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Dance costumes
- Sukanya Rahman, Maine

(In response to The costumes of the Sutra Odissi dancers of Malaysia: A dialogue with textual and substantial evidences by Dr. Soubhagya Pathy, Rahul Acharya, Chittaranjan Bairisal and Harsa Kumar Satapathy)

October 4, 2005

My thanks to Soubhagya Pathy and his colleagues for their article in regard to the Sutra dance company's costumes.

Let me add to my brother Ram's letter by stating that trivial as this controversy might be, it sets a dangerous precedent and is a distortion of facts.

I was in Puri with my mother Indrani in the summer of 1957 when she, under guru Debaprasad Das's guidance, created the costume she chose to wear for Orissi. It was in contrast to the velvet blouses and Benaras tissue odhnis then prevalent with dancers in Orissa. She drew inspiration from the sculptures of dancing figures in Konarak and other temples in Orissa in her choice of ornaments and costume.

While he was teaching my mother, Debaprasad Das spent many months in our home in Delhi and became a veritable member of our family. All I recall him insisting on in the way of costume, was that she wear a tied sari and not a stitched costume. That he objected to her not covering up with an odhni is a fallacy.

For further background and history of the fledgling years of Orissi I quote below from my book, 'Dancing in the Family':

... Debu, dressed in a simple white dhoti with a red sash about his waist, presented an informative lecture-demonstration of his unadulterated form of Orissi dance, retaining some tribal and Tantric elements. Skeptics in the capital were converted, their minds finally open to the possibility of accepting Orissi as a viable classical dance form firmly rooted in the Natya Shastra.

On the 19th of February 1958, when the curtain went up before a packed audience at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Theatre, the air crackled with electricity. The figure silhouetted in a filigreed pool of light moved forward languorously as Debu's shaky but fervent voice rose in prayer to Ganesh, describing the beauty and attributes of the beloved elephant-headed god.

My mother was costumed in a red silk Orissa patola dhoti and a canary yellow blouse. Chunky silver jewellery, purchased from the lanes behind the Jagannath temple, covered her wrists, arms and neck, and Haile Selassie's massive silver belt shimmered and jingled around her waist. The relatively simplified costuming, bereft of the paraphernalia worn by the dancers we saw in Puri, bequeathed Orissi an entirely new look. My mother resembled a Konarak statue miraculously come to life.

"Last night," wrote Dr.Charles Fabri of that performance, "was an important milestone in the history of Indian dancing, for this was the first time that a professional ballerina has presented true Orissi classical dances on the stage... Indrani's dance reminded one of the charming dancers on the walls of the Rajarani temple of Bhuvaneshwar and the heavenly apsaras on the Sun temple at Konarak... all the seductive charm of rounded liquid movements marked by exquisite grace and sinuous flowing lines."

In the 1 June 1958 issue of the Illustrated Weekly of India, Ragini Devi wrote an article on Debu's art, illustrated by photos taken by my father, bringing an all-India attention to the art of Odissi and the guru.

Dancer/artist Sukanya Rahman is the daughter of Indrani Rahman and author of 'Dancing in The Family: An Unconventional Memoir of Three Women.'

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