Odissi dance, like the other classical dances of India, evolved as a spiritual expression of devotion to a higher being. Odissi, perhaps the most graceful and lyrical of all the classical dances, was, therefore, nurtured in the famous temples of Orissa situated at Puri, Konark and Bhubaneswar. A large number of dancing girls, known as Maharis were attached to these famous shrines to perform the morning and evening rituals for the deities. Its tradition was thus maintained through generations of these temple dancers dedicated to the divine.
On the basis of archeological evidence, Odissi could well claim to be the earliest dance style of India. Natyashastra, the most ancient and authentic text of Indian dance and dramatics, also acknowledges its existence and practice over a large geographical area in Eastern India and, then known by the mnemonic "Udra Nrutya".
With the unfortunate debasing of the Mahari's stature in society dancing at the temples lost its importance; subsequently the fortunes of Odissi dance declined rapidly, especially in the medieval period of the country's history. Nevertheless, the dance's tenuous existence was somehow maintained by the small community of Gotipuas (Boy dancers) and their dedicated teachers, with sporadic patronage from the Zamindari system. Both the Mahari and the Gotipua traditions had an umbilical relationship with the Jagannath temple at Puri; in so many ways the presence of Lord Jagannath pervades the entire life and culture of the people of Orissa.
It was only in the last century that the dance got a fresh infusion of life and that too at the hands of three stalwarts who have comprehensively dedicated their entire lives and all their energies to the arduous task of reviving Odissi. They were Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Debaprasad Das and the most universally admired Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra; they came from the economically lower rungs of society and their achievement is of staggering dimensions especially since there was virtually no patronage for this temple dance.
In fact, to make ends meet, the young Kelucharan used to spend the entire day in manual labour. In spite of hailing from a humble rural background, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, along with a few illustrious disciples like Sanjukta Panigrahi, Minati Mishra, Sonal Mansingh, Kumkum Mohanty, Madhavi Mudgal, etc, has been able to restore Odissi of its original grandeur and established it firmly as the crested ornament among the Indian classical dances worldwide.
A monumental effort and a phenomenal vision, considering his early poverty and the attendant lack of resources, both financial and social! Incidentally, much before this period it was Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's wife Laxmipriya Mohapatra who was the first ever to dance Odissi on stage, at Cuttack, in the Annapurna 'B" theatre.
The quintessence of Odissi, as a dance form, is in its sculpturesque quality. Most of its beautiful poses bear close resemblance to the sculptures of the famous temples, which once nourished the art. In Orissa, both in dance as well as in sculpture, the bhanga (bend) concept of Hindu iconography has been fully explored. The characteristic features of Odissi are in its deflection of the hip, poses with three body bends (Tribhnaga) and the arching design of hand movements with rounded liquid body movements. This dance form has a sensuous charm. While converting the space with symmetrical patterns of rectangles, squares and circles the dancers create visuals that are fascinating, memorable.
Coupled with its typical music & bolstered by the ancient percussion instrument "Mardala", the Odissi dance, with its variegated repertoire, its sensuous flow – best described in Sanskrit as "lasya", - and its distinct devotional flavour, is placed by audiences among the world's most captivating & popular classical dances.