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The costumes of the Sutra Odissi dancers of Malaysia:
A dialogue with textual and substantial evidences *
- Dr. Soubhagya Pathy, Rahul Acharya, Chittaranjan Bairisal and Harsa Kumar Satapathy

September 28, 2005

The "Spellbound" Odissi performance by the Malaysian Sutra Dance Troupe on 10th September at Rabindra Mandap, Bhubaneswar captivated the hearts of all the dance lovers and the culturally sensitive audience of Orissa. The most sensible was the costume used by the dancers that took us on a journey back to the age-old temple costume of Maharis, Devadasis and Nachunis. It is really a sensitive issue that Ramli Ibrahim, a Guru from an alien space and origin could implement, recreate and practice with this costume. Commonly the costume used by the dancers; a sari wrapped over the upper torso over the shoulder, veiling and covering feministic bodily manifestation, is more fashionable and Bollywood like that violates our temple and art tradition.

We have witnessed a few pieces of news in newspapers by local self-acclaimed dance critics condemning the costumes of the Sutra dancers. A journalist or reporter should be conscious not to produce gossip (personal or individual opinions devoid of textual truth) and unsubstantiated biased criticism on any art form. The reporters of those news pieces should be aware of the long Odissi tradition of costume that is reflected in Gitagovinda illustrated palm leaf manuscripts and temple murals. We pity the visual ignorance and boastful expertise of the reporter-critics in criticising and trying to twist public opinion.

The reporters seem to have relied more on their ignorance rather than the rich visual documents that Orissa has. We would ask them to look at the Nayikas and Alasakanyas, the damsels and maidens that decorate the façades of the temples. They would fail to see a figure wrapped in a sari as we do in Odissi dance. Since the dancers do not know how to wear a sari, they have resorted to stitched sari costume. The kanchela fashion in which the Sutra dancers were attired was a Debaprasad tradition. It has started from Indrani Rehman and is followed only by Sutra. We should celebrate variety and diversity, as our culture holds this principle as essence. These reporters are neither imbued in culture nor in different styles of Odissi. That's the real tragedy that in some newspapers, persons lacking proper knowledge and scholarship in a particular field become the journalists and reporters of that field.

First of all the reports lack the insight to the rich dance tradition of our state and perhaps these reporters have not even seen in their lifetime, a single folio of the Gitagovinda illustrated palm leaf manuscripts of Orissa where the dancing gopis are painted wearing kanchelas without covering the upper torso with odhani. It seems as if these reports have been based on gossips (talks on a personal level). The reporters should have gone through the best available texts and refined themselves before writing on dance.

These reporters should go through Kumbhara Chaka, authored by Kavichandra Kalicharan Patnaik where Patnaik mentions that he visited Delhi in 1958 along with Guru Debaprasad Das and his disciple Indrani Rehman to attend a seminar on dance, on the invitation of Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi. Patnaik presented a paper establishing the classical aspects of Odissi dance. Indrani danced wearing this pure and traditional Odissi costume (unstitched bandha sari). Eminent critic of Indian classical dance, Charles Fabri was also present at Indrani's performance. Debaprasad Das had restored this costume from history, back to practice in Odissi dance through his disciple Indrani, and Kalicharan Patnaik and Charles Fabri had approved of this costume as authentic Odissi. Kavichandra Kalicharan Patnaik, the Guru of the Gurus, considered as the main crusader of Odissi dance, who had contributed and sacrificed his whole life for the sake of Odissi dance, revered as the guide and philosopher by the three Odissi dance maestros, Pankaj Charan Das, Kelucharan Mahapatra and Debaprasad Das, had never objected to this costume. Indrani Rehman had danced in this costume in Delhi and all over the globe with her Guru Debaprasad Das.

The contribution of Indrani Rehman to popularise Odissi dance in the international arena and getting it recognised as a classical dance form is unparalleled. Indrani, the Miss India of 1950, was born with the dancer's gene, being the daughter of the great Bharatanatyam exponent Ragini Devi. Indrani's dance on Gitagovinda on 7th April 1958 at Talkatora Gardens, New Delhi, created a positive wave and cleared the path for Odissi to stand parallel with other Indian classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. Indrani's dancing glamour and personality drew grand applause from all corners for her performance and that helped Odissi dance in obtaining classical recognition (refer to Kumbhara Chaka, autobiography of Dr. Kalicharan Patnaik, p. 345).

Times of India (8th April 1958) wrote on that celebrated occasion: "Testimony for the recognition of Odissi as a classical dance on par with Bharatanatyam by the dance Seminar on Monday, was found the same evening in the dance numbers presented by Indrani Rehman at the Talkatora Gardens." Statesman (8th April 1958) wrote: "It was fit occasion for Mrs. Indrani Rehman to dance on the very day on which the Sangeet Natak Akademi officially recognised Orissi dancing as a classical system equal with Bharatanatyam and Kathakali." Hindustan Times (8th April 1958) wrote: "Within a few hours of the Sangeet Natak Akademi dance seminar's according national status to a fifth school of Indian classical dance, namely Odissi, a large audience had the opportunity to witness the same performed by Indrani Rehman…" Was the media blind to Indrani's kanchela costume?

Now does the costume create visual pollution or is this a preconceived pollution pre-stored in the vision?

There is no specific dress code in Odissi because the Jayantika has not prescribed any sample. The different Gurus have followed their own styles. Debaprasad was very much conscious of his own creative vitality. So he rebelled out of the Jayantika style and practiced an individual style and dance costume of his own. The dress code followed by Guru Debaprasad Das and his students, Indrani Rehman and Ramli Ibrahim is typical and conforms to the tradition mentioned above. Any other evidence from the present practice is fallacious, modern and populist. They are not traditional. Therefore a purist is he who follows this long Orissan tradition and not he who depends on the modern practice.

Dhirendra Nath Patnaik has produced the photograph of Indrani Rehman wearing a kanchela without odhani, in a pure dance movement in his book Odissi Dance, published by Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi, Bhubaneswar, 1971 and 1990 (refer to the plates between pp. 100-101) and has not written a single line objecting to it anywhere in his whole book. Dhirendra Nath Patnaik who was also a delegate, who presented a paper in the seminar Odissi Nrutya Alochana, edited by Kalicharan Patnaik, published by Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi, did not also object to Guru Mayadhar Rout's statement on Odissi dance costume (attired upper torso with Kanchela but uncovered with sari).

So how could these reports based on the manipulated opinion of so-called dance scholars and a fistful of dance tutors, challenge and condemn the long traditional costume? Really the destructive attitude inherent in these news pieces has utterly hurt us, the general viewers and dance lovers who have seen the Sutra performance.

We are producing a chronology of evidences where dancers are shown without wearing sari as upper garment as well as odhani. These evidences cover a period of more than two thousand years starting from 2nd century BC till 20th century AD. The Odissi dance was recognised as classical by the Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi based on these evidences..

1.Women dancers at Ranigumpha Natyasala at Udaygiri caves, Bhubaneswar, 2nd Century BC. (refer p. 14, Sunil Kothari and Avinash Pasricha, Indian Classical Dance: Odissi, published by Marg).

2. A woman dancer in Chauka position at Parsurameswar temple, Bhubaneswar, 7th Century AD. (refer p. 16, Sunil Kothari and Avinash Pasricha, Indian Classical Dance: Odissi, published by Marg).

3. A woman dancer at Brahmeswar temple, Bhubaneswar, 10th Century AD. (refer p. 21, Sunil Kothari and Avinash Pasricha, Indian Classical Dance: Odissi, published by Marg).

4.A female dancer in the temple of Konark, 13th Century AD. (refer fig. 41, p. 252, K.S. Behera, Konark)

5.Woman dancing figures at Konark, 13th Century AD. (refer figs. 60-65, pp. 288-298, K.S. Behera, Konark)

6.Illustrations of Gopis from Gitagovinda palm leaf manuscripts (17th Century) gifted by Kalicharan Patnaik to Orissa State Museum, (refer plate 24, Pathy, et al. ed. Gitagovinda).

7. Dancing figure in Maheswar Mahapatra's Abhinaya Chandrika, the text on which basing of the Odissi dance has been constructed and formulated (refer plate 10, Maya Das, ed. Abhinaya Chandrika).

8. Statement of another illustrious Odissi Guru Mayadhar Rout in Odissi Nrutya Alochana, edited by Kalicharan Patnaik, published by Orissa Sangeet Natak Akademi, pp. 115-118. The above statement also includes reference from Danai Das's Malika of 18th century establishing the dress code of Odissi dance.

9. Comments of Times of India on Indrani Rehman's Odissi dance on the eve of its recognition as a classical dance (refer p. 346, Kumbhara Chaka, autobiography of Kalicharan Patnaik).

10. Photograph of Indrani Rehman in typical Debaprasad dance costume (refer p. 104, Sunil Kothari and Avinash Pasricha, Indian Classical Dance: Odissi, published by Marg).

11. Guru Debaprasad Das's description of his dance-costume style (refer p. 95 of Nrutyanusarani, authored by Debaprasad Das).

12. The booklet of Sutra Dance Theatre where the Oriya singers and musicians approved the dress at Kuala Lumpur in 1994 and are now criticising it in Bhubaneswar. This exposes their hypocrisy.

It could also be argued that if we would follow the temple sculptures, the danseuses have to dance bare but being attired with kanchela on the upper torso without further covering and unstitched bandha sari on the lower torso, certainly avoids the "imposed" bareness. In fact the bareness lies in the eyes of the beholder. One with an impure mind could also bare a woman covered from tip to toe. Rather we should bare ourselves from the intentional condemnations.

In these reports, there are complaints against the tight blouses worn by the Sutra dancers. These reporters were certainly sincere in observing the tightness of the attires of the dancers, not the dance. They prove to be sort of maniacs, comfortably accommodating themselves with badges as journalists, polluting the honest profession of journalism. They circulate wrong information creating wrong impressions. In fact, nobody is hurt by the costumes of the Sutra dancers; rather everybody was hurt by the intention behind these reports.

If Odissi dance compositions could be composed with the background music of Allah O! Akbar (refer to the dance composition by Srjan in Kelucharan Mahapatra Award function, September 2005) and could be claimed purely traditional, how is Ramli's dance an improvised sort? If dancers can attire in sensuous thin veils creating a sensual anxiety like Madhuri in Hindi films, what is wrong in the costumes of Sutra dancers?

Ramli Ibrahim has also performed before in Orissa. His disciple January Low attired in a kanchela and bandha sari has danced before in Soochna Bhavan, Bhubaneswar, in a performance organised by Guru Gajendra Kumar Panda, disciple of Debaprasad Das. But nobody objected then. Now these so-called critics have just woken up. Guru Durga Charan Ranbir, another Odissi Guru of international repute and disciple of Guru Debaprasad Das, trains Ramli's disciples from Sutra. Durga Charan's important disciple Rahul Acharya is collaborating with Ramli Ibrahim and was also a part of the "Spellbound" tour and danced in the recent Sutra performances on 10th and 11th at Rabindra Mandap. This should be a national pride of Orissa that a foreigner has embraced our art form. In this recent trip to India, the Sutra dancers also danced in this costume in Pondicherry, Chennai and New Delhi. They gained applause everywhere from dance lovers, audience and the media. The costumes of Sutra dancers did not hurt their sentiments and it only happened in Orissa that a few ignorant people exposed their wrong intentions. So it is proved that there is an element of 'political synchronicity' in trying to discredit Sutra this time around. They definitely want to dampen the triumphant statement and genuine concern to bring the Debaprasad tradition to the fore. But the performance was a sure success for the Sutra.

If Leela Venkataraman, one of the authorities of Indian classical dance acclaims Ramli as the best Odissi male dancer in the world (refer to the Documentary Film Sutra in India: Khajuraho Festival, 2003), then who are these persons with excremental visions claiming attention? The self-proclaimed critics like Bibhuti Mishra have no stand in the national dialogues. Mishra's report in Statesman exposes him as a seasonal contributor without any depth in Odissi classical dance form. In fact, there are some distorted elements those who have no way out and rather prefer to live in immaterial controversies because they don't have any other creative sustenance to make their lives run. Mishra's clownish statement prefixing the issue with 'storm' is really enjoyable as the storm in the morning teacup.

The so-called ban on Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra by "Sanskruti O Sanskruti" is unilateral, ignorable and of least concern in the international sphere of Odissi dance. This move by "Sanskruti O Sanskruti" demonstrates the meanness and confinement to particular sentiments of a few people, not the large sphere of cultural sensible populace of Orissa and abroad. "Sanskruti O Sanskruti" certainly has no right to ban any dancer or performing artiste. Dillip Hali, the secretary of the aforesaid organisation moved the ban with a sort of Talibanist and fundamentalist intention. The premier spiritual and cultural organisations of Orissa like "Amritdhara," "Sanskrutika" and "Avanti" protest the ban and have decided to invite Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra to perform in Bhubaneswar next year. This is an open challenge.

Orissa welcomes such performances restoring the tradition. If these critics recreating the Dunciad think that they are the celebrated pundits who could overpower everything, everybody and noble innovations, they will be proved wrong in the long run. And we swear, that we the dance lovers of Orissa, will invite Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra dancers to perform in this same traditional costume every year in Orissa.

We are taking up the responsibility for this write up. We pose ourselves to face further criticisms.

Dr. Soubhagya Pathy
Art Historian and Critic
Avanti, E 49/1386 Bhimatangi, Bhubaneswar 751002
Tel: 2590212/2592895 /

Rahul Acharya
Odissi Dancer
Plot No.N-1/329, I.R.CVillage, Nayapalli, Bhubaneswar 751015

Chittaranjan Bairisal
Bairisal House, 1774/3740 Sabar Sahi, Bhubaneswar 751006
Tel: 2310463 /

Dr. Harsa Kumar Satapathy
Healer and Therapist
1997/E Lingaraj Nagar, OldTown Bhubaneswar 751020
Tel: 2592048 /

* This article is in response to the review that appeared in The Statesman dated Sept 24, 2005

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