Demand for Classical Status for Odissi Music is a Demand for Enriching Soft Power of India

The momentous decision of the Odisha cabinet presided over by Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik on 2nd September 2020 to persuasively seek Union Government’s recognition of Odissi  music as a classical music reminds one of Mahatma Gandhi’s lesser known statement of 1920s that without music India could not get Swaraj and children from school to higher levels of education should be imparted music education and that too education concerning classical music. He interpreted music in terms of  values associated with rhythm, harmony and order and regretted that in the absence of music education children and youth could not learn and imbibe such values and so there prevailed  chaos and disorder  in society and public life. Thankfully music education is now being emphasized and the National Education Policy also provides for it. The demand of Odisha Government for classical status to Odissi music is being made when the country is celebrating 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. It is noteworthy that already Chief Minister Shri Patnaik has advocated inclusion of non-violence in the preamble of the Constitution. The decision of the Odisha Government  demanding classical tag for Odissi taken in a specially convened cabinet meeting to take up crucial decisions concerning heritage and culture assumes enormous significance to deepen, enrich and expand our culture and cultural heritage constituting  our rich and enormous soft power which stands for persuasion and attraction as opposed to coercive and muscular dimensions of hard power. 

Creation of Odisha in 1936 also constituted a movement for the cause of its culture and music

In the annals of modern Indian history Odisha has the singular distinction of becoming the first State to have been created on the basis of language in 1936. The struggle for a separate Odisha province and its final success manifested in its formation on linguistic ground constituted the continuation of a historic movement to take forward the culture and heritage of Odisha, the nucleus of which is Odia language. Our music and dance anchored on Odia language since ancient times contributes to define and  enrich of our identity and the idea of India.

It is well known that the  movement for a separate State of Odisha based on language was spearheaded by Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das and many other stalwarts. None other than Mahatma Gandhi supported it right from 1920 onwards in his numerous writings. His specific article “Cry from Utkal” published in Young India on 18th February 1920 outlined the core of what he called “the Oriya movement” and stressed on the specialty and significance of Odias as an ancient race. He  hoped that  the cry of Utkal would be heard and the cherished aspiration of its people to have a separate province based on its distinct linguistic identity  would be fulfilled. Indeed the cry of Utkal triggered a historic struggle  and Odias could succeed in having their own province in 1936. 

Odissi Dance Recognised as a Classical Dance in 1964 and Odia as Classical Language in 2014

It is reiterated that the struggle for Odisha and its formation constituted a fascinating movement for its all round progress and specifically for its language, culture and music. The press release issued on 2nd September 2020 after the Odisha cabinet meeting mentions that the Government of India accorded recognition to Odissi dance as a classical dance in 1964. It certainly added a feather to the cap of all those who represented that struggle and movement at the core of which remained art, culture and shared heritage of people of the State. Another milestone of that movement was the recognition of Odia language as a classical language in February 2014 by the Union Government headed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. Such a recognition represented a high point of the movement which got intensified from the days when someone ignorant of the richness and ancient characteristics of Odia language had needlessly made an uncalled for remark that “Odia ek Swatantra  bhasa naye”, “Odia is not a separate language”.

Odisha recognised Odissi Music as a classical music in 2008

The aforementioned press release also informed that in 2008 the Government of Odisha gave recognition to Odissi music as a classical music. This itself is invaluable and such a measure constituted a launching pad to take it up to the higher levels of nation and globe and get its due classical tag. It is long overdue and scores of scholars, artists and connoisseurs of culture have advocated and demanded for according classical status to it.

Odissi Music has Attributes of Classical Music

People across the world marvel at the exquisite Odissi dance performance and the music integrally associated with it. And this music stands distinct and distinguished from Karnataki and Hindustani classical music in terms of its unique and altogether different genre, ragas, tala, and its own delightfully different style of rendering of lyrics. In addition to all these special attributes Odissi music stands out for the bhava or the sentiment rendered through its performers.

Insightful expositions of  ancient seers such as Bharat Muni in Natyashatra, composed during 2nd and 4th century AD,   gloriously referred to Udra Magadhi, representing Odissi dance and music. It testified to the legacy of Odissi music dating back to very ancient period. Matanga Muni  belonging to the period of history more ancient than the period when Hindustani and Karnataki forms of classical music emerged also referred to Udra Magadhi  Prabriti known as Kalinga music or Utkal music. Udra in the word “Udra Magadhi” referred to Odisha and so the very ancient origin of music associated with Odissi  dance, a rich form of classical dance, has to be necessarily and essentially classical. Its vivid depictions  in the caves of Odisha dating back to before Christ era and exquisite temple architectures of Konark, Puri and Bhubanesar belonging to ancient phase clearly establish its antiquity meriting classical status. There are specific texts which refer to the Odishi dance and music. Besides, there are poets of Odisha who made references to the ragas and talas defining the distinct nature of Odissi music. The celebrated poet, scholar and commentator on issues concerning art and culture late Shri Jeevan Pani referred to four attributes of classical music : 1)The tradition must be a century old, 2) the system must be based on one or more written shastras or treatises, 3) there must be number of ragas at the core of music and 4) the ragas must be recited in a distinct style.

Odissi music has all these attributes. If Odissi dance has been recognised as a classical dance then Odissi music integral to Odissi dance cannot be treated otherwise.

Sikata Das’s Documentation 

Shrimati Sikata Das, a fine and outstanding exponent and practitioner of Odissi dance has documented the details of nuanced aspects of Odissi style by putting into words the intricate postures a Odissi dancer displays by subtle and graceful movement of legs, hands and other portions of body in response to accompanying Odissi music. Her work also captures in words the expressions of such dancers whose performance is greatly determined by the tuning of that music. 

The resolution of Odisha cabinet urging the Union Government to confer Odissi music  the classical status is part of the struggle and movement for the formation of Odisha as a separate Province at the root of which remained Odia language now hailed as one of the six  classical languages of our country.

American Scholar David Dennen on Odishi Music

All those who were leading figures of this movement and indeed pioneers such as Kavichabdra Kalicharan Patnaik, Shri Damodar Hota, Shri Gopal Chandra Panda and Shri Ramahari Das are sources of inspiration. An American scholar David Dennen wrote an  article “Odishi Music: Its History, Context and Characteristics” in Hermann Kulke edited publication  “Imaging Odisha” (Volume II). He wrote “Regardless of its ultimate categorisation Odishi music continues to be taught, performed, discussed and debated- all of which contribute to the vitality of the tradition. It is to be hoped that the adaptive transformations Odishi music has undergone throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries – changes in patronage, pedagogy and performance practice- will contribute to the flourishing of Odishi. It is also to be hoped that the cultural  climate in India – and perhaps the world will be salubrious to this growing tradition”.

Challenges Ahead

The continuing movement for according classical status for Odissi music and the cabinet resolution of the Government of Odisha in this regard asking  the Government of India to do the needful  has created a cultural climate   for achieving the desired objective.

There are however several challenges that confronts all those who are in the forefront of the movement for getting the classical tag for Odissi. The exponents of Odissi music and its votaries have hardly agreed on a common grammar governing it. Absence of such common grammar and the elusive consensus around it need to be addressed by invoking the originality associated with Odissi music and its wider acceptance and usage by the performers and all those who are its proponents. The other challenge is that there is absence of common concert format based on which Odissi music should be performed adhering to standard norms. Some commentators on Odissi music are of opinion that some avoidable practices have crept into Odissi music. These involve use of instruments such as tabla and harmonium which dilute its original form and charm and make it a appear as a form of music borrowing from Hindustani or Karnataki music. Such attempts to adopt methods of other classical forms of music would compromise its core and substance which distinguishes it from other categories. The other challenge which constitutes the biggest challenge is the absence of practitioners and performers whose dedication to the originality of Odissi music and their high bench mark of excellence and quality performance would go a long way for its enduring sustenance and enrichment. The performers and practitioners can be trained in centers established in different parts of Odisha, at least one each in southern, western, northern and coastal odisha, for creating pool of talented Odissi musicians. Odissi Research Center established by the Government of Odisha in early 1980s should be used to create a pool of talented people for the cause of Odissi music. It used to send a team of Odissi gurus, performers and practitioners in 1990s to villages of Odisha to perform Odissi music before people and sensitise them and popularise it among people. A link of the video in this regard showing presence of Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra is instructive.


Recognition of Odissi Music as Classical Music is a Recognition of Soft Power

When the legendary Bharat Natyam exponent  Rukmini Devi Arunadale saw Sonal Mansingh performing Odissi she exclaimed by appreciating the classical attributes of Odissi. Indeed a peep into the antiquity and uniqueness of Odissi music would testify to its classical features. The continuing struggle and  movement and the cabinet resolution in favour of classical recognition for Odissi music,  to use the words of Mahatma Gandhi,  represent “Cry from Utkal”. It needs to be heard with high degree of sensitivity and implemented. The “Cry from Utkal” for classical status for Odissi Music is a cry to recognise the soft power of India. In paying heed to the demand of Odisha the Government of India would enrich our soft power which as stated earlier is based on persuasion and attraction as opposed to the coercion, compulsion, imposition and muscular attributes associated with hard power. Let there be resounding victory of the cabinet resolution of Odisha Government for the cause of soft power.


The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. He lectures in universities and writes on diverse issues including public policies. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity. Email snsahu58@gmail.com

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