Odissi & Abhinaya: Traditional Indian Dance & Drama

The Classical Odissi dance is in the little-known Mahari (powerful female temple dancers) tradition of Guru Pankaj Charan Das. Essential parts of this tradition are acting (or abhinaya) and storytelling through dance and drama. The pure dance movement is unique in its rhythmic stomping juxtaposed with lyrical torso movement. The dance tradition is outlined in a Sanskrit text—Natya Shastra—that dates all the way back to the 2nd century AD. Sadly, the Mahari style is underrepresented in the world of Odissi dance, with only 2% of Odissi dancers continuing in the Mahari tradition. Leading dance critics in Odissi have now declared that the largest number of dancers in this style in the world is from Washington State.

Master Artist: Ratna Roy (Olympia)

In 1972-73, Dr. Ratna Roy received training in Classical Odissi dance under Guru Govinda Chandra Pal in Orissa (now Odisha), India. Since 1997, she has also trained under the master of masters, the late Guru Pankaj Charan Das. In 2018, she was invited to Odisha to receive the Parampara (heritage) award which acknowledges her as the leading exponent of the Odissi style of her Guru, which he inherited from his adopted mother, a devadasi (temple priestess) in one of the foremost temples, that of Lord Jagannatha in Puri, India. Ratna has since continued teaching at several dance centers across Washington. She has taught extensive Odissi courses as a member of the dance faculty at Evergreen State College, where she is now faculty emerita following her retirement.

“The dancer learns pure dances to gain control over the various parts of the body in order to be able to portray the various characters in an abhinaya dance— gods, humans, kings and queens from myths and epics.”

Apprentice: Radha Iyer (Redmond)

Radha began taking classes with Dr. Ratna Roy when she was only four years old, after being inspired by her performance at the Northwest Folklife Festival. Since then, Radha has refined her dance movements and hand gesture technique over the course of eleven years. Radha hopes to use the skills she learns from mastering abhinaya to preserve and spread the Odissi tradition. She plans to teach young beginners the foundations of the style, onto which increasingly complex pieces can be added.

“To me, these contrasts [in Odissi] illustrate life and art in their purest forms—a series of unexplained but beautiful paradoxes.”

Featured image: Odissi performance. Yollay. 20 August 2017.

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