Odissi Wildflower; A Modern Dancer

By Sally Christian


While working on a bachelor’s degree in American and English literature at the University of Washington, I took almost enough dance classes for a double major. Later, I moved to New York and studied Horton, Limón, release technique, Cunningham, yoga, contact improvisation, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen Body-Mind Centering, a workshop or two in Laban-Bartenieff, and then spent about ten years dancing only in private, in my home, to music I loved. First pregnant, then holding the baby, then dancing with my son.

In my late thirties, I tried Arabic women’s dances, or belly dance as it is called. At the same time I started practicing yoga. In the next few years, I also had an internship with a fabulous Russian–Uzbek dancer, and some great opportunities with Ballet Afsaneh, a local central Asian dance organization.

One night at rehearsal, a classical Indian dancer named Barbara Framm invited me to come to Vishnu Tattva Das’ class. She showed me the off-center position of Tribhanga that distinguishes Odissi from the six other classical Indian dance styles. I was struck by the dignity, groundedness and dynamism of the position. She explained that Odissi was a temple dance from Orissa, and that it had been banned during British Rule. Vishnu had studied with Kelucharan Mohapatra, considered by many to be the father of modern Odissi. Mohapatra had been a gotipua, or young male Odissi dancer, as a boy. Traditionally, gotipuas would dance outside the temples in a more energetic, gymnastic style of dance, while the marharis, considered to be the wives of Jaganath (presiding deity of Odissi dance) sang and danced inside the temples.

Two weeks later I met Vishnu, a tall, quiet and receptive man with large brown eyes. I observed about seven students working on incomprehensibly complex steps, moving parts of their bodies in ways that reminded me of Balinese puppets. This spidery, sometimes crab-like, avian, reptilian, masculine, then feminine, percussive and lyric movement was as unusual to me as my first Greek olive. And then I entered it, as one enters beauty, with no return.

After my first viewing of one of Vishnu’s dances, relating to the reunion of the divine lovers Radha and Krishna, I left the auditorium stunned. Vishnu, now clad in jeans and t-shirt, wheeled his suitcase with dance attire beside me. A delighted group of men and women recognized him. “I fell in love with you!!” a woman shouted, to which he taciturnly responded, “you fell in love with Radha.”

Beginning my study of Odissi was full of challenges. After practicing only five or so steps in chouk and tribangha I was very winded, my face red as a strawberry. Whenever Vishnu danced in class I became mesmerized by his form and motion. This made learning from him very complicated as he patiently repeated steps that I could not record. It was powerful poetry in a new language and I was not about to be able to deconstruct it into parts!

Interestingly, a simultaneous appetite for the new vocabulary was beginning to grow. At last I found an art form, indeed had it handed down to me from tradition that satisfied my notion of the use of the sacred space we call the stage. Poetry, acting, dance and music come together in a way in Odissi that really excites me. This dance gave me permission to be innocent, leaving behind the chill of a modern and often cynical world. We danced as people always, with faces and attitudes.

My hands, formerly inarticulate blobs, began to learn how to speak as my fingers, wrists and forearms began to gain flexibility, coordination and strength. The seductive, inviting and ‘attracting’ woman of my Arabic women’s dances was replaced, gradually with an innocent flirtation that has come to mean to me as I glance right and left, my anticipation of the arrival of that which is incomprehensible, the mind of the very universe.

In Odissi, the earth is our drumming surface. The pattern of our rhythm, part of our story. Our hands ‘talk’ about the subject matter of the Gita Govinda, an epic love poem by Jayadeva, sprung from the sacred texts of the Bhagavata Purana. (I recommend Penguin Books skillful and inspired English translation of The Beautiful Legend of Krishna, vol. X by Edwin F. Bryant.)

This art form is a kind of embodiment of devotional love. An embrace, a feeling in the heart, the symbolic decoration and adornment of a woman with earrings, necklaces, headdress, sari, performing with a vena, drum, cymbals–all of this we describe with our hands. The legendary peacock feather in Krishna (the dancer’s) bun, arrow about to strike, bud on a branch, tree of life, lovers on their bench, Shiva, Shakti, jewel, cloth, fire, all of these recur as Homer’s ‘rosy fingered dawn’ recurs in The Odyssey, as an Odissi refrain.

Just as an actor can colorize a word, a dancer can colorize a mudra (hand gesture). Every hand is unique and every moment too. Depending on what exactly the dancer is able to convey emotionally at that moment her hand will look different. And yet, once we do this, it is important to make sure the fingers are in the exact placement for a certain mudra. In the wrong placement it looks like your hand has shriveled. In the right placement, it looks like you are picking up a pearl up, or a piece of silk.

We are not objects of desire; we are desire incarnate, percussionists. We could not dance this dance in shoes. It would be akin to showering with clothes on. This has been one of the hardest parts for me, to speak with my feet. In Odissi, the student starts with pranam. We acknowledge the earth as practice begins: ‘please excuse me while I stomp on you, and thank you for the privilege.’ At the outset, the dance is an expression of an intimate relationship. Smacking the floor to the fullest extent possible with the sole of ones foot is peculiar, even dangerous to one who has been trained to move silently in the house or ballet studio. In early ballet classes I learned to jump without making a sound!

I was encouraged to disregard the imposition of form from outside sources as a child. (No coloring books in our home!) At school I was taught to be spontaneous and to create my own forms. I became experimental before I understood the elements with which I experimented. As a mature woman, I evidently crave a form, burnished through the hands of ancestors, to express the terrain of my inner world. The amount of memorization has been daunting and the form very awkward for me to establish as my own. Medicine comes in peculiar forms. I see myself as a wildflower, applying my powers now to healing. Odissi is the method.

I have lived for 46 years, and yet each spring I am surprised. I always laugh to myself that spring would not be getting old for me yet. And it is these images of spring in Odissi that keep it so captivating and new for me. When hounds tongue and milkmaids (an actual northern California wildflower) come up I imagine their beauty to be reciprocal to their incubation time within the seed, packed in the breast of the earth. It is with this same surprising and swaying sensuality that the Odissi dancer enters from the pitch dark of the past into the modern stage light.

It makes sense that love, being eternal, would allow the divine lovers, Radha and Krishna, to live throughout the ages, emerging not least of all, here in the Bay Area in the dance art form we call Odissi. When I was first learning Odissi I remember driving across the Golden Gate thinking the bridge was a kind of modern, western Krishna expression. The bridge, fastened at its north and south end to the mainland, seemed like it was in Chouk, an Odissi position similar to a plié in ballet’s second position. Chouk is a position of anchored and receptive readiness (a position in fact a friend of mine gave birth in, stark naked in San Francisco General Hospital), whereas Trigbangi would be likened more to a sailboat with a spinnaker up.

My personal association for chouk and the bridge may seem farfetched, and yet, note that the opening of an estuary is by definition, a groin. With one foot in the human world and one foot in the divine world Krishna came to dwell amongst the inhabitants of the realm he created. A choreographer, dancing in her dance, might be a kind of parallel. With one foot fastened to each edge of the mouth of the bay–the seen and the unseen, mortal and divine, south and north, east and west, light and dark, masculine and feminine, the complimentary union of all opposites becomes possible.

This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of In Dance.

Sally Lee Christian is an MFA graduate from Sarah Lawrence in Creative Writing and has performed in numerous festivals including the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. See Vishnu Tattva Das and Odissi Vilas perform Saturday, May 12 at 7pm, Marin Center Showcase Theater, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. Tickets , $15-20. For more information call 415-499-6800 or visit odissivilas.org