Portland embraces Odissi Indian dance at first festival

One of India’s eight classical dance forms, Odissi is not often performed locally. Extraordinary performances made the case for changing that.

This fall, Portland, Oregon, saw its first-ever Odissi dance festival, and it was extraordinary. The 8th Kelucharan Guna Keertanam (it has been offered previously in major Indian and U.S. cities), was produced as a fundraiser for, and in partnership with, the Pratham Education Foundation. Directed by Odissi dancer and choreographer Aparupa Chatterjee, it paid homage to the late Shri Kelucharan Mohapatra, the legendary Indian classical dancer, guru, and exponent of Odissi dance, credited with helping revive and popularize this ancient form in the 20th century. The festival, held Sept. 23, featured Mohapatra’s son, Ratikant Mohapatra; Chatterjee and her Texas-based ensemble, the Odissi Dance Company; and Washington State’s Urvasi Dance Ensemble, directed by Ratna Roy.

Because Odissi is deeply rooted in Jagannath culture and Hindu religious practices, using a church as a performance venue made sense. The Portland program took place downtown in the First Congregational United Church of Christ. This beautiful, 1800s-era Venetian Gothic church has stained glass windows, a bell tower, and an elaborate pipe organ, encased in finely carved dark wood, that reaches up toward the domed ceiling. This backdrop rivaled the majesty of the Odissi dance tradition itself.

Odissi Dance Conpany’s Artistic Director Aparupa Chatterjee with Tanvi Prasad, Divya Srinivasa, Divya Chowdhary, Swati Yarlagadda, and Ramyani Roy. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

One of India’s eight classical dance forms, Odissi originated in India’s eastern state of Odisha and draws from the Mahari temple dance tradition, the Gotipua tradition (male dancers who dress as women), and the Bandha Nritya and Chau martial arts traditions. It also draws on information gleaned from the relief sculptures on temple walls and from Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text on the performing arts written by Bharata Muni sometime between 200 BCE and 500 CE.

After India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947, there was a movement to revive Indian cultural traditions that had been suppressed and even criminalized by the British during their reign. Although Odissi had existed long before, it was formalized in the 1950s by a group of Orissan artists called the Jayantika.

Odissi as we now know it combines emotional expression with intricate footwork, sculptural poses, and storytelling. In Odissi, every part of the body is involved in the dance, from the eyes to the toes, and all the parts move independently. Odissi has two stances, chaukha and tribhangi, upon which all of the dances are built. Chauka is a wide, deeply bent, turned-out position, very similar to ballet’s second position. Tribhangi means “three parts break” and consists of bends at the neck, waist and knee, creating an S curve in the body. There are 10 steps each in chauka and tribhangi that correspond to the number of beats in each step.

ODC presented six dances, performed by Chatterjee and dancers Aswati Nandakumar, Divya Chowdhary, Divya Srinivasa, Ramyani Roy, Sadrita Mondal, Swati Yarlagadda, Tanvi Prasad, Veena Surya, and Yashaswini Raghuram. Dances included two works by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra: Dashavatar, a depiction of Lord Vishnu’s ten avatars, and Vande Mataram, an invocation and tribute to mother India. Ratikant Mohapatra’s Patadeep Pallavi and Natangi were both pure technical dance without narrative. Chatterjee’s Jo bajhe Hari Ko Sada described Krishna or god as the ultimate goal of one’s life, and her work with Ratikant Mohapatra, Ye Ho Vithala, described Krishna’s beauty.

Odissi Dance Company dancers Divya Srinivasa, Yashaswini Raghuram, Swati Yarlagadda, Ramyani Roy, Tanvi Prasad, Aswati Nandakumar, and Veena Surya. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Because of the synchronicity in their movements and form, you might assume that the ODC dancers live near each other and practice together often. But they all live in different states around the U.S. They learn from Chatterjee, practice daily on their own, and rehearse together several times a week online. Considering that most Odissi dance is performed solo, it’s a powerful experience to see an idea multiplied by a full company: it makes statements and ideas that much stronger. The choreography, which felt fresh and new but stayed true to traditional Odissi vocabulary, is a credit to the continued efforts of Chatterjee and Ratikant Mohapatra to contemporize Odissi. It played with patterns, formations, and relationships, creating tableaux that brought to life the stories and personalities of Hindu mythology.

ODC performed together seamlessly as a company; the choreography, in fact, isn’t intended to draw attention to any one individual. But I will say that my eye was often drawn to Chatterjee, an exceptional dancer and mesmerizing performer. She fully embodies the form and expresses an array of emotions while she dances. For her, performing seems as natural as breathing. I also enjoyed Chowdhary, whose serene facial expressions and soft lyrical movements, juxtaposed with her grounded presence, made for a dynamic performance. Raghuram is also an exceptional performer whose movements are quick and strong as well as soft and lyrical, sometimes reminding me of a hummingbird.

Odissi dancer Ratikant Mohapatra in “Shabari.” Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Ratikant Mohapatra choreographed and performed the solo Shabari, about a woman who, after a lifetime of waiting, finally meets Lord Rama. Mohapatra’s quiet, introspective, unadorned performance moved me to tears. His expressions and gestures very clearly depicted Shabari’s longing and love for Lord Rama. I was amazed that such a “simple” dance could so powerfully transcend time and geography to communicate so effectively.

The Urvasi Dance Ensemble performed two works; Bandha Thali Sthayi, which combines three Odissi dance styles (Sthayi, Bandha, Thali), and Shakti, a depiction of primal female power inspired by Roy’s research of the Yogini and Shakti temples in Odisha. The choreography is by Roy and Guru Pankaj Charan Das, and is derived from the Mahari temple dancer tradition. Guru Pankaj Charan Das was the adopted son of an original mahari and was one of the dance gurus who helped reconstruct and popularize Odissi. The performers–Marissa Betz-Zall, Moria Chappell, Sukanya Nanda, Douglas Ridings, Jamie Lynn Colley, Ashlesha Mishra, Megha Mishra, and Suma Mondal–wore red-and-black Odissi costumes, a nice visual counterbalance to ODC’s brighter, jeweled-toned costumes.

Urvasi Dance Ensemble’s Moria Chappell, Douglas Ridings and Marissa Betz-Zall. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Toward the end of Bandha Thali Sthayi, the Urvasi dancers broke from the dancing and collected the medium-sized brass plates they had entered with; these held two smaller plates and two candles. After splitting into two lines, the three dancers in the back row balanced the smaller plates on their hands while spinning on their knees. Ridings and Chappell, in the front row, performed headstands on the plates while slowly moving their legs in and out of splits in the air. Viewers were so wowed by Urvasi’s acrobatic skills that they jumped out of their seats and rushed toward the stage to take pictures.

Shakti was no less resplendent, with intense energy, spinning knee crawls, yogic hand balances, dramatic backbends, and a tableau depicting the multi-armed warrior goddess Durga; another form of the goddess Shakti. In a dramatic moment, Ridings, lying with his back on the floor, held Chappell above him by her shoulders and hips in a flying warrior yoga pose, her arms outstretched, back arched, and legs pointed toward the sky in a diamond.

Urvasi Dance Ensemble’s  Moria Chappell and Douglas Ridings. Photo by Sarathy Jayakumar.

Odissi dance demands athletic rigor, grace, emotional and spiritual investment, and strong technique. (Full disclosure: I study Odissi dance with ODC member Yashaswini Raghuram). In Odissi, the dancer is the personification of the music. Whenever I watch an Odissi dancer, I imagine that I am seeing the sounds of the instruments emanating from the movements of the dancer’s body. I see the drum when the dancer’s feet strike the floor; the softer, more melodic sounds of the flute and the tanpura when the torso and arms move; and the metallic ding of the rhythmic brass cymbals when a dancer’s head moves side to side, causing the jhumka earrings to sway.

I hope this festival will continue here in Portland, grow to include more styles of Odissi dance, partner with other cultural organizations to create new audiences, and match the variety and popularity of established Indian dance festivals like New York’s Erasing Borders and Drive East.

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