Review: Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances The Curving Pathway of Neoclassical Odissi Dance by Nandini Sikand

This review was first published in Pulse Magazine, Edition 137 Summer 2017.

Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances The Curving Pathway of Neoclassical Odissi Dance by Nandini Sikand Berghahn Books, ISBN  978-1-78533-368-2, 2017

Odissi has blossomed in recent decades with an increasing number of performing artists, festivals and choreographic works being produced in this dance form both nationally and internationally. From its roots in the ritual of temple worship by maharis at the Jagganath Temple in Odisha in eastern India, to the advent of male gotipua dancers, to formal codification in 1958 by members of Jayantika, odissi is now a global phenomenon. Despite this transformation and growth, odissi has not benefitted from the depth of scholarly research and critical discourse that other Indian dance forms such as bharatanatyam have experienced. Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances by Nandini Sikand is an inspired and essential scholarly study of the dance and one of the recent endeavours to counter this disparity, based on ethnographic field work and interviews conducted primarily in India and the United States between 2005 and 2013. 

The book is part of the Dance and Performance Studies series and addresses a range of issues and debates that will be both familiar and of much interest to odissi practitioners, choreographers and scholars of South Asia. The introduction to Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances begins with a statement by the dance critic Leela Venkataraman who expresses concern about the future trajectory of odissi. Venkataraman states that whilst the number of people learning odissi will grow, she suspected that those who learn outside of India will primarily focus on the technique and have little knowledge of Odia language and poetry, leading to a split between the dance content and its form (p.1). Embedded within this statement is many of the issues Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances goes on to probe. These include questioning the underlying assumptions about any possible ‘loss’ of odissi, the distinction between those who learn and create works within and outside of India and Odia culture as the cornerstone of odissi. 

The first chapter presents a history of odissi, focusing on the early and mid twentieth century, with detailed analysis of the formation of Jayantika and the process that led to this group’s codification of the dance. In particular it scrutnizes the way in which maharis, female temple dancers, were sidelined building on existing scholarship that has demonstrated the relationship between nationalist ideology and the development of art. The next chapter focuses on choreographic practices of female choreographers such as Madhavi Mudgal, Rekha Tandon, Ananya Chatterjea and Sharmila Biswas. Most useful is the exploration of the nexus between new choreography and philosophies such as sadhana, parampara and rasa. Chapter three looks at an incident in Bhubaneswar in 2005, where Malaysia-based odissi guru Ramli Ibrahim faced criticism for female dancers in his Sutra Dance Theatre company performing without an odhni (fabric worn over the blouse), thus exploring ideas of regionalism, authenticityand female agency. Chapter four looks at the marketplace of odissi and the ways it is treated as a commodity and chapter five presents the idea of odissistan, ‘a fluid and mobile notion of sacred space that can be individual, communal, or both’ (p.177)  which is occupied by dancers in the practise of odissi.

Review Nandini Sikand Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances

Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances proposes that dynamism and change, artistic and otherwise, are inherent to odissi and that the demarcation between tradition and innovation is one that is difficult to locate. This argument is made with conviction and I believe that this is a significant work of scholarship as Sikand also draws attention to important methodological approaches in the future study of odissi, its historiography and sources such as paintings and palm-leaf manuscripts which have only been studied by very few scholars such as Kapila Vatsyayan. She moreover probes why scriptural, sculptural and archeological sources are still favoured when the dance is an embodied and ephemeral form based on movement (p.37). As an odissi dancer and researcher, where Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances is most compelling and novel is in its exploration and documentation of new choreographic approaches, particularly the work of those artists who are creating works specific to their local and political environment and using the idiom to say something which they believe is urgent and essential. These are the voices who are attempting to answer the question, how does an art form continue to flourish for generations to come? May such work continue to be explored and appreciated.