Discovering Odisha through the lens of an Odissi Dancer
By Soumee De

In this month’s travel diary, Soumee De, Odissi Faculty of Apsaras Arts, reminisces her tour of the golden triangle of Odisha temple architecture and visit to the heritage village of Raghurajpur. From experiencing Gotipua “Bandho nrutya” in the Gurukul classroom to peeking into the Pattachitra artists workshops; from rediscovering the musicians and Odissi Kanyas and bhangis on the sculptures of the temples to experiencing the vision of “ishta-devata” read on for a virtual heritage tour of the eastern shores of India.

As I stepped onto the shores of the pristine beach at Puri at Odisha on a cool evening in January 2020 and dipped my feet into the softness of the sea foam, I felt the privilege of immersing into the environment that inspired the creation of several globally known traditional art forms – the music and the ashtapadis by Poet Jayadeva Goswami, Odissi and Chhau dances, PattaChitra paintings and filigree silver artisanship among many others.

As part of discovering the origin and historical context of the Odissi dance, this short trip covered the three vertices of the golden triangle at Odisha- Bhubaneswar, Puri and Konark, connecting three of the most beautiful temples of Kalinga Architecture that stands evidence to the traditional dance movements in Odissi.

All stories at Odisha starts from the vibrant abode of the Lord Jagannath at Puri. Hurrying down the thin alleys of Puri, we marvelled at the beautifully painted artisan’s houses as we zipped past in a frail cycle-rickshaw in anticipation to see a glimpse of the Lord Jagannath and his family at His Dham (abode), just in time for the temple flag change ritual scheduled at the hour of dusk. Legends of pilgrims from all around the world and religious beliefs have said to have arrived at a Puri in search of their concept of “Ishta-Devata.” The darshan (vision) of the magnificent idols of Lord Jagannath and his brother, Balabhadra and sister, Subhadra is indeed an experience and every document from devotees have captured this unique experience of vision soulfully. Here is an account from Salabeg, a Muslim devotee of Lord Jagannath who lingered around the temple area to catch a rare glimpse of the Lord when the template gates opened annually for Ratha Yatra.

“Brother Balabhadra leads the way.
In the middle comes
the sister with a pretty moonface.
Mingling with the noisy crowd
the Dark-One follows behind.
Says Salabega, I am a Yavana”

-Poet Salabega

On being inducted into the Lord Jagannath culture around the four Dham structures, we headed off to see the Konark Sun Temple. Following the Kalinga architecture of Jagannath Dham (built in 10th century), the Konark structure has a lot in common. The European sailors used top identify the Eastern shores of India by sighting the Shikharas of the two temples referred to as white pagoda (Puri Temple) and black pagoda (Konark temple). Konark temple was built in 13th century by the King Narasimhadeva of Ganga dynasty, dedicated to Sun God, Surya. Currently much of it is in ruins and maintained as a UNESCO heritage site.
Visiting the Sun temple is a learning experience in astronomy , geography and mathematics. The museum ahead of the Sun Temple game us a crisp overview of the original construction and tales of creation by King Narasinga Deva (of Ganga Dynasty) and the artisans. The rest of the afternoon was spent discovering the architectural splendour of Kalinga Architecture; photographing the Sun at different points in time of the day and documentating the Odissi bhangis, padabhedas, alasakanyas and other techniques from the living walls of the temple remains. The Konark temple presents the iconography on a grand scale. It has 24 elaborately carved stone wheels which are nearly 12 feet in diameter and are pulled by a set of seven horses (referring to the 7 colours of the sun’s rays and 7 days of the week). When viewed from inland during the dawn and sunrise, the chariot-shaped temple appears to emerge from the depths of the blue sea carrying the sun! It was sheer happiness in re-discovering the the movements we practice everyday etched on the walls of this 13th century old temple!

The final stop in this study tour was at Raghurajpur village, the birthplace of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra; the home of artisans who specialise in the pattachitra paintings and the Gurukul of Gotipua traditional dancers.

Raghurajpur is truly an Indian national treasure and is a beautiful example of preservation of traditional arts in this digital and globalised era. It is a Heritage village and recently been identified as a “digital” heritage village where the artisans are being enabled with digital payment facilities (Paytm) to transact with customers globally. We visited the homes of many artisans where many where young men and women were immersed in workshops conducted by the senior artists designing the Pattachitra paintings on pieces of cloth dried palm leaf (called Patta). In times of COVID-19, digital purchases will hopefully help support the livelihood of these traditional artists.

After a short tour of artisan’s houses marvelling at the handcrafts and pattachitra master’s school and visiting the remains of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s birth home; we stopped by Gurukul of Guru Gangadhar Nayak’s Gotipua school. Within minutes of introduction, Guru Gangadhar Nayak invited us to experience one of the rarest traditional dance forms at his own classroom. Gotipua dance is one of the living examples of the source and inspiration of the current form of classical dance Odissi. In this dance tradition, (“Goti” means “one” while “pua” means “boy”) a boy is seen to transform himself into girl’s attire and dance (with yogic acrobatic movements) to story-tell about the adventures of Lord Krishna as per the “Sakhibhav” movement. Dancers Badal (13) and Smruti (12) performed the “Bandho Nrutya” as a duet (it is usually performed in groups of 6-8 performers) and stunned all of us with their dexterity, confidence, finesse, strength and soulful rendition.

Re-discovering Odisha as an Odissi performer, teacher and researcher has been an enlightening journey for me. It is with gratitude, I pen down these memories from a tour that marked the end of safe-travel era on January 30th, 2020 at the cusp of pre COVID-19 days.

Stay safe everyone!