Odissi is the oldest surviving dance form of India, dating back to the 2nd Century B.C. based on archaeological evidence. This visually fascinating performance style, originated in the state of Orissa, in eastern India. The kings who ruled Orissa between the 8th and 11th centuries, provided wealth required to build the temples, and were particularly active in arts. Traditionally, only temple dancers performed Odissi in the inner chambers of the temples for the pleasure of the gods. Inscriptions on the Brahmeshwar temple in Bhubaneshwar refer to dancers called devadasis who were consecrated to the worship of the temple god. The Jagannath Temple at Puri, was home to a considerable number of dancers and musicians. The maharis, as the dancers were locally known, had a strict regime to follow in performing for the Jagannath deity at particular times of the day and at all auspicious occasions. The single most important temple for Odissi dance is the magnificent Sun Temple at Konarak, built in the 13th century. The dance sculptures presented on the temple walls are considerable and are of fine quality.
The origins of all forms of Indian classical dance go back over two millennia and lie in the ancient Hindu texts. The Natya Shastra was regarded as the fifth of the Vedas and provided a definitive statement of all aspects of temple dance. The interpretation of performance and style was open to local influences, culminating in the different dance forms observed throughout India.
In the 15th century a major work on the Odissi style was written at one of the royal courts in Orissa. The Abhinaya Chandrika, as it is called, describes all aspects of the performance, costume and music, and remains an inspiration for all Odissi dancers to this day. Odissi has a vast range of sculptural body movements which gives one the illusion of the temple sculptures coming to life. Odissi incorporates intricate footwork, extensive use of facial expressions, elaborate use of hand gestures, graceful and sensuous torso movements, and ornate costumes. The exquisite Sanskrit poetry and the sculptural movements to the typical Odissi music almost cast a spell on the spectators.
The Odissi dance form was kept alive by the male counterparts, known as gotipuas, and it was through them that the dance was revived in the early part of the 20th century. Gurus such as Pankaj Charan Das and Kelucharan Mohapatra, who was himself a gotipua, have faithfully recreated the choreography and technique to pass on the expertise to the contemporary dancers of Odissi.