Oddissi dance

Devadasi is one of the ancient institutions of slavery produced by Brahmanism, which forced so called lower caste women to be a slave in temple and exploited by the Brahmins. Dalit and lower castes women forced to dance and sing in temples. Many of those dance form in today’s context known as classical. Without a critical interrogation, recognition and reparation to the lower caste women, the nations have glorified those institutions and form of dance. According to National Commission for Women there are 48,358 Devadasis in contemporary India.[i] Most of them forced into slavery, sexually assaulted, raped and at last they were forced to do prostitutions. In contemporary time many of them died due to AIDS, poverty, raped, and from much other coercion. While narrating such kind of heinous brutality one of the survivors narrates her story, she said:[ii]

I was first forced to sleep with a man when I was twelve,” further she said, “I was happy that I was with Yellamma. I supported my mother, sisters and brother. But look at my fate now. My mother, a devadasi herself, dedicated me to Yellamma and left me on the streets to be kicked, beaten and raped. I don’t want this goddess any more, just let me die.

There are many such stories and narratives which have its presence across generations because of the lack attention they get from the scholars of social science and more importantly from historian their stories and histories were forgotten. Here in this essay, I will take you to the state of Orissa throughout the ages in order to understand the origins, evolution and history of Odissi dance. In my reading Odissi as dance has its lineage from the Devadasi (servant of the God/slave of the temple) system. In post-colonial India, Orissa government have glorified and promoted the Devadasi and Odissi culture. And that is how most of us come to know about Odissi. Brahmins have successfully hidden the horrendous crime, the slavery which they have perpetrated on the Dalit women and lower caste women in Odisha and elsewhere. They were forced to stay away from this worldly life from their childhood. They were forced to live a life of seclusion, they could not eat what they wanted, and they could not go anywhere. They were forced to dance, sings in the temple. That is how Odissi came into existence. After the successful monopoly (in postcolonial Orissa) of Brahmins-Karan-Khandayat in all spheres of life including all administrative and government institutions, they have glorified/romanticised this Odissi and show the world that how a great tradition they have invented. Today’s, it is the Odissi which is the marker of Upper caste Brahmin culture also read as Oriya culture and the proud of Orissa. Most of the so-called Oriya popular media have valorised Devadasi and its system by Upper caste wo/men. Be it movie, music and other form of popular culture in today’s Odisha. All Odiya movie industry and music industry promote Brahminism without any restriction. Here I am giving one example of upper caste singer how she has glorified and valorised Devadasi system, Namita Aggrawal an upper caste singer sing:[iii]

Let there be rhythmic unison of lyrics and beat

Give me a garland of Tulasi and

I shall dance and sing

Let me take to the dancing stage and

Make me a Devadasi

Chronology of the Odissi Dance

Some Odiya author claimed that Odissi is two thousand years old and one of the secular dance forms found at the time of Kharavela. Jasobanta Narayan Dhar mentions that there is an inscription found where it has mentions that Devadasi Karpursiris attachment to a Buddhist monastery where she and her grandmother and mother perform as Devadasi.[iv] He suggested that this secular dance originated as court Dance. But the problem of creating a binary of secular and religious in this sense is bit problematic here, especially when we are studying one of the ancient institutions. He also suggests that in the latter part both Jain and Buddhist adopted this form of performance. Some scholar suggested that it was his wife who performs the dance. 1150 to 1300 A.D. it has been established the fact that Geetagobinda was established as devotional song and dance which was performing in rituals of Jaganathath temple in Puri. Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda was accepted by Sebayats and female Devadasis known as “Bhitara Geyeni” and “Samprada”.

Some other author such as Sharon Lowen, Ranjana Gauhar and Alka Raghuvanshi mention that Odissi is basically a temple dance tradition which was emerged in the ancient time, somewhere around 2nd Century BCE.[v] Further they have argued that it was in the medieval period gotipuas or young boys who have started dancing in this form. Sharon Lowen also mentions that this tradition was revived to create a national identity in the context of Odisha a regional Brahminical identity.

Brahmin State and their Economy of Cultural Hegemony

Before 1940s there was no such a conception of Odissi as such. In their research Pallavi Chakraborty and Nilanjan Gupta mentions that:[vi]

The dance was born in the theatre of the city of Cuttack in Orissa in the mid-1940s.Until then there had been no Odissi and it would take at least another fifteen years before the name Odissi began to acquire some currency, finally validated at the end of the 1950s.

Before this period this dance was stigmatized and confine in the temples. Due to the association of forced system of Devadasi and the stigma attached to it, Brahmin wo/men could not be able to take it as it was. In order to appropriate this dance form, they have created and imagined utopia of Odishi, in the sense that they have separated its history of oppression associated with it and gave secular connotation to it. In a new era especially post independent time Brahmin started appropriated this dance while claiming a new form. The emergence of regional or national identity in India is also the revivalism of Brahmanism, its culture and ideology in a complete sense with the modern form of communication. So, the celebration of Odisha was also the revivalism upper caste’s culture while disposing the lower caste women, without giving them their due recognition and reparation. It must be remembered that they were the creator of this dance form. In post independent Orissa it is the few powerful Brahmin upper caste individuals have taken this Dance and popularized with a different narrative in the state. Later state which is composed by the Brahmin-Karan-Khandayat have taken Odissi dance as the marker of their identity and propagated it. Priyambada Mohanty, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Priyambada Mohanty, Sonal Mansingh, Kumkum Das, Sujata Mohapatra, Arun Mohanty, Sangeeta Dash, Surupa Sen, Daksha Mashruwala, Sharon Lowen,, and others are few names who brought Odissi into the limelight.[vii]

Today Odissi dance is one of the most popular at the same time exclusive dance in world is precisely because the then it became the marker of Brahmin and upper caste identity: the Odiyaness attached to it. It is not that Devadasi system and culture abolished after the coming of modernity, it sustains for long. Despite of its banned by the law in 1988, however it is one of the institutions of slavery still exist in India despite of many laws. In most of the cases it is the state which have deliberately introduced and re-imposed such oppressive system. In the year of 1995 Orissa government announced news for the interview to select Devadasi in the temple of Jagannath Puri.[viii] Some historians of Orissa characterized it as “black day” in Odisha.[ix]  It is important to be noted that, it was the Odisha government which was managing the temple Puri from 1960 onwards. While describing the life of Devadasi Biswamoy Pati wrote “a Puri devadasi, who leads a ‘vegetarian life ‘as’ kept women of Jagannath, symbolizes degradation of women as much as a ‘prostitute’ devadasi of Karnataka.”[x] One of the intriguing facts that were noticed, that Odisha government got six applicants for the interview. This shows Pati mentions the ‘self-imposed fetters on women, who instead of challenging Brahminical patriarchy legitimise it by such voluntary acts.’[xi]

The dance form which was popular in the current time is not known to many people as mentions before 1940s or 1950s. State government which was headed by mostly Brahmins have adopted many policies which promoted Odissi and other Brahminical culture across the world to attract tourist to the state. There is large scale investment involved in it to attract the tourist for the purpose of income and other. Department of Tourism government of Orissa played an important role in this matter.

From Government of Odissa, Official Portal

Most of the name which we heard from the field of Odissi dance and popular is only certain upper caste. This shows that, this is very exclusive terrain of hegemonic culture.

Beyond Folk/Classical Debate

In the recent debate there is status-quest position taken by the most of the liberal in the context of debate around the classical music’s. In this liberal zone they have created a binary of folk and classical and produced logic that, ‘you should bring back the folk into the front.’ They have clearly said that in the today’s classical dance such as Bharatnatyam, and other dance form is influenced by the folk and later appropriated this folk and transform into classical which is exclusionary and Brahminic.[xii] Therefore, they argued that we should go back to the folk. What they have try to erase from the history that the folk that they are profoundly arguing for is an imposed and enforced one on the Dalit and lower caste women. However, the dance form they are attributing as folk is questionable, whether it is really a folk or something else? Even if we assumed it as folk, then why should we glorify it? Scholars argued that Bharatnatyam, Karnatic music’s were folk before Brahmin were appropriated it.[xiii] It is the folk then one need to understand and bring the fact into forefront that this folk are imposed one and not chosen. This folk are embedded in violence on Dalit women’s and lower castes women’s body. The question which is still unanswered and will be unanswered to time to come is that, can we carry forward the imposed culture which was imposed on the oppressed by the Brahminism? Can a conscious Dalit remain and practised such kind of oppressive culture? A survivor, Tipamma, of such a brutal Hindu system asserts “none of you can empathize with our suffering. But if you do, have courage to confront the people and systems that caused u this state of affairs. You cannot profess your solidarity with us if you don’t have the spine to support and challenge the powerful.”[xiv]

Going Backward to the Root or Strengthening Hindu Majoritarianism

Recently there are three different claims made by the scholars and activists on the subject of Jagannath cult. First claim which is always same that Jagannath cult is Hindu god and tradition, second set of people who have argued that Jagannath cult has Buddhist and tribal origins and third set of people are arguing and they went ahead from the second set of people who claim that it is not only Buddhist and tribal origins but we should go back to our root while reviving and celebrating those culture and practices.[xv] In this set of scholar and activist are arguing that since Jagannath cult has many origins such as Buddhist Origin, Jain and Tribal, the celebration and performance is not a Brahminical way or imitation, rather then it is going back to our root. They argued that “Hinduised cultures have more indigenous roots.”  I would like to put it in this way that Brahminical colonialism did not able to destroy the lower castes, dalit, adivasi culture completely. So far this with logical analysis it can be said that the complete erasure of lower caste culture and tradition did not yet happened in India. But shall I suggest lower caste to celebrate those cultures which is detrimental to them which is already Brahminised. Most of the activists and politicians, argue that Shiva was Adivasi; like that many other Gods were Adivasis and lower caste masses. Take for example from Orissa, Jagannath there are myth and some historical evidence to support that Jagannath were Adivasis gods, and also Buddhist deity. This way of representation and analysis will certainly mislead the lower caste communities.

Lastly, linkages of Odissi to the Buddhists roots are more ridiculous than anything. So far, the historical and mythical sources are concern there is no such evidences which shows that it has a Buddhist Origins.

Few questions those are essential for our engagement, especially when we are living in the contemporary Hindu majoritarian politics. Even if it is Buddhist origin, is it going to help if majority lower caste masses will revive this? While suggesting going back to the root, are we suggesting that since Jagannath cult had a tribal Buddhist origin let’s worship them, let’s revere those cultures with parallel to Hindus? What will be the difference if Hindu worship one side and we will worship and celebrate those so-called Adivasi/Buddhist Brahminised cultures? Isn’t it this argument will lead to further strengthening of superstition, Brahmanical hegemony among the lower castes? Revival will only assimilate us in larger Hindu majoritarian culture; it will create more hegemonic and violent culture in India. It will only support Hindu majoritarianism. Such kind of celebration is only helpful for the Hindu majoritarianism in this country which will produce more hegemonic culture and will create hurdle in creating an inclusive space for minorities and other marginalized groups in this country.


  1. C. Nash, “Devadasi are Cursed community: Southern Indian Devadasi”, The Hindu, 21 january 2011.
  2. C. Palliaby and Nilanjan Gupta, eds., Dance Matters: Performing India on Local and Global Stage, New Delh: Rutledge India, 2009.
  3. D. N. Jasobanta, “The story and history of Odissi dance and Sri Geeta Govinda”, Orissa Review, May, 2008.
  4. Lowen. Sharon, 2004, Odissi: Volume7 of dancer of India, Alka Raghuvanshi, Wisdom Tree and  also see  Ranjana Gauhar, Alka Raghuvanshi, 2007, Odissi, the Dance Divine, Niyogi Books, New Delhi.
  5. P. Sinduja, “The slave of Circumstances”, The Hindu, Agust 17, 20`13
  6. Pati, Biswamoy, “Of Devadasi, ‘Tradition’ and Politics”, Economic and Political Weekly, October 28, 1995
  7. U. P. Mithry, “Purified Carnatic Music and Impure people; Contemporary Debates”, EPW, June 27, 2015, Vol. 26 & 27.
  8. V. K. Prabhu, The Changing Contours of women and Dance in India (A historical Twilight on Tradition and Transition, 2012, 2nd International Conference on Social Science and Humanity, IPEDR, vol.31 (2012) LACSIT press, Singapore.

End Notes

[i] C. Nash, Devadasi are Cursed community: Southern Indian Devadasi system which dedicate girls to a life of sex work in the name of religion, continues despite of being mad illegal in 1988, The hindu, 21 january 2011.

[ii] C. Nash, “Devadasi are Cursed community: Southern Indian Devadasi”, The Hindu, 21 january 2011.

[iii] Translated verses from Odiya :Sura de tala da, Tulasi mala de, Nachi bi mu, gai bi mu. Nacha mandapa ku ne re, Devadasi kari de re…

[iv] Jasobanta Narayan Dhar, The story and history of Odissi dance and Sri Geeta Govinda, Orissa Review, May, 2008.

[v] Sharon Lowen, 2004, Odissi: Volume7 of dancer of India, Alka Raghuvanshi, Wisdom Tree and  also see  Ranjana Gauhar, Alka Raghuvanshi, 2007, Odissi, the Dance Divine, Niyogi Books,New Delhi.

[vi] Palliabi Chakraborty and Nilanjan Gupta,eds., Dance Matters: Performing India on Local and Global Stage.

[vii] Prabhu Kumari Vanama, The Changing Contours of women and Dance in India( A historical Twilight on Tradition and Transition, 2012 2nd International Conference on Social Science and Humanity, IPEDR, vol.31(2012)LACSIT press, Singapore.

[viii] Biswamoy Pati, “Of Devadasi, ‘Tradition’ and Politics”, Economic and Political Weekly, October 28, 1995

[ix] Ibid, people often used black day to denote something always bad and I do believe that this is racist connotation which is popularized by racist society across the globe. In this case Biswamoy Pati has fall in the same category.

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Mithry PU, Purified Carnatic Music and Impure people; Contemporary Debates. June 27, 2015, Vol. 26 & 27

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Sinduja Parthasarathy, “The slave of Circumstances”, The Hindu, Agust 17, 20`13

[xv] These third set of people are in fact in minorities or individuals. A Jawaharlal Nehru University based band “Bauddho Karo” and founder (research scholar Kritika and Vrutant) made this claim few years back. They not only made those claims but Kritika is a Odissi dancer herself. My proposition is if someone is interested to perform any dance or musical form they should do it as their choice, without giving any historical explanation of it. There is no need for such explanations, it only perpetuates harmful values and traditions to the communities of Bahujan instead of helping them.

By Jitendra Suna (ଜିତେନ୍ଦ୍ର ସୁନା)

Jitendra Suna is studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is one of the Editorial Board members of Nirveda Odisha. ଜିତେନ୍ଦ୍ର ସୁନା ବର୍ତ୍ତମାନ ଜବାହରଲାଲ ନେହରୁ ବିଶ୍ୱବିଦ୍ୟାଳୟ ରେ ସ୍ନାତକ କରୁଛନ୍ତି I