In Orissa, on India’s east coast, temple carvings show deities entwined in elaborate erotic poses. Odissi, the dance form that once enlivened those temples, embeds that sensuality in the body of the individual performer. In Nrityagram’s Praarambha, the hymn of creation, the four women onstage, bathed in golden light, settle into the traditional stance, their knees turned out and deeply bent, their bodies draping into S-shaped curves. As they stamp and turn, they wheel their torsos above those mobile hips. The sounds of Sanjib Kumar Kunda’s violin, Srinibas Satapathy’s wooden flute, and Rajendra Kumar Swain’s harmonium and voice caress them. Even the pattering of Budhanath Swain’s mardala is gentle at first, but when the drumbeat speeds up and starts chattering out rhythmic syllables, you can see how masculine and feminine principles unite in these women’s bodies just as they do in Shiva himself. Their feet slap the floor; they take large strides and make bold gestures. But they’re also soft, fluid, oblique; their eyes dart flirtatiously, their eloquent fingers can flower into lotuses or ripple as rivers.
The members of Nrityagram—Manasi Tripathy, Rasmi Raj, Pavithra Reddy, and the especially marvelous Bijayini Satpathy, along with their leader, choreographer, and fellow performer, Surupa Sen—live and work together in a dance village in southern India, founded by the late Protima Gauri, where local children can receive free training in all seven classical styles of Indian dance. Perhaps it is this immersion in tradition that gives the women’s dancing such richness, and a bone-deep knowledge from which to venture into new directions with taste and skill. We usually see Odissi in solo recitals. In Chhaya, Sen deploys all five women in bewitching patterns, setting two against three, four against one in shifting counterpoint. How strong they are! They jump like deer, drop into deep pliés and spring up again, balance on one leg for moments on end.
One of Odissi’s principal subjects is the love of Krishna and Radha, a metaphor for the soul seeking to unite with the divine. The dancer creates with her body the poetic sentiments drawn from the Geet Govind, Jayadev’s 11th-century epic—recounting, recalling, expressing the emotions of the moment. In Mugdha, Satpathy, as the Sakhi (or friend), brings Radha (Sen) news that her lover is waiting for her. How can she resist such lines as “Do not linger, oh sensuous-hipped one; cast away the traitorous bells from your ankles and drape yourself with the night”? The two women convey this scene together, becoming Krishna as he plays his flute or searches for Radha, and dancing Radha’s expectant vision of union. Sen performs Khandita alone. Radha has been waiting for Krishna, but when he arrives (as a brief narration in English tells us), his lips are marked from kissing another’s eyes. Even though Sen’s flashing glances and gestures say “Go back to her!”, we see the ruefulness and tenderness beneath her anger.
The jewel of this new program (Pratima: Reflection) is Vibhakta. In this mesmerizing interpretation of a sung poem, Shiva extols his beloved other half, while Shivah, the female aspect, describes his attributes. Satpathy and Sen sometimes travel side by side, sometimes form mirror images, and sometimes take turns addressing their gestures to each other in an adoring conversation. We see poses we know from little statues, like that of Shiva in his cosmic dance, but the two women also create unusual and astonishingly resonant images of both duality and love: Satpathy raises a bent leg behind her, and Sen slips her foot into that cleft between thigh and calf.
The program closes with a candlelit offering to the deities of Odissi, while the flute blows windy sighs, and finger cymbals chime. Look closely, and you can see the world in these dances.