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  • Writer's pictureSharon Lowen

Aharya –Costume, Makeup and Ornaments in Odissi Dance

Article originally published on February 23rd, 2016, in the Asian Age.

Odissi dance, like the other classical genres of India, gives great importance to the costume, ornamentation and makeup used in the performance. The classical texts refer to four essential forms of expression in the dance, namely body movement or Angika, vocal and sung textual expression, Vachika, pure communicative expression, Sattvika, and the expression through costume, makeup and ornaments, Aharya. Every classical and folk-dance form of India reflects the regional character of its performing arts in the local traditions of textile and ornamentation used for its dance. Odissi is no exception. The beautifully woven silk saris of Orissa, its silver filigree ornaments and pith flowers, are the trademark accompaniments to the dance of Orissa.

Maharis, who danced in the temple, typically wore black velvet bodices with the sari wrapped from the waist down. When Odissi began to be presented upon the stage, the sari was first wrapped as a dhoti to form a divided “pajama,” with the decorative end design of the sari, or pallu, spread in front. Over the years, various styles of tailoring the sari into the costume were developed. One story of the need for this is that child artist Kum Kum Das Mohanty insisted on going to the bathroom after she had been carefully draped and wrapped in a sari. Her guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra, then designed a tailored costume so that the divided pantaloon could be easily stepped out of. In this design, the decorative end of the sari or pallu is pleated and snapped on to the costume so that it fans out as the dancer sits in chouka position. A fabric is fastened around the hips from behind which define the hipline.

In this costume design, the blouse is made from the same sari material as is the cloth draping the front of the dancer. A popular variation on the costume design is to have the decorative front pleated in a vertical fashion down the front that is closer to the Mahari temple dancer tradition. Various artists have incorporated several variations on the length or angle of the front fan in the design, but the main distinction is the vertically draped front or the knee-to-knee fanned out cloth. The woven sari used for a costume can be from any of the many wonderful traditions of the state, in particular those from Sambalpur, Berhampur, and Cuttack.

Many costumes include the unique single and double Ikat tie-dyed and woven patterns of Orissa which traveled to Southeast Asia from this state. Rudraksha bead designs date back to the Harappan Civilization and are a frequently found motif on Orissa saris, as are conch shells and fish, among many other nature designs.

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Odissi classical dance is unique among other classical traditions of India in its use of silver ornaments. The Maharis, and Odissi dancers through the 1960’s, sometimes used gold ornaments near the face and on hands, though the three-tiered silver belt has been in use much longer. Today, Odissi dancers all use silver from head to waist. The dancer wears a silver tika along with the part of her hair, often with decorative silver chains from forehead tika to ear. The back of the hair bun may have a large silver filigree pin or even a crescent silver wreath over the central pin. Earrings rise over the entire ear in peacock or geometric designs with large dangling bell shaped jhumkas. The dancer may wear two to four necklaces and she may have silver armbands, wide filigreed bangles and perhaps rings on every finger.

The silver work comes from the unique tradition of Cuttack filigree in Cuttack district of Orissa. A delicate style is popular far beyond its state borders and has become part of several Southeast traditions as well. The belt or mekhala draped from the waist is usually made with secular silver disks strung together in three lines. The jewelry is inspired from the detailed representations on the temples as well as medieval Oriya text. The Oriya Mahabharata, written by Sarla Das in the 15th century, gives a detailed description of Prince Arjuna dressed as Bruhannari during his year disguised as a dance teacher. Everything from the indigenous silk sari to the bangles and bells, are described in the text. Abhinaya Chandrika, the Sanskrit text specifically on Oriya dance, gives a great deal of detail on the makeup, costume and ornaments of the dancer. It specifies a brightly colored nine-yard sari, generally in red or green made of indigenous silk, a brightly colored, bejeweled Kanchula or tight fitting blouse. The apron of frills skirting the hips and draping in front called Nibiandha and a belt with tassels tied at the waist called ajhoba. This quite accurately describes the costume worn by the Maharis at Puri Jagannath temple but the costume worn by the Odissi dancer on the stage today is closer to that worn by the Gotipuas or young male dancers who perform outside the temple over the last few hundred years. Many of the ornaments described in the Abhinaya Chandrika continue to be used in the dance as well as in daily life. A dancer may certainly use fewer ornaments than mentioned in the text.

All the elaborate hair designs seen on the temple sculptures of Orissa and described in Abhinaya Chandrika, the most commonly used style is a kind of hair knot at the back of the head with a pushpuchuda. Pulling the hair back and tying it at the back of the head, then pulling the hair through, around, and over a large ring to give fullness to the shape, creates the beautiful hairstyle. This is occasionally combined with a braid of hair plaited down the back, if the dancer chooses to follow the Mahari tradition.

Shola pith, for those not from eastern India, may be best known for the British Colonial pith helmets. Those round topped hats with a small sunshade brim were lined with pith to protect the wearer from heatstroke. The soft, white, inner stalk of the shola pith, which grows throughout Orissa and Bengal, is a unique regional craft. It feels much like the plastic Styrofoam or thermocol but, of course, is organic. The art of carving shola pith has been used to create a unique stylization of flowers for the elaborate hairdo of the Odissi dancer. The Odissi dancer wears shola pith flowers around her hair bun and it is topped with a tiara of shola pith flowers representing the spire of Jagannath temple.

The makeup developed over the last half a century emphasizes classical images of feminine beauty. The eyebrow should arch, and even curve up at the end, to resemble the bow from which the God of Love shoots his arrows. The eyes are outlined with black kajal extended far beyond the corner of the eye to resemble that of a fish with a tail. The red bindi or kumkum on the forehead is surrounded by white painted designs representing the sun and moon, or a flower. The hair curl spiraling on the cheek in front of the ear is also standard in Odissi makeup for the stage. Alta, a red natural dye, outlining the feet and on the palms of the hands and fingertips, completes the makeup. The alta on the feet is used by women in Eastern India for beauty and is considered to make the feet look like lotus flowers. It also serves to articulate the foot movement for the viewing audience.

I’m occasionally asked why it takes over two hours to prepare for a performance and my response is that transforming from a mere mortal into an apsara is not a five minute job!

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