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Sowmya Mishra

Soumya Mishra: Dances of Orissa

Odissi and Sambalpuri folk dance; credit- Kalinga Cultural Trust Souvenir

Orissa is often referred as the ‘Beauty Queen of the East.’ Wedged between West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, it lies on the eastern coast of India with waters of Bay of Bengal swirling along its eastern and south-eastern boundaries. The rich heritage of the State goes back to several centuries through many channels of culture. Besides literature and poetry, its cultural landmarks include architecture, crafts and dances.

Dance and music occupy an indispensable place in the social fabric of the people of Orissa. The Odissi dance, an indigenous art form of Orissa, is a classical dance like Bharatanatyam. There are several other popular dances of Orissa, such as Chhau of Mayurbhanj, the Sambhalpuri folk dances and the various tribal dances. However, it is Odissi, in which traditional poses are woven into rhythmic symphony to present a highly stylized and graceful dance genre, which is known worldwide. 

Odissi dance – Historical perspective 

The history of Odissi dance is connected with the history of Devadasis (dancing girls who used to dance in temples like Jagannath temple, Puri). The practice of consecrating dancing girls in honour of Gods was, at one time, prevalent throughout India. It began in Orissa with the growth of Shiva temples at Bhubaneswar. 

The Ganga rulers of 12th century AD started the practice of attaching dancing girls (known as Maharis in Orissa) to the Jagannath temple at Puri. Chodaganga Deva, who is credited to have built the Jagannath temple at Puri, introduced and appointed a number of Devadasis for the ritual service of Lord Jagannath. In 1435 AD, Kapilendra Deva, a strong ruler of the solar dynasty, regulated the services of the dancing girls. Dancing was not only confined to the Devadasis as an honour but was also practiced by princesses, testimony of which can be found from the inscriptions of the Ananta Basudev temple (1278 AD) at Bhubaneswar. Regular training was also imparted to the Devadasis of Jagannath temple on various aspects of dance and drama, by scholars of that period like Ramananda Ray, a minister of King Prataprudra Deva.

Towards the end of 16th century Orissa lost her independence and for over 300 years was ruled by Bhois, Pathans, Mughals, and finally the British. The political turmoil during these years seriously affected the religious, social and cultural aspects of life. The Devadasis, who were forbidden to enjoy the company of men, became morally degraded and consequently lost the respect of people.

With the decline in the dance of Devadasis young boys dressed in female costumes - called ‘Gotipua’ (Goti, single; pua, boy) - substituted for Devadasis to carry out the tradition. The present form of Odissi dance owes a lot to the Gotipua dance.

The revival of Odissi dance took place after India attained independence. The discovery of Abhinaya Chandrika, the basic code of this dance form written in 15th century by Maheswar Mahapatro, opened the floodgates for the revival of Odissi. Noted danseuses like Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kumkum Mohanty, Indrani Rehman, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Sonal Mansingh (all from India), and Ann Marie Gatson (Canada) and Frederica (USA) took Odissi dance to different corners of the world. 

Famous Gurus like Kelucharan Mahapatro, Pankaj Charan Das, Debaprasad Das,  Mayadhar Rout and Ramani Ranjan Jena saw to it that the new generation learnt the dance style and spread it to all parts of the world.

Presentation and Style

Dhiren Patnaik, an avid scholar and prolific writer on various aspects of Odissi dance, describes the presentation and style in the following manner: “A programme of Odissi opens with ‘Mangalacharan,’ an invocatory piece of dance followed by singing of a sloka in obeisance of Lord Ganesha or Jagannath. ‘Batu Nrutya’ is an item of pure dance laying stress on sculpturesque poses. The dance is not accompanied by any song or recitation but throughout the item a refrain of rhythmic syllables is provided. The most graceful item ‘Pallavi,’ with lyrical, sensuous passages of dance, enraptures the audience. It is set to the music of a particular ‘raga.’ ‘Abhinaya’ follows 'Pallavi,' which is always accompanied by a song either in Sanskrit or Oriya. Most of the songs written by medieval poet composers of Orissa pertain to the theme of Radha-Krishna, the eternal love of the land. A piece of Geeta Govinda is indispensable and Dasavatar is the most popular item. These romantic compositions are mostly set in a slow tempo in which the performer gets full scope to depict the emotion by gestures, glances and agile movements, and bring home to audience the full meaning of the compositions. Providing contrast to the preceding item, ‘Mukshya Nata’, the concluding piece of Odissi, is rendered in fast tempo. Bound with intricate rhythmic patterns played at a high speed, the dance carries the performer towards ultimate release (Mokshya).”

The Style

Odissi is a highly stylized dance with strict rules governing every aspect of its rendering. As the dance once supplied the inner rhythms of harmony to architecture, which abounds with thousands of dancing images, Odissi is full of sculpturesque poses known as Bhangis. Mostly these Bhangis are based on the ‘Tribhanga’ or three-bend concept of Hindu iconography. This feminine pose has three bends in the body, the first caused by the crossing of legs, the second by a curvature at the waist and the third by an inclination of head to one side, generally to the left. This is esteemed, is most amatory and graceful, and dancing girls are often represented with these or similar bends. Moreover, in pure and decorative dance items of Odissi, where there is no meaning to convey, importance is given to the stance, the body line and the manner of performing. The movements are soft and lyrical. All these combine to build up the elaborate grace and charm, the fundamental characteristic of Odissi.

Chhau Dance

Chhau dance popularly known as martial dance is actually a dance of eastern India. Chhau is performed in West Bengal (Purulia district), Orissa (Mayurbhanj district) and Bihar (Seraikela region). The three differ in style from one another but have great many similarities. One basic difference between Mayurbhanj Chhau and the other two forms is that in Mayurbhanj Chhau dancers do not wear masks. The three forms of Chhau are predominantly performed by male artists.

The word ‘Chhau,’ now obsolete, means ‘to attack stealthily.’ In Oriya language, a few derivatives words of ‘chhau,’ such as Chauri, Chhauni and Chhauk, meaning respectively the ‘armour,’ 'a military camp’ and ‘quality of attacking stealthily,’ are still in vogue. 

Unfortunately the history of Chhau dance is quite obscure. In 1911, when George V visited India, a sort of pageant comprising of various traditional dances and ceremonial processions were organized. In this pageant Mayurbhanj Chhau found a place of pride. The Statesman described Mayurbhanj Chhau as ‘Paika-nacha’ – the dance of Oriya soldiers. The Mayurbhanj Chhau was patronized by Maharaja  Rama Chandra Bhanj Deo who ascended the throne of Mayurbhanj in the last part of the 19th century. His son, Pratap Chandra Bhanj Deo, also encouraged and worked sincerely for the development of the Chhau dance. He made it more sophisticated and wanted to build it on classical lines. 

As Chhau dance does not follow the Natyasastra, people tend to call Chhau dance a form of folk dance. However, a close look at the art reveals that it is far too sophisticated to be called a folk dance and is more of a theatre, like Kathakali, or rather a traditional form of Indian ballet. The basic characteristic of Chhau lies in its harmonious blending of the techniques of classical, folk and tribal dances. It has a wide range of stylized movements and beautiful choreographic patterns which the other forms (i.e. Purulia and Seraikela) lack because of their limited vision through masks.

Suresh Awasthi, an expert of Chhau dance describes the dance in the following manner: “Gradual development of the dance, controlled movements filled with explosive energy epitomizes the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj. The rectangular, sculpturesque basic posture defines the primary attitude of the dance and sustains its pictorial quality. The dance begins with a striking pose ‘dharan’ by the dancer, heightened by the accompanying music, ‘ranga baja.’ The dance proceeds to the second stage ‘chali’, a highly dramatic gait, and develops its thematic content in the third stage, ‘nacha’, and in ‘nataki’ the fouth and final stage, a high tempo is built up and the dance concludes with fast movements and intricate choreographic patterns. Nataraj, Kiratarjuna and Tamundia Krishna are some of the representative dances of this style. While Nataraj is a fine example of controlled energy, Tamundia Krishna represents highly developed and sophisticated choreography.”

The 'Chaitra-parba' is celebrated as the spring festival in the entire tribal belts of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. The annual Chhau dance festival of Mayurbhanj is held during this period. A branch of the traditional Chhau dance is practiced in Khurda, near Bhubaneswar, and is known as ‘Paika Nacha.’

Guru Krushna, Chandra Naik, Sharon Lowen, Guru Ramani Ranjan Mohanta are some of the big names associated with Mayurbhanj Chhau dance. They have made Chhau dance popular throughout the world.

Apart from Odissi and Chhau, there are several folk and tribal dances practised in different regions of Orissa. These dances are categorized under rural dances for the sake of convenience. These dances which have evolved from primitive dance forms are candid expressions and lucid emotions of joy expressed in a rhythm. These dances are intimately related to seasons, occupations and religious faiths of the dancers. 

Some of the dances are a form of courtship dances in which young boys and girls initiate their love affair. It is quite difficult to describe all the tribal dances of Orissa.

Dalkhai dance 

This dance is popular in western Orissa i.e. the districts of Bolangir, Sambalpur, Sundergarh, Boudhphulbani and Akhamalik areas. During the month of September-October, adivasi girls observe Dalkhai festival in order to please goddesses like Durga, Mangala and other village deities, and to wish good luck to their brothers. It is during this festival that the devotees dance and sing ‘Dalkhai.’

The Dalkhai dance is performed in ‘Lasya’ style and is accompanied by village music for rhythmic timings. The instrumental music consists of Dhol, Nisan, Timki, Tasa and Mahuri. The music is simple, as are the instruments. The unmarried girls wear colourful Sambalpuri and Sonepuri sarees and cheap ornaments while the males provide the music. The hair style of the female dancer is in the form of a slanting knot called ‘Dhalia Khosa.’

At the beginning of the performance, the Dhulia (drummer) beats the Dhol (drums) and young girls stand in line and sing songs, which are called Dalkhai songs. The girls sing for a while and then start dancing by bending forward to half sitting position. Different movements of their hands, legs, knees, hips are given primary importance. During the dance the girls place a piece of Sonepuri Ganga Jamuna Gamuchha (cloth), of red or pink colour, on their shoulders. While dancing they move their hands forward and backward alternately. The dancers regulate their steps according to the sound of the dhol, i.e., sometimes slow and sometimes fast. 

There are different forms of Dalkhai dance, like Dhadi Dalkhai (Row Dalkhai), Golei Dalkhai (Circle Dalkhai), Jodi Dalkhai (Duet Dalkhai) and Baithaki Dalkhai (Dalkhai in half sitting position). The Dalkhai dance may either be the professional type or the spontaneous type. Professional Dalkhai dancers have had urban influence but the spontaneous Dalkhai dancers preserve the true spirit of this art form.

The songs of the professional Dalkhai mainly deal with Shringara Rasa, or songs of love, like:

Dalkhai re……
My youth blossoms like flower

I request my brother
And sister-in-law to
Fetch me a groom.
Dalkhai re…

Karma Dance

Karma dance is a very attractive and colourful dance popular among the Binjhal (in Sambalpur and Bolangir), Oraon (western Orissa), Kuli (Bolangir, Phulbani and Sambalpur) and Bhuiyan (Sambalpur and Mayurbhanj) tribes. It is a ritual dance performed in honour of Karamsani, the deity that grants children and fortune.

On the 11th day of the bright moon of the Oriya month of Bhadrab (month of rains) i.e. August and September, the boys and girls go to the forest , singing and beating drums, cut a branch of the karma sal tree and bring it to a decorated circular place of the village where the dance takes place. The karma branch is installed and worshipped. After the rituals the people drink and dance. At first the boys enter the arena and dance. Subsequently the girls join them. Both boys and girls dance and sing together. The men provide the music with the drum (Mandal) which is of Mrindanga category and is made of clay, with both sides covered with leather. The women dance in groups, interlocking arms at waist level, moving forward and backward while swinging their legs. Sometimes the men and women form separate rings and dance jumping sideways. Both hands are sometimes above their heads. Then they stand in two rows, men facing the women and sing as they dance. 

The ‘Mandalia’ (drummer), while beating drums, sometimes jumps out singing: Karma ekadasi, Phul phute Baramasi (Ekadasi, the 11th day, of karma has come, the baarmasi flower blooms). The karma dance performed by Adivasis (scheduled tribes) is called ‘Adibasi karma’ and the karma dance by non-tribals is called ‘Desi karma.’

Kela-Keluni Nacha

A duet dance of rural Orissa performed by a male and a female dancer in which a drum and mahuri are used. The theme centres around a snake charmer (kela) and his wife (keluni).

Biha Nacha

Prevalent among Gond tribes of Bolangir district, this is a marriage dance – a dance of joy. Prior to the dance the bride and bridegroom are smeared with turmeric paste on the marriage pandal (Bedi). After the ritual the bride and groom join others in dance.

Thetak Dance of Sundergarh

A male dressed as a female enters the arena. He is called thetak (meaning intermediary). After dancing for sometime the thetak invites 2 or 3 other boys, dressed as girls, who join in the dance arena. After some humorous conversation all of them sing songs in local dialect and dance with the thetak in front. 

Ghumura Dance 

This dance is seen in Kalahandi, Bolangir, Sambalpur and part of Cuttack district. The Ghumura dance is named after the accompanying pitcher-shaped drum tied to the chest of the dancers. It is performed exclusively by young boys who in the beginning of the performance play the drums and walk gracefully in a circular form. In the centre one ‘Nisan’ player, one ‘Cybal’ player and a ‘Khol’ player regulate the rhythm and tempo.

Jhoomar Dance of Munda Tribe

A popular group dance of western Orissa (specially of Munda tribe of Bonai region) performed during the Chaitra Parva, Karma Puja and Kali Puja. The name is derived from the accompanying ‘jhoomar’ songs. Both boys and girls dance in a fast speed with peculiar movement of the hips and wrist. The wavy movement of the body is the peculiar characteristic of this dance.

Koisabadi Dance

It is popular among the gaudas (cattle headers) of Orissa. The Gond and Bhuyan tribes of western Orissa also peform the Koisabadi dance. Unlike the Dandia dance of Gujarat, the Koisabadi dance is a dance of male members only. Each dancer holds a stick of two feet length. The sticks are made of resonant wood. They dance in different patterns by striking the sticks according to the rhythm of the songs. They sing songs relating to Radha Krishna and their immortal love.

Madal Dance of Kalahandi

The Gond and Bhunjia tribes of Kalahandi perform Madal dance. The dance has been named after the main instrument ‘madal’ used in the dance. Madal, or Mandal as it is called locally, is an earthen drum with the sides covered with animal skin, which appears a little bigger than the mridanga. The songs sung in this dance are known as ‘Sarudhana’ or small property.

Dhap Dance

It is performed by the Kondha tribe of Kalahandi district. Both men and women participate in the dance. Men of one village dance with women of another village. Usually unmarried boys and girls take part. The dance is performed during marriage ceremony and more often for the sake of recreation. The dance is named so because of the accompanying instrument called ‘Dhap.’ The dhap is in the shape of a Khanjari made up of wood with one side open and the other side covered with a piece of animal skin. The dhap dancer holds the dhap with his left hand, the sling slung over his left shoulder, and beats with his right as well as left hand.

Changu Dance of Sundergarh

It is performed by the Bhuyans of Sundergarh district. They dance with an instrument called ‘Changu’ in their hands, hence the name of the dance. It is a group dance in which boys and girls dance together freely.

While dancing the girls are usually veiled and dance opposite the boys. When the girls move forward the boys move backward and vice versa. Hip movements predominate in changu dance. Giridhari Gomango, ex-Chief Minister of Orissa, is a very good exponent of this form of art.

Homo and Bauli Dance 

These two dances are performed by unmarried young girls of western Orissa. In this folk dance no musical instrument is played. It is a playful dance performed during auspicious ceremonies.

Oraun Dance of Sundergarh

It is a dance with circular formation and is initiated by young men. Young girls join later. Both make circles, bending forward and backward, placing left foot in front and right foot at the back. The hands are placed on each others’ waist. Waving of the body from waist upwards, bending of the knees, stamping the right foot backward are some of the peculiar steps of the dance.

Dhangada-Dhangidi Dance of Kandha Tribe

The Kandhas inhabiting Phulbani, Kalahandi, Bolangir and Sambalpur districts perform this dance. Dhangada means unmarried boy and Dhangidi means unmarried girl in ‘Kui’ language. Boys of one village go to another village where the girls welcome them. They dance together without any instruments. The girls stand in rows holding each other firmly with their arms around each others’ waist. The boys dance merrily in front of and around girls. While the Dhangidis wear special costumes, the boys do not wear any special apparel.

Tiger Dance of Sonepur

This dance is performed in Binka and Sonepur of Subarnapur district during the month of chaitra. The dancer (only males) paints his bare body with yellow and black stripes like that of a tiger and attaches a suitable tail. One or more dancers move from house to house and after a crowd gathers the dance begins. The dancers are accompanied by a drummer and a bell player who provides the music. The dance is nothing but acrobatic movement in rhythm. They make hissing sounds while dancing. Tiger dance is also performed in Berhampur during the Thakurani Jatra.

Bausa Rani Nacha

Performed by Kelas (snake charmers) the dance is a common feature in the rural fairs and festivals. It is a show of acrobatic excellence in which a girl climbs the pole of bamboo and turns round the pole to the sounds of music in the form of drums and songs. The dance requires great practice and rigorous physical training.

Thus, though Odissi dance is pure, traditional, classical dance of Orissa, other dances like Chhau and various tribal, regional and folk dances enrich the multi-coloured cultural and artistic fabric of Orissa. With its unique style, presentation, form and movement, each depicts the region’s or the community’s intrinsic emotions and joyous occasions, in wonderfully synchronized physical rhythm. 


1. Reference Orissa – Millennium Edition
2. Sambalpuri and Other folk dances of Orissa, by Bhagirathi Nepak
3. Chhau Dance of Mayurbhanj, Edited by Sitakanta Mohapatra
4. Odissi Dance, by Dhirendranath Patnaik
5. Indian Social System, by Ram Ahuja
6. Society and Culture in India, by Ram Nath Sharma.

(From Utkalika, souvenir of Kalinga Cultural Trust, Hyderabad, brought out on the occasion of Oriya New Year Day, 2005.)


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