I have been learning Odissi for about 2.5 years from Dr. Rohini Dandavate in San Francisco. Barring my short stint in Bharathnatyam and Kathakali at Dakshini (Kolkata) for a few years as a teenager, my brush with any sort of formal training in dance did not quite happen until my early thirties when I decided to revive my love for dance and requested Rohinidi to train me under her tutelage in Odissi. Like all other classical Indian dance forms, Odissi requires rigor,
discipline and a level of precision, grace and beauty in execution that can only be achieved through intense training. In a nutshell, this classical dance form is extremely demanding-of mind, body and soul, which I was ignorant of when I started, dismissing it as simply an execution of a series of steps. In addition, starting at a later stage in life, when the body loses its agility and stamina, plus a full-time day job that is mentally consuming as well, are
the other challenges I face in my pursuit of this art form.
Despite these challenges, I have enjoyed the learning process of Odissi immensely and continue to do so. What started off as a mere hobby has evolved into a journey of self discovery for me, via practice of this dance form, and this is what
keeps me going, despite my struggles in executing a number flawlessly. Odissi has been a journey of self-revelation on many levels, both physical and beyond. Physically, the dance form has made me aware of my body, its capabilities and
limitations, how different parts and muscles have to react and move differently to etch out the “physical beauty” of a step or a “bhangi” and how these different movements within the body have to seamlessly work in harmony to
achieve the beauty of “nritta”. This is best exemplified by something Rohinidi often says: “Dance is a means to create lines and shapes,” and this has served as a great reminder for me to grasp the logic behind the execution of each step as
not merely an act of mimicking the Guru, but doing so with a deeper level of understanding of the hows and whys and what shape that particular pose is striving towards. Being a scientist, my mind always veers towards analytical reasoning and logic. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it every step of the way in learning Odissi. The dance form can come to fruition, at least technically, by seamless co-ordination of the eye, head, body and limb movements. On a more in-depth
level of anatomical detail, there are different muscle groups that are responsible for bringing to life each of these movements, turns, and bends. Identifying these aspects is the only first step towards correctly executing the bhangi to
create the shape that it was envisioned for.
The second part that extends beyond understanding the physicality of the dance form is grasping the metaphysical aspect of the dance. As someone proficient in mathematics, I was able to grasp the “tala” and the “laya” relatively easy but
found the chhanda and the mood elusive and difficult to fathom because of their abstractness. Again, Rohinidi often remarks that dance should bring forth the joy of the melody. She says the movement should come from within, the melody should be seeped in and should gurgle out like a joyous spring through the dancer’s body. This entrenchment of the rhythm, the bhava, the musical notes and its importance in making the dance whole is my next level of learning in
Odissi. In other words, feeling the music, imbibing it within oneself and then expressing that rasa and bhava through the bodily act of movement is what transcends the dance form from being a mere physical act, to something more
divine, something more spiritual, possibly an act of surrendering oneself to a greater power.
Odissi is not merely an execution of a series of steps, but an experience of mind,body and soul that requires one to envision shapes, have a heightened awareness of the body, and find the inner joy and meaning of melody that has to be
manifested via movement. As a student set out on this journey of realization and actualization, I hope to someday find what moves me from within and express that feeling through dance.
Read my other post on Bay Area Durga Puja, an Indian autumnal festival here.