieces are performed to both Sanskrit and Oriya songs.

ARANGETRAM ('ascending the stage') - An arangetram is the graduation from learning the essentials of the dance form and the beginning of the path towards the dancer's artistic maturity. After about 10-12 years of intense training, the guru or teacher decides when the disciple is ready both physically and emotionally to be presented to the public with a 2 1/2 hour solo performance marking the graduation or Arangetram.

ASHTAPADIS – poem of eight couplets

ATTAMMI / ATAMI - fluid 'head slides' to add emphasis (?) to movements.

BATU / STHAYI ('foundation') -

BOLS - this is derived from the word "bolna" which means "to speak". Strings of rhythmic syllables (which don’t mean anything literally, but are used to emphasize movement – I think). These mnemonic syllables are an important part of Indian rhythm. They are variously referred to as bol (North Indian), solkatu, or konnakkol, and correlate to the various strokes of the tabla, mridangam, and pakhawaj as well as other classical percussive instruments.

CHAUKHA – one of two main postures used in Odissi; chauka

GURU – teacher or dispeller of darkness/ignorance. The word guru, a noun, means "teacher" in Sanskrit. A notable esoteric etymology of the term "guru" is based on a metaphorical interplay between darkness and light, in which the Guru is seen as the dispeller of darkness. In some texts it is described that the syllables “gu” and “ru” stand for darkness and light, respectively.

The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
– Advayataraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5)
LASYA - femininity

LASYA - The feminine aspect of dance

MANGALACHARAN – the very first item a student of Odissi learns. This is an invocatory item in which one pays tribute to Mother Earth, Lord Jagannath and other Gods, also with stanzas to welcome the audience and to thank one's Gurus. "Mangala" means goodness, and "charan" mean wishing.

MINANANTHI - The "fish" walk (Note to self: is this the Odissi walk?)

MOKSHA ('liberation') – a pure-dance piece where the dancer tries to merge with the divine.


MUDRA - the term mudra means "stamp" and is a hand position which conveys various meanings.

NATYA – drama

NATTUVANAR - conductor of live music for a dance performance.

NATTUVANGAM - a set of small cymbals that a Nattuvanar uses while keeping the rhythm. It also refers to the art of conducting a classical Indian dance recital. Nattuvangam addresses the Laya or sense of rhythm which is a very important aspect of Indian classical dance.

NATYA - dramatisation

NRITTA - pure technical dance with no meaning

NRITYA – expressional dance with meaning; expression through the use of hand gestures and body movements

PADAM - narrative dance

PALLAVI ('flowering') - pure dance pieces performed to 'bols'

RAGA - melody

TALA - rhythm

TANDAVA - The masculine aspect of dance

TRIBHANGI (or tribhanga) – one of two main postures used in Odissi. Very feminine in nature, tribhangi is a thrice deflected posture, in which the body is bent in three places (head, bust and torso/hip), 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. Any posture which deals with these three elements is called tribhangi.


Odissi (or Orissi) is the traditional style of dance that originated in the state of Orissa in Eastern India. It is one of the oldest surviving forms of dance, with evidence dating back to 2200 BC to be found in the caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri in Orissa. The current form of Odissi is the product of a 20th century revival.

The modern Odissi dance is an extension of two ancient traditions: the Mahari and Gotipua dance systems. The women, Maharis, were temple dancers, while the boys, Gotipuas, performed for the general public outside the temple premises during festivals.

Today, there are three distinct styles of Odissi, including the Gotipua style of Guru Deba Prasad Das, the Mahari style of Guru Pankaj Charan Das, and the repertoire of Odissi as formulated under the aegis of Jayantika in 1957, which is the style of dancer and teacher Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, one of the most popular proponents of Odissi.

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 is Malaysia-based Ramli Ibrahim, recognised by many as one of the foremost male dancers of Odissi in the world today.

Sources: Wikipedia, Odissi dance blog

About This Blog

Siryn is a student of Odissi who's trying to learn as much as she can about this beautiful Indian classical dance.

This is a repository of information she has gathered from various sources (on- and offline) for her reference, as well as that of other Odissi enthusiasts.

"Notes on Odissi" is going to be a work in progress indefinitely, because one never stops learning! There's SO much to learn and so much information to digest... let's help each other out!

Feel free to leave your comments; if there are any inaccuracies, please let me know, and if you would like to offer any additions, you're most welcome to. Thank you and enjoy!