CAN YOU LEARN ODISSI DANCE AS AN ADULT?
I have been learning Odissi dance 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,i.e. as an adult in her thirties 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.
Disclaimer: I have pointed out to various Odissi learning resources on this post, which were created by Dr. Dandavate. I have purchased these and found them immensely helpful in my practice and have not been compensated for them in any form. These links may be affiliate links since I am associated with the Amazon affiliates program. Clicking on these links may earn me a small commission at no extra cost of the product to you. All photos are used with permission from Dr. Dandavate.
WHAT LEARNING ODISSI HAS TAUGHT ME
Despite these challenges of learning Odissi dance as an adult, 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 Odissi 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 coordination 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.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON LEARNING ODISSI
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.
For more Indian culture posts, read my other post on how Durga Puja is celebrated in the San Francisco Bay Area.