When Local Goes Global: Odissi’s Identity Crises

 

Odissi is one of many cultural practices in the world that has expanded beyond its local roots to a national and international framework. Considered a relatively new style in the pantheon of Indian classical dance, Odissi’s continued evolution on a global, rather than local [or semi-local] scale has raised concerns with regards to the loss of its unique cultural identity. Debates regarding authenticity, purity and dilution of the dance form have dominated many a seminar in the Odissi community in Odisha. Odissi’s growing popularity internationally asks that we re-examine tradition and modernity in a changing context, where the parameters that once defined the form are now blurred. The challenge for this generation of dance practitioners is to evolve the form in a modern context whilst maintaining the unique distinguishing elements of Odissi. To do so requires a thorough understanding of the dance form, as well as a willingness to explore new ideas.

Beyond a dance form, Odissi is a way of life that has been elegantly captured in movement and aesthetic. The founding Gurus of Odissi were deeply rooted in the culture, ritual, and tradition of Odisha. The process of developing this dance form was an organic one, where Gurus drew upon the local cultural life to inform their creative process. Years of careful study, observation and exploration resulted in a meticulously constructed dance style where every movement, gesture, and transition bore a distinct cultural nuance. The framework of Odissi that emerged, and the repository of compositions and research that followed, reflected not only the detailed analytical approach to creative development, but also the rigorous collaborative process between Gurus, dancers, musicians, and scholars. While the founding Gurus were continuously inspired by other art forms and dance styles over the years, the clarity of thought in their ideas and understanding of Odissi was such that any new idea could be integrated into the form without compromising its salient features. As a result, Odissi’s sculpturesque movement, subtle, nuanced beauty, and lyrical quality, which eventually became its trademark, propelled the dance nationally and internationally in subsequent years.

Globalization, the demise of many of the founding Gurus, and the social media wave are some of the major contributing factors that have ushered Odissi’s “adolescent phase” into an era that many times challenges the framework created by the previous Odissi establishment. Methods of teaching, learning, performing, and choreographing Odissi are continuously changing. Gauging and sustaining the interest of students has relaxed the once stringent and hierarchical Guru-shishya parampara system of learning. Dance practitioners based outside India are faced with the responsibility of ‘translating’ not only the dance form, but also the culture to uninitiated audiences. Performers in the west often have to take on the role of choreographer to qualify for public grant support, whose funding structures are limited to the creation of new work only. Choreographers in India and abroad are faced with the challenge of creating new and engaging work in an increasingly competitive national and international performance milieu. No longer bound by geography or parampara, dance artists are expanding what they feel is a limited repertoire and vocabulary, taking the opportunity to explore new and diverse range of ideas and art forms that are now easily accessible to them. Whilst Odissi’s infancy was nurtured in the cradle of Odishan life and was reflected in the movement and aesthetics of the dance form, many of today’s artists are approaching Odissi as an independent movement aesthetic, and have taken to exploring (and ultimately drawing upon) aesthetics and studies outside of Odisha, resulting in modifications in the approach and presentation of the form.

Odissi is presently at a very delicate junction, where it is struggling with its own identity as a dance form in a changing cultural milieu. One of the major challenges of today is the lack of a cohesive understanding of the dance form itself. While many Odissi dancers mention the need to stay within the grammar of Odissi when developing new work, this said grammar is growing increasingly arbitrary with the stylistic and aesthetic preferences of individual choreographers. Continued discourse amongst the global fraternity is critical at this stage of Odissi’s development to collectively examine, analyze, and most importantly, understand precisely what the core elements of Odissi are. The dance fraternity also needs to understand and define (or re-define) the parameters of the style. Establishing these parameters on a universal level will at the very least, provide a baseline aesthetic for the Odissi community with which they can use not only as a guide for the creation of new work, but also as a basis to determine the quality of a composition or performance. And while it may be impossible to police the creative vision of any artist, it is still possible to nurture a core responsibility amongst the global dance community to approach choreography with an informed process, that will allow one integrate new ideas without compromising the basic style, form and technique. For any art form to evolve, a certain level of experimentation is required to avoid risking cultural ‘straightjacketing.’ That said however, any casual or careless approach to the presentation and choreography of Odissi is doing a disservice to those that had dedicated their lives to bringing this art form to life.

Research, documentation, and scholarship in the field are especially critical at this phase of Odissi’s development. The increase in public and privately sponsored festivals in Odisha has created an entirely performance-driven dance culture, one whose effects can be felt throughout the world. Research and scholarship in Odissi, which had once guided the creative process, has stagnated over time. The main body for research and documentation of Odissi dance within the state has failed to produce any new publications in the last decade.[1] Lack of access to historical records and archives in Odisha limits the capabilities for researchers, who must rely on limited publications and individual interviews, which can sometimes be subjective. Documentation and research is needed for the continued growth and development of the form. Preservation of rare recordings, photographs, video archives, notes, will shed light not only on the context and process of Odissi’s development, but also the science behind the grammar and technique. Considering the lack of access to Odissi’s founding Gurus, archival information will be critical in developing future generations of creative artists.Cultivating and supporting a system of research, documentation and scholarship will ultimately sustain and guide the evolution process.

The global expansion of Odissi also calls for a more holistic system of dance education. Performance-driven Odissi dance culture has resulted in a commodification of the art where dance items are largely bought and sold. Workshops and crash courses, designed to accommodate time limitations for teachers and students, have slowly become the norm of imbibing the dance form. As a result, the learning process has become almost entirely movement-focused, divorcing the dance from its vast cultural and historical context. Changing the context of pedagogy where emphasis is less item-driven and more dance education-driven will create a more versatile dance practitioner who will be armed with the skills to further enhance the form. Developing a more holistic dance curricula for students, inclusive of supporting materials (seminars, readings, cds, etc.) to supplement the dance education will enrich the student’s understanding of the form. Dance teachers, Gurus, and institutes of today’s generation will need to consider their role in cultivating the next phase of Odissi dance; whatever work produced by the next generation of dance practitioners will be a direct result of the learning and skills they have imbibed in the training process.

Odissi will truly thrive as a global dance practice as long as the community continues to explore new ideas whilst maintaining the stylistic integrity of the form. Knowledge of Odissi in its theoretical and practical aspects will yield at the very least an informed approach to the creation of new work. Researching and expanding the vocabulary and grammar of Odissi is absolutely necessary to enhance the form, but completely severing the art from its cultural and historical origins will gradually result in a distortion of the dance. These days the facilities and knowledge available to enrich Odissi are tenfold. Global discourse, thorough (and accessible) documentation and research, and a holistic system of dance education will create a well-versed dance practitioner. If the international community can combine a modern approach to dance with a cultural sensibility, then the possibilities for Odissi will be endless.

NOTES
[1] Panda, Namita. Odissi Centre Sits Idle for a Decade. The Telegraph. January 13, 2014.

 

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