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  Life   More Features  10 Jan 2017  Odissi in Brazil

Odissi in Brazil

Published : Jan 10, 2017, 12:41 am IST
Updated : Jan 10, 2017, 6:35 am IST

The legendary Odissi dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi visited Brazil decades ago as part of the workshops and seminars led by Eugenio Barba.

The dancers strike a classical pose
 The dancers strike a classical pose

I find it fascinating that Odissi has had a long connection and impact in Brazil. It seems natural that Bharatanatyam and Kathak were better known internationally than other classical Indian dance forms for reasons of post-Independence recognition, patronage and the logistics of solo rather than group travel abroad, not to mention the number of professional performing artists in soloist traditions. Brazil, so far away geographically from India, had three centuries of Portuguese colonialism that produced a fusion of peoples and cultures. The mix of European, Arab, Japanese, African and Indigenous Amerindian Brazilians has resulted in a mosaic of cultures and beliefs.

When Odissi dance was first seen in Brazil, it was basically introduced as a conversation with the body, mind and spirit, as a dialogue with indigenous Brazilian traditions that could inform the communication possibilities for actors. This is quite a different ethos from that of Europe where the dance was separated from the sacred for virtually two millennia, and the court dance that evolved into classical ballet was entirely secular aesthetics.

The legendary Odissi dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi visited Brazil decades ago as part of the workshops and seminars led by Eugenio Barba.  Barba, the Italian theatre director who founded the Danish Odin Theatre and the International School of Theatre in Bologna and later the International School of Theatre Anthropology, included Sanjukta in many short courses and demonstrations of Odissi, which not only made Odissi better known globally but also understood and appreciated.

Inspired and under the watchful eye of his Guru or Pai de Santo (a priest of Afro-Brazilian religions) Eugenio Barba, Augusto Omolu devised the Orixa dance as a cultural syncretism that is now a popular form of religious and artistic expression for performance.  He grew up in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble, becoming an ogan (an assistant to the ceremonies).

The spiritual in dance, intrinsic to Odissi, is also an important part of the Brazilian Candomblé ceremonies since the dances enable worshippers to become possessed by deities. The movements of the Orixas are a study of the connections between the rhythms and the traditional movement, archetype and mythology interpreted as an art form.  

The meeting of Sanjukta and Augusto was arranged by Barba to discover and offer a range of possibilities to elaborate on Omolú’s dance expertise, thanks to the wisdom of another tradition, more ancient and elaborated, Odissi. The only communication means between Sanjukta and Omolú was stage language, since she did not speak Portuguese and he did not speak English.

An Odin Teatret member described the experience of their creating a scene together in her words: “Sanjukta began to improvise, moving from the representation of an elephant to one of a peacock, from Radha to Krishna, from a snake to a demon. Omolú followed her, transforming from Oxumaré to Nanã, from Iemanjá to Ossãe, from Iansã to Ogum. In order to signal each character change, she would turn. Together, they found an artifice he could use: a procedure that resembles “trembling”, something like a slight loss of balance, leaning backwards which signals the moment a devotee becomes possessed by an Orixá (deity). When Omolú switched characters, it was as if the “trembling” fused a new energy within his body.”

My Brazilian student of 18 years, Silvana Duarte, saw the improvisation and dialogue exercise between Sanjukta and Omolú as “a beautiful narrative of how arts are a privileged means of culture approach and how much, once sensitised to “the other’s” experience, we can creatively find our own paths in making art and re-evaluate our many values, so many times forgotten.”

This may be the reason why Odissi dance sparked so much interest, curiosity and enchantment in Brazilian audiences. Sonal Mansingh has performed there, and I certainly loved the response of audiences when I toured. Ivaldo Bertazzo, the hugely popular Brazilian visionary choreographer known for dance works that involve a large number of people on stage while embodying a social message and practice, has created a large amount of visibility for Odissi by presenting Madhavi and Arushi Mudgal in his mega productions and finally three generations of Odissi including Padmavibhushan Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. In the last two decades, Brazilians have shown growing interest in Odissi performance and practice, attracted by its sculptural and lyrical form but mostly by its dramatic, philosophical and spiritual aspects.

My focus on the Brazil-India connection at this time is prompted by the presence of Silvana, accompanied by six students from Brazil, for a winter holiday workshop. I am always curious about a student or artist’s motivation to dance, as achieving any goals depend in large part on what you wish to achieve. I asked them, a doctor, an architect, a lawyer, a businesswoman, an IT expert, to share their motivations for travelling 14,766 km to India to struggle with an art form that takes years to master.

Some had seen other dance forms of India thanks to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations tours and some had been inspired by the incredibly dynamic activities of ICCR’s Indian Cultural Centre that Silvana  helped launch and where she taught regularly. One student was initially drawn to the rhythmic element and percussion footwork; another had seen Odissi used in fusion productions and wanted to learn the pure classical tradition. While for some it was difficult to express what seemed like an irrational desire, one thoughtful student clearly saw Odissi as more complete than other dance traditions of which she was aware, involving the soul and emotions so that it was “good for the spirit and emotions and not simply the body”. A middle-aged Krishna bhakt and excellent Samba dancer, whose daughter was a classical ballet dancer, passionately wanted to immerse herself in a dance with a spiritual relationship. Past life connections were not ruled out!

Integral to learning in class is “performance practice”, so they also had the opportunity to share what they had learned, accompanied by live as well as recorded music, in a studio performance here in Delhi to a small audience of well-wishers. It will take time to master what was taught in the workshop, for the seniors as well as beginners. Sharing their work-in-progress celebrates what they have achieved and while motivating them to continue to work to bring their efforts to a performance level.

Silvana feels that “The spiritual context of Odissi dance is easily incorporated by Brazilian students who can identify in this art the same human and universal values found in their own artistic and religious expressions. While both cultures differ in their artistic expressions, from another point of view, they come close and share the same values.” She believes that exploring “the other’s” art compels us to revisit our own way of being.”

Sharon Lowen is a respected  exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau whose four-decade career in India was preceded by 17 years of modern dance and ballet in the US and an MA in dance from the University of Michigan. She can be contacted at

Tags: kathak, dance, bharatanatyam, classical