It is only half in jest that Kumkum Mohanty rues the absence of an equivalent of the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code in classical dance. “All this jumping around to excite and impress audiences, it is criminal,” she said.

At 77, the Odissi stalwart and currently the oldest dancer of the form is an unapologetic traditionalist. Watching modern-day Odissi is a trial, she says: the experiments, the demands of limbered athleticism and the new-fangled music featuring western instruments get on the nerves.

“I avoid going to Odissi recitals because whenever I do, I get sleepless nights,” she said, her expressive face registering dramatic dismay. “It is the mosaic of its grammar that gives classical dance its identity. We need to respect that. Our gurus saw Odissi as a graceful form. Where is the need to bring in all this energy?”

In a world restless for change, there is a reason why Mohanty sees virtue in staying prescriptive. It was she who, working with the early masters of Odissi, first documented the form’s grammar and vocabulary in its earliest two-volume primer, The Odissi Dance Pathfinder. More importantly, she came into the dance in the late 1950s, a time when it had just transitioned from an inchoate repertoire of folk, theatre and temple arts to a formalised and classical structure.

“She is the last one with a straight line to the masters and how they perceived and conceptualised the form,” said dancer Sharon Lowen. “We have all kinds of experiments being carried out in the name of Odissi today and it is only her work documenting its grammar that sets the standard for what is acceptable.”

Mohanty performs Yajnaseni.

Along with the redoubtable Sanjukta Panigrahi, Mohanty was among the early students of Kelucharan Mohapatra, the Odissi master of the form who chiselled it in the 1950s. Together, she says, the two dancers were the “guinea pigs” for the many choreographies and ideas that their guru worked between the 1960s and 1980s and which now define the staple Odissi repertoire.

“Some of the best-known dances of the Odissi repertoire were composed in her home, and on her,” said Madhavi Mudgal, a later disciple of Mohapatra who recalls Mohanty’s superb abhinaya skills. These signature compositions included pallavis in ragas Hamsadhwani, Sankarabharanam and Saveri and also dances set to Geeta Govinda poetry: Pashyati Dishi Dishi, Sakhi He, and Dheera Sameere.

Mohanty still believes in the beauty of the boundary. The oldest Odissi dancer on stage today, she recently performed Yagnaseni, her work on Draupadi, at the Omkara Odissi festival organised by Lowen in Delhi earlier this month.

But younger dancers have a different take on the living, breathing dance form. Seven decades ago, they argue, Odissi may have needed codification – but now it needs to take wings.

Mohanty performs at the Omkara Festival in June. At 77, she is currently the oldest dancer of Odissi. Courtesy: Sharon Lowen.

Early evolution

Odissi is among the youngest of Indian classical dances, most of which were formalised in the early decades of the 20th century, incorporating various Devadasi legacies, the demands of nationalism in the decades around independence, and the need to establish regional identities.

The form drew from various traditions practised in Orissa – the dance of the Maharis employed in the state’s temples, and Gotipua, a ritual, acrobatic dance performed only by pre-pubescent boys. In its early years, it was taught without a clear form or prescriptive syllabus. In a bid to change this, the masters – such as Pankaj Charan Das, Deba Prasad Das, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Mayadhar Raut – collectivised along with researchers and other dancers into a standardising body, Jayantika. Their aim was to come to a consensus on how to present Odissi as a standardised form, with a distinct technique, stance and repertoire.

The mid-1950s, when Mohanty walked into Odissi as a seven-year-old coaxed by parents, was a period of churn in the dance style. It was less than a decade ago, in 1948, that a teenaged actor-dancer, Laxmipriya Mohapatra, had become the first Odissi dancer to perform on stage. From a poor rural home, she had come seeking a livelihood at the famous Annapurna Theatre of Puri. The theatre supported many artistes who were to go on to become the torchbearers of the Odissi form, especially the man Laxmipriya was to marry, Kelucharan Mohapatra.

It was in this proto-Odissi period that some talented artistes from theatre, folk, ritual arts united to shape the style.

Mohanty and Sanjukta Panigrahi in Bhagvad Gita.

Social norms

In 1952, Kala Vikash Kendra was set up in Cuttack by Babulal Doshi, a Gujarati businessman, a member of the Praja Socialist Party and a zealous promoter of Odissi. The timing was impeccable. Up until then, dance was denied to women who did not live off the art or came from hereditary dance families. But with its newly minted classical status and formal schools, middle class and elite families started sending their daughters to learn Odissi.

It was to Doshi’s kendra that Mohanty was sent as a child to learn under Mohapatra. Sanjukta Panigrahi, Jayanti Ghosh, Sadhana Bose, Krishnapriya Nanda were some of the other students.

“At the time, I recall there were three items called Odissi: batu (pure dance), pallavi (footwork to vocal music) and mangalacharan (opening sequence),” Mohanty recalled. “I remember going for a programme in Calcutta at Children’s Little Theatre to perform Odissi. We even did a rail gaadi dance, another butterfly dance and something about flowers.”

But there were still limits to which families were willing to let women engage with dance. Once girls entered teens and high school, dance was no longer considered a desirable engagement for them. They had to constantly negotiate with their families, especially fathers, to push these limits. Those who could not convince their families either entered other careers or settled for domesticity, says Mohanty.

An archival photo of Mohanty performing. Mohanty came into Odissi at a time when it had just transitioned from an inchoate repertoire of folk, theatre and temple arts to a formalised and classical structure. Credit: Avinash Pasricha.

“Girls pulled out by the time they reached class 8 or 9, by class 10 your dance life was finished,” she recalled. “At least 50 had learnt dance before us – Jayanti Ghosh and Sadhana Bose among them – but few stayed on. The only way we could learn was to have the gurus come home. And in my case, after I agreed to my father’s condition that I secure a first class first and actually did.”

Wider repertoire

It was on the guarantee of academic excellence that Mohanty often negotiated with her family to stay in dance. First class first in school, then university and finally the promise of getting into civil services. Each landmark got her another few years in dance.

But travelling out of the state for dance performances was still a no-no. The breakthrough came in 1967 when the Sangeet Natak Akademi organised a seminar on the Geeta Govinda. Mohapatra asked Mohanty to perform abhinaya at the event to support his presentation. This time she wangled her father’s assent and went on to make dance history in Delhi.

“Earlier the Odissi repertoire was very limited, just a few items we danced to again and again,” she said. “It was when guruji came together with the great musician Bhubhaneswar Mishra, whom I consider the father of Odissi for his tremendous contributions to its dance music, that this repertoire started growing.”

Much of this happened in her home. In her recollections to the magazine The Dance India, she talks of those days: “My grandmother slept on one bed, my father and mother on chairs, [Bhuvaneswar] Mishraji and guruji on another bed. They composed on a small harmonium that my father bought for my music examination spending Rs. 28. The harmonium is still with me and from that, all the pallavis have come up. They composed into the wee hours and after 12 O’clock in the night, guruji’s creativity increased. After that I studied from 2:30 am till 5:30 am.”

Mohanty performs Kalavati Pallavi.

Many of what are considered landmark pieces of Odissi were composed by Mohapatra on Mohanty.

Basic uniformity

It was yet another negotiation that got Mohanty the permission to travel to Russia in 1970 – that she gets through the civil service examination. She stood among the first at the national level and joined the Indian Postal Service.

Work, marriage and motherhood meant multiple breaks in her engagement with Odissi. She made a return to the proscenium in 1978, when her husband worked as the collector of Sundargarh – he asked her to perform for a charity and a new pallavi was composed for her.

“Stylistic purity is indispensable in the learning of any classical form; without it no training is complete,” Mohanty says in the foreword to the exhaustive 14-chapter dance manual, The Odissi Dance Pathfinder.

The book, which identifies 66 poses and 35 movements with names, was the result of a collaboration between Sanskrit scholars and dancers – Sanjukta Panigrahi, Pankaj Charan Das, Mohapatra and Mohanty herself. The project leaned towards a Sanskritic framework for the dance and it has been argued that the regional terminology may have been organic for the purpose.

In a world restless for change and experimentation, Mohanty sees virtue in staying prescriptive. Courtesy: Sharon Lowen.

Mohanty also videographed the gurus of the time for posterity. In addition, she recorded the exceptional body of Odia’s regional music, such as the champu and the chhanda, which became an integral form of the style.

It is something of an irony that a trailblazer of her time is now the last bulwark of conservatism in Odissi. But Mohanty argues that classical cannot be without definition. “I am not against creativity but can we first have a basic level of uniformity?” she said.

Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at