On a warm California afternoon, a conversation with leading Odissi exponent Bijayini Satpathy meanders, touching upon all aspects of her passion for the dance form, from its historical roots to her time at Nrityagram to her current solo performance tour of the US. Bijayini has a petite personality with wide, large, expressive eyes. Her presence onstage always commands your undivided attention – every movement has timeless grace – and then there’s an indescribable “soul” quality to the dance that has to be experienced. In speaking with her, I realize that this “soul” quality stems from her complete dedication to Odissi and her thoughts spout forth with a sincerity of purpose as she speaks about this love.
As a young girl, she trained at Orissa Dance Academy, an institute founded by Guru Gangadhar Pradhan. As a young adult, Bijayini then moved to Bengaluru to join Nrityagram, an institution founded by Protima Bedi. It was here that she honed her skill in the art form to chiseled perfection. Her duets with Surupa Sen took the classical dance world by storm, and put the institution on the list of elite performing companies anywhere in the world.
Bijayini speaks of her time learning at Orissa Dance Academy and her time with Nrityagram with great affection. Nrityagram was formed with the intention of allowing dancers to create, stretching the bounds of creativity. And, that Bijayini did in full measure along with her co-collaborator Surupa Sen. Of her successful collaborations with Surupa over many years, Bijayini says,”Our Ardhanariswara is very popular and so many people ask us constantly – how did you decide that you were going to turn your heads at the particular point in the song? Or how did you decide the way in which each of you used the stage? – I don’t have answers for any of these questions. Surupa and I have practiced and performed together for so many years that the song flows organically into our bodies.”
Along with her performance commitments, she has been trying to systematically enhance the period of initial training in Odissi, by identifying and separating the smallest building blocks of movement The tribhangi which involves the triangulation of the body at the hip, neck and knee and the chowk which is a square position of the body are distinctive features of Odissi. Bijayini says that in the prevailing tradition, the introductory steps in Odissi, “can be covered in three months.” Right after that, the student starts learning songs where she or he is introduced to new movement phrases. On the other hand, just the initial training in Bharatanatyam, requires two to three years of training. Bijayini started delving into the reasons for this shortened training span in Odissi and discovered that when well-known gurus started conducting workshops, the training became compressed to allow for learning in a short amount of time. So, along with a detailed study of the Natya Sastra, her ongoing research focuses on identifying a whole host of building blocks in the teaching of Odissi.The output stemming from this research into the building blocks of Odissi have helped form the pedagogical practice at Nrityagram in Bengaluru for many years now.
History of Odissi
“Three traditions merged into one – the gotipua, the devadasi and the dance of the concubines,” she says simply, while speaking of the antecedents of Odissi. A dive into the history of each of these performance traditions helps us understand the underpinnings of Odissi. “In Oriya, gotipua literally translates into one boy and many families had one boy who was sent to learn the gotipua dance. This dance was mainly seen as entertainment at community events for rasikas and patrons, and involved many acrobatic feats of wonder. This tradition evolved from the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who lived in the 1500s. He wanted to use the dancing and music that was prevalent in this part of the country to spread Vaishnavism. When the young boys trained, they trained in gymnasiums called akhadas – they were trained to dance and sing as well. Soon, the form started to gain physicality and an identifiable structural form. The boys grew their hair long and dressed up as women as they danced. The devadasi dancers associated with the Jagganath temple were referred to as maharis and they danced to verses from Jayadeva’s Geet Govind as part of daily temple rituals. Also, there existed the dance by concubines. Dancing by these two groups of female dancers brought forth the possibility for this dance form to be fashioned eventually into a solo presentation, whereas the gotipua dance relied on group formations and feats of acrobatic wonder.”
From the warp and weft of these performance traditions, emerged the form that we recognize today as Odissi.
“It has been sixty years since the revival of Odissi which is now presented to a global audience. In this time, a lot has evolved in terms of technique, the content chosen for presentation, and even the costuming has changed. What do dancers hold onto claiming it as their traditional inheritance and where do they give themselves the licence to change? These are questions that need to be answered, and at least now, we need to document in order to move forward,” she says.
Bijayini has developed techniques in body conditioning for Indian dancers belonging to all classical dance styles. She conducts workshops to share her findings gathered through her yoga practice, exposure to Western movement experts and of course the body awareness that she has built from the constant practice of Odissi.
Bay area audiences have the good fortune of interacting with and learning from this artist in three different ways.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan was the former Managing editor of India Currents magazine between 2016 and 2019. She is a Bharatanatyam artist and nurtures a lifelong passion for the classical arts of India. @dancenwords