Academic journal article About Performance

Dance and the Distributed Body: Odissi, Ritual Practice, and Mahari Performance

Academic journal article About Performance

Dance and the Distributed Body: Odissi, Ritual Practice, and Mahari Performance

Article excerpt

Over the centuries, the sensuous bodily form, female and male, human and divine, has been a dominant feature in the vast and varied canvas of the Indian artistic tradition. The human figurecomplete, elegant, adorned, and eye-catching-was, indeed, the leitmotif

Vidya Dehejia

Images of the body proliferate in the cultural landscape of Orissa, a state in eastern India. Lavishly depicted in painting and stone, poetry and song, in drama, flesh, and myth, the body as a motif is etched deeply in its aesthetic terrain. Ideations of the body are manifest in multiple milieus, such as temple architecture, sculpture, and ritual mahaú performance.1 Taken together, they propose a unique somatic archive and reveal concepts of the body embedded in Orissa's artistic heritage.

Mahari performance is aesthetically and ideologically linked to Odissi classical dance. For many, the mahari tradition is the source of an authentic Odissi, and the culture of the Jagannath temple and its presiding deity are equally prominent in the dance's history.2 To understand the formation of contemporary Odissi, then, we need to analyse its relationship to mahari ritual dance (among other forms). Here, my intention is to explore the discourses of embodiment and the hermeneutics of the corporeal subject subtending and surrounding mahari dance. To excavate the body of dance in this sense involves looking simultaneously at the spaces surrounding it, as well as viewing its relationship to divinity. With this in mind, I mine three layers of the body illuminated in Odissi's history: the body of the deity, the body of the temple, and the body of the dancer. I ask: What kind of body was proposed in mahari dance? Was there a singular ideal or expression? What were the regional philosophies of the body, and how were/are they revealed? What are the layers and genealogies of such corporealities? I pose these questions in the context of the ascent of mahari dancing at Puri's Jagannath temple by the twelfth century CE, and its continuity into the 1950s.

I explore the relationship between the bodies of dancers, the deity, and the architectures within which they were conceived, framed, and culturally comprehended, as well as reflecting on the ways in which concepts of the body are generated and perpetuated by spatial, sacred, and artistic forms in this context. For in Orissan cultural logics, the temple and the deity constituted "bodies" in themselves. I argue that mahari dance represents an intersubjective encounter between the ritual performer, the material space, and the religious icon, producing a distributed body (Gell 1998). As I will discuss, the distributed body thus emerges in-between these performative entities.

The value of the distributed body lies in hinting at a parallel economy of the subject that rests at the centre of mahari dance. The idea of the distributed body contests dominant ideas of the liberal subject which have come to serve as the harbingers and hallmarks of the ethos of modernity, which are apparent today in Odissi dance. The distributed body, in contrast, shows how ritual practices contain and articulate the values of a local epistemology, opening up new possibilities for imagining notions of the subject on grounds different than those offered by the conventional narratives of Western modernity or dominant Indian paradigms. Thus, the distributed body of ritual dance generates a voluptuous history that is otherwise lost to what Michel Foucault calls "subjugated knowledge" (1980, 81).

Odissi and Mahari Dance

Odissi belongs to the canon of Indian classical dance, along with Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Kathakali, Mohini Attam, and Sattriya. Individually, each dance signifies a specific regional ethos; together, these dances perform the "unity in diversity" of the Indian nation-state. As part of this dual aesthetic and political mapping, Odissi represents the cultural heritage of Orissa.

Odissi is often called the oldest classical dance form in India, based on claims of its consonance with an ancient style called Odra-Magadhi, which finds mention in the Natyashastra-a venerable Sanskrit treatise on performance which was instrumental to the revival of several classical art forms in the twentieth century. …

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