Odissi ensemble came full circle when danseuse Sharmila Biswas reintroduced ‘kanchala’ (velvet blouse with trimmings) and ‘kania kanchha’ (sari worn waist down in a distinctive style) during her performances. It brought back images of Maharis (temple dancers) and yesteryear Odissi legends Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi and Indrani Rehman, who took the classical form to the world stage.
In her book Odissi – An Indian classical dance form, Hejmadi wrote, “Initially, I used to wear the sari in Dakshini style. In 1955, I was introduced to the graceful Mahari style, which I adopted for many of my performances.”
In Dakshini style, the end of the pallu pinned to the blouse at the back hangs loose. The Maharis wore black velvet bodices with the sari wrapped from the waist down.
But it is ‘trikachha’ (tucking the decorative anchal at the side or in front like a fan) of Gotipuas, which bears close resemblance to the present-day Odissi costume. With two of the three leading gurus of the 40s, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Deba Prasad Das, belonging to the Gotipua tradition (which sustained and developed the dance after Maharis became extinct), the influence was nothing but natural.
“The graceful figures of the dancers frozen in stone at temples of Odisha could have also been an inspiration,” says Kum Kum Mohanty, one of the distinguished students of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra.
The 1965 saw saris being tailored into costumes. “It was a welcome change from the tedious routine of getting ready in the afternoon for a performance in the evening. Guruji would ready the dancers one-by-one, tying the sari and putting make-up. It would get uncomfortable, stuck in the sari with the bladder full,” recalls Mohanty.
In an article, Odissi danseuse Sharon Lowen had mentioned about an incident when child artist Kum Kum Mohanty insisted on going to the washroom after she had been carefully draped and wrapped in a sari. Her guru then designed a tailored costume with divided pantaloon that could be easily stepped out of.
According to Mohanty, the idea struck the doyen of Odissi while he was working on a new composition at her place in Cuttack. “It was a coffee-coloured ‘kandhu patta’. I still own the dress, which has a dhoti, a blouse and a fan. I teamed it with a chiffon dupatta during my performances in India and abroad,” she says.
Getting the ensemble right was no mean task. “After three failed attempts, the tailor could finally get it right. I have heard stories on how guruji would make paper cuttings to make the tailor understand the intricacies of an Odissi costume,” says Odissi guru Ratikant Mohapatra. Setting the saris firmly with perfect pleats for the dancer to move freely took a very long time, he adds.
The pleated pallu of the sari snapped onto the dhoti would fan out when a dancer sat in chouka position, lending beauty to the pose. A fabric was later fastened around the hip to define the hipline.
This design continued to hold sway over the Odissi circle till early 70s. “Guruji later adopted the dhoti style with the decorative front pleated in a vertical fashion down the front and used it for his dancers, both male and female,” informs Mohanty.
Unlike the earlier design, which is a five-piece costume, the dhoti style comprises a dhoti, a blouse and an angrakha. However, several dancers continued using dupattas instead of the angrakha.
While Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra experimented with the repertoire and costume, Guru Deba Prasad Das was a stickler for the old Odissi tradition. “He disapproved of modern-day costume and never used the stitched dresses,” says Odissi guru Gajendra Panda. Das’ student and Odissi dancer of Malaysian origin Ramli Ibrahim drapes sari to his dancers till date. “With end-to-end performances, we switched over to costumes,” says Panda, adding, “We stick to the five-piece dress for female dancers as the dhoti style particularly suits the male performers.”
Over the years, there have been variations in the length and angle of the front fan. Dancers usually pick the design that gels with the theme of their performance. “My students wear both middle-fan and dhoti style costume while performing on stage. For an abhinaya, I usually prefer kania kachha for its natural flowing effect. It adds to the beauty of the performance,” says director of Orissa Dance Academy Aruna Mohanty.
The saris used for the costumes are particularly those from Sambalpur, Berhampur and Cuttack with conch, shell and fish motifs.
Odissi dancer Kavita Dwibedi experimented with the fabric for a few of her theatrical presentations. Instead of the quintessential Sambalpuri sari, she crafted the fan in chanderi for a performance on Buddha. “I also used dupattas of different fabrics to differentiate the king’s clan from the ordinary public,” she shares.
She repeated it in another choreography based on the verses of Rabindranath Tagore. “I opted for a black silk sari with off-white chanderi border to portray a dream sequence,” she recalls. Dwibedi, however, sticks to the traditional attire while performing Odissi repertoire.
Kum Kum Mohanty too wore a pre-stitched Sambalpuri sari during one of her performances. “At this age, I don’t feel comfortable wearing a costume. My contemporaries appreciate the attempt,” she says.
Except for these few exceptions, dancers have stuck to the traditional styles developed from the fragments of Mahari and Gotipua along with inspiration drawn from the sculptural relief and pictorial images that enrich its aesthetics.