The many threads of Odishi
June 9, 2023
Sharmila Biswas's Sutra, which has had two shows in Mumbai recently and is going to be staged at GD Birla Sabhagar in Kolkata on June 17, 2023, attempts to trace the history of Odishi dance. Ambitious as the intent may appear, it is possible to see how such a work may have acquired its shape, given the methodology of a historiographer that she has often adopted in creating performances.
In all her work, there is an attempt to look at Odishi not merely as an insider but also with the curiosity and wonder of an outsider who is on a journey of discovery. Her constant quest for inspiration and stimulus has taken her to the rural performative traditions of Odisha. She has looked for community practices in obscure temples and interior villages and emerged with extraordinary treasures. Her learnings have enriched her choreography, in which the songs, music, rhythmic patterns, movement structures and, above all, the essence of rural Orissa - past and present - are integrated into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
In Sutra, she unfolds the many trajectories that the classical form, as it has emerged today, has taken. It traces the genealogy of the dance vocabulary that draws from primitive traditions such as those of the Saoras, Aryans and Bratyas, mingles with court and temple dances, even while the village akhadas lend their raw energy to its ethos. Sutra's music is enriched by the voice of Parashmani Mahari, the last temple dancer of the Jagannath temple at Puri. It uses primitive music rendered by Savitri Sabar and Gabriel Sabar. Biswas tries to gather all the connecting threads of Odishi, bringing in the young Gotipua students from Guru Birabar Sahu's akhada.
It revisits tribal, folk and martial art forms to provide context and establish an ecosystem that contributed to the growth of Odishi. It unravels the many layers of mysteries and romance of the past 2000 years that have culminated in its present identity. Sutra enquires into the dynamics of Odishi which underwent huge transformations when the ancient community dance became a stylised classical form to be performed on the stage for the entertainment of the elite.
In Sutra, therefore, Biswas's imaginative vision allows her to delve into the various re-births of Odishi. The audience will be on a journey from the past to the present and view glimpses of which way it might travel.
Kathakali Jana is administrative and events head at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata. She spends most of her free time watching performances and works as a freelance dance writer and reviewer.
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