Updated: November 18, 2009 14:27 IST

Odissi in a geo-political context

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The book journeys from the mythical origins of Indian dance to its new home in the United States.

Before the older conundrums can be solved, new ones turn up. One of the older debates is on what can be classified as classical dance in the Indian context. The arguments date back to the revival of ancient Indian dance forms and their renaming — starting with the rediscovery of Bharatanatyam and continuing up to the present. New claimants for the title ‘classical’ still crop up. In that context, Ratna Roy, by her choice of the title, has at the very outset touched on one aspect of the controversy. Meanwhile, though, the State where it was nurtured, Orissa, is set to change its name to ‘Odisha.’ Classical or neo-classical aside, what will we call Odissi then? But, perhaps, that discussion can wait for another day.

Roy, a senior Odissi dancer, has put together a well-researched book that places Odissi in a larger historical, artistic, and geo-political context. In this sense, she has departed from the norm. Books on a particular classical Indian dance form do not often take a macro view.

Incidentally, a common complaint against performers writing books is that they usually come up with a coffee table volume carrying glossy photographs, mostly of themselves performing, along with those of sculptures and temples, and write a text limited by their personal experience — sticking to their own or their gurus’ contribution. Roy’s work is happily not open to such a line of criticism. For the record, only one of the photographs features the author.


The book is packed with information and references to works by well-known writers such as Kapila Vatsyayan. While useful for students and researchers, it does not make for smooth reading, bristling as it is with endnotes and acknowledgments. It reads more like a doctoral thesis, with a possible title: “The development of India’s neo-classical dances with special focus on Odissi.” Some editing and text-planning would certainly help to make it more reader-friendly.

However, the holistic approach is to be appreciated. The author has discussed issues relevant to a spectrum of Indian dances — such as the male and the female dancer. Every dance form being linked to philosophy, a discussion about the male and the female performer transcends mere physical technique.

The concept of God as the only male, and every human being a female, is so unlike mainstream western spiritual thought that it was bound to clash with the sensibilities of India’s British rulers. Roy also takes us through the social implications of the male and female dancing body, and the culture that led, on the one hand, to boys being the sole exponents of some dance styles, and, on the other, to the devadasi tradition across the country.

Temple dance

By the time the British came and took note of the tradition of dedicating devadasis as temple dancers, they were, at worst, repelled, and, at best, confused by these women. Either way, there was consternation among their loyal followers — India’s educated elite. In a way, this consternation resulted in the traditions suffering permanent damage. On the one hand, the dance traditions are referred to as “temple dances” and, on the other, they have become divorced from the women who were the repositories of these skills. However, the author is not so much sitting in judgment as providing an overview.

The book journeys from the mythical origins of Indian dance to its new home in the United States, where Roy is based, and it should serve as a useful reference. However, one does wish an editor with a silver-tipped pen had worked on the 200-odd page publication.

NEO-CLASSICAL ODISSI DANCE: Ratna Roy; Harman Publishing House, A-23, Naraina Industrial Area, Phase II, New Delhi-110028. Rs.1800.

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