Odissi is one of the many forms of Indian classical dance in India. Sensuous and lyrical, Odisha is a dance of love and passion touching on the divine and the human, the sublime and the mundane. The Natya Shastra mentions many regional varieties, such as the south-eastern style known as the Odhra Magadha which can be identified as the earliest precursor of present day Odisha.
Archaeological evidence of this dance form dating back to the 2nd century B.C. is found in the caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri near Bhubaneshwar. Later, innumerable examples of the Buddhist sculptures, the tantric images of dancing Yoginis, the Nataraja, and other celestial musicians and dancers of early Shaivite temples bear testimony to a continuing tradition of dance from the 2nd century B.C.E to the 10th century C.E. These influences found synthesis in a unique philosophy – the dharma or faith of Jagannath. With Hinduism taking roots in Odisha by about the 7th century A.D., many imposing temples were erected. The magnificent Sun Temple at Konark, built in the 13th century, with its Natya Mandap or hall of dance, marks the culmination of the temple building activity in Odisha. These dance movements, frozen in stone, continue to inspire Odissi dancers even today.
For centuries maharis were the chief repositories of this dance. The maharis, who were originally temple dancers, came to be employed in royal courts which resulted in the degeneration of the art form. Around this time, a class of boys called gotipuas were trained in the art, they danced in the temples and also for general entertainment. Many of today’s gurus of this style belong to the gotipua tradition.
Odissi is a highly stylised dance and to some extent is based on the classical Natya Shastra and the Abhinaya Darpana. In fact, it has derived a great deal from the Abhinaya Darpana Prakasha by Jadunatha Sinha, the Abhinaya Chandrika by Rajmani Patra, and the Abhinaya Chandrika by Maheshwara Mahapatra. As in other parts of India, creative literature inspired the Odissi dancer also and provided the themes for dance. This is especially true of the 12th century Gita Govinda by Jayadev. The devotion of the poet for Krishna permeates through the work.