This past Sunday, Oct. 2, a performer once hailed as the “cultural ambassador of India” visited Vassar to showcase her craft. In an event co-sponsored by the Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA) and the South Asian Students Alliance (SASA), Guru Sanchita Bhattacharya presented a selection of Odissi dance pieces in the Villard Room.
Odissi, a type of Indian classical dance, originated in temples of the southeastern Indian state of Odisha (also known as Orissa), and the first written record of the style dates back 3,000 years. Originally, women performed Odissi to recount Hindu narratives as part of the daily temple puja dedicated to Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe.
Hindi temple sculptures based on Odissi poses helped dancers reconstruct the ancient dance in the modern era, and the British suppression of female dancers of Odissi led male students to add acrobatic elements that are present in its current form. As Bhattacharya said, “The dance has moved out from the temple to the stage, with a purpose…to commune, to open all hearts.”
Not only is Bhattacharya a master of Odissi, having studied dance since she was two, but she has also introduced the dance to a global audience. She has performed at Madison Square Garden and other venues in cities around the world, Singapore to Spain, and just last week danced at the Ford Theatre in Hollywood. She teaches Odissi in India and abroad and received the title of “Sri Kshetra Mahari” from the Jagannath Temple in Puri, where Odissi dance is said to have originated. Bhattacharya also started the Sanchita Odissi Dance Foundation in Kolkata, which sponsors young girls from underprivileged families. She was selling CDs of her dance music at the event to support the cause.
Bhattarcharya explained in an emailed statement how overjoyed she is to be able to bring her art form to an international audience: “I have been blessed enough to be invited by and to be traveling extensively all over the world, explaining the form, format, story line and the layers of [the] value system and philosophy embedded in this dance…thus making it legible to the international audience.”
SASA made it a point to extend the invitation to the Poughkeepsie community. As SASA Co-President Dushyant Naresh ’17 stated, “[We hope] that we can slowly try and dissolve the Vassar bubble … One of the ways we are tackling this is to mingle with other South Asians in Poughkeepsie.”
SASA Treasurer Aditi Chandna ’19 added: “ASA and SASA collaborated because we have a common unifying goal to expose people to different types of culture … It’s nice to have Poughkeepsie residents from South Asia attend these events so they can feel closer to home and so they know that Vassar is open to the community.”
The event had a great turnout of students and Poughkeepsie residents alike, all eager to absorb and learn from this performance. They were not disappointed as Bhattarcharya, clad in red and adorned with a jeweled headpiece and bells around her ankles, led the audience through three varied and beautiful Odissi numbers.
The first dance was a graceful and joyous opening to welcome the audience, complete with flowers sprinkled over the front row. The second piece told the story of Lord Krishna’s stepmother Yashoda trying to get the infant Krishna to go to bed. Bhattacharya embodied the motherly role, quieting the child while intermittently threatening him with all sort of fierce animals that will attack if he does not sleep. The story ends with Krishna opening his mouth and revealing the whole universe within, a stunning moment that encapsulated the power of Odissi expression. She even broke the fourth wall, as Bhattacharya shushed the applause with fear that it would wake the sleeping child.
The final number was based on scripture that portrays virtue as a woman. Though the dance was very graceful and feminine, it still incorporated elements of strength to demonstrate the connection between womanhood and spiritual fortitude. “I do not do it softly to make it look dainty,” Bhattacharya pointed out. “There is so much power in this.”
Evident in Bhattacharya’s explanations of her practice was the essential “grammar” of Odissi dance. SASA Secretary Adya Goyal ’19, who studied Bharatanatyam dance at school in India and has seen many Odissi performances, illuminated, “Odissi showcases Hindu mythology using a lot of facial expressions, called abhinaya, and hand gestures, which are called mudras.”
Bhattacharya demonstrated all 28 mudras for the audience, which represent everything from snakes and deer to lotus flowers and the iconographic crescent moon on Shiva’s head. These manual mudras are accentuated with red dye on the fingertips and the expressive abhinaya with black eyeliner. Bhattacharya also showed how Odissi relies on chakras in the body, utilizing a three-point bend at three crucial chakras. Her performance displayed a beautiful synthesis of elements that characterize the dance and how they create a narrative and a truly transcendent experience.
For Goyal, the event overall was a nice reminder of home. “Dance is a very integral part of our culture,” she asserted. “I’ve grown up with music and dance all around me, and when I came here I had nowhere to do it, so events like these make me feel connected to my culture while I’m on the other side of the world.”
Naresh agreed, adding that he hopes that this event, as well as SASA’s other programming, adds needed variety to the Western-centric music and art events common to campus. “SASA has been trying to make Vassar a more inclusive space over the last few years, and we hope events like the Odissi performance…open up avenues for other identity orgs to host large events such as this. [They allow] us to communicate across differences better, leading to greater global awareness and empathy…so that all of us can expand our horizons.”
Sachita Bhattacharya’s Odissi performance showcased just one captivating example of India’s diverse cultural landscape, exposing viewers to how this classical style conveys many themes like motherhood, strength, virtue and beauty. “Odissi dance culminates to basic human values and universal truths and philosophies and so actually irrespective of ethnicity, everyone understands and feels one with the dance,” Bhattacharya expressed. “[Odissi imparts] the unforgettable, aesthetic beauty, the soul-touching and heart-opening experience and most importantly the reaffirmation of humanitarian values through dance.”