Odissi Documentation Project

Project Report


Principal Investigator: Kiran Kumar


1.0 Introduction

2.0 Primary Structure I: Physical Preparatory Exercises

    2.1 Warm-up

    2.2 Leg Strengthening

    2.3 Plyometrics

    2.4 Agility

    2.5 Stretching

3.0 A note on Primary Structure II: Mental Preparatory Exercises

4.0 Secondary Structure: Inhabiting Shape

    4.1 Posture Exercises

    4.2 Isolated Articulation Exercises

5.0 Tertiary Structure: From Shape to Form

    5.1 Basic Movements in Chowk

    5.2 Basic Movements in Tribhang

6.0 Further Complex Structures: Musicality

    6.1 Elements of Rhythm

    6.2 A note on other elements of Musicality

1.0 Introduction

The Odissi Documentation Project has been undertaken as a praxeological study of Odissi as practiced at Chowk Centre for Dance in Singapore. The research is praxiological in the sense that its starting point is practice and its culmination is also intended to feedback into practice. Through this trajectory, my aim is to explicate knowledge that is embedded within the practice of Odissi dance through its training stages. Here I will refer to the learning of the basics of the dance form as well as dance compositions, compositely as a ‘dance-making’ process. Through this research, I have devised four integrated layers of structure in dance-making. While some of these layers or some aspects of them have been observed in practice at Chowk, others have been included on the basis of their lack in the centre’s current training program. As such the research serves to both expound current practice as well as create suggestions for a future direction of Odissi training.

While the focus of this project is decidedly on rhythm in Odissi, the observation of structure in dance-making towards the embodiment of rhythm by the practitioner has necessarily taken a more holistic approach. I have expounded on each layer of structure to the extent to which it is critical to the embodiment of rhythm. However, certain aspects of some structural layers have been left to the purview of potential future research in the field.

For this project I have worked closely with the centre’s artistic director Raka Maitra who is also its principal Odissi teacher as well as an artist and educator in percussion, Bijaya Kumar Barik from Bhubaneswar (India). Interviews and participant observation have been significant methods in this research. My role as researcher has been an immersive one; I have been part of the centre and its training practice both as a student as well as an instructor during the period of research. This has allowed my own reflexive practice to inform the research. In addition to observation, interviewing and reflection within the field of dance, the project has also demanded research into other related fields such as sports medicine, yoga and music to inform the present focus of embodying rhythm in dance.

In the following sections I have proposed physical and mental preparation as a primary layer of structure for the dance practitioner. Aesthetic considerations in dance-making are operative at the secondary and tertitary layers of structure which I have described as ‘inhabiting shape’ and ‘relational articulation of form’. A further, more complex aesthetic layer of structure is the system of rhythm as shared between dance and music in the South Asian traditions. The discussion of these structural layers is supported by audio and video documentation and annotations.

2.0 Primary Structure I: Physical Preparatory Exercises

I have proposed physical preparation of the practitioner as the primary structure in dance-making. This proposal treats dance as a fundamentally athletic practice wherein body conditioning to develop key physical attributes such as strength, power, agility and flexibility is of primary importance. This layer of structure does not yet qualify as aesthetic in nature.

Observing the high risk of injury to the hamstring and anterior crucial ligament as well as the hip-knee-ankle complex that is incurred through Odissi and Bharatanatyam practice, my research for a primary structure in dance-making turned to sports medicine with the aim of building a sound and safe physical foundation for dance practitioners.

The following groups of exercises have been drawn from The Santa Monica Sports Medicine Research Foundation’s Prevent injury and Enhance Performance (PEP) Program. Practitioners are advised to pay close attention to technique of performance as detailed in the instructions in order to avoid injury.


2.1 Warm-up

Prepare the body for training session by minimising risk of injury.

2.1.1 Spot Jogging

Suggested Duration: 0:30 seconds

Purpose: Increase resting heart rate; increase blood circulation throughout the body; increase volume of breath intake and exhale; activating all muscle groups.

Instruction: keep hip/knee/ankle in straight alignment without the knee caving in or the feet opening out to the side.


2.1.2 Shuttle Run

Suggested Duration: 0:30 seconds

Aim: Engage hip muscles (inner and outer thigh); promote motion in increased speed; discourage inward caving of the knee joint.

Instruction: Start with an athletic stance with a slight bend at the knee. Leading with the right foot, sidestep pushing off with the left foot (back leg). Make sure to keep hip/knee/ankle in a straight line. Switch sides at studio end.


2.1.3 Backward Running

Suggested Duration : 0:30 seconds

Aim: Engage hip extensors/hamstrings.

Instruction: Run backwards along length of studio. Make sure to land on toes. Do not extend the knee (i.e. Avoid locking of knee joint). Maintain a slight bend to the knee at all times.


2.2 Leg Strengthening Exercises

This program will lead to increased leg strength and consequently a more stable knee joint.

2.2.1 Walking Lunges

Suggested Duration : 1:00 minute

Purpose: Strengthen quadriceps muscle.

Instruction: Lunge forward leading with the right leg. Push off with right leg and lunge forward with left leg. Drop the back knee straight down. Make sure to keep the front knee over the ankle. Control the motion and avoid inward caving of the front knee. If you can’t         see your toes not he leading leg then you are doing the exercise incorrectly.


2.2.2 Russian Hamstring

Suggested Duration : 1:00 minute

Purpose: Strengthen hamstring muscle.

Instruction: Kneel on the ground with hands at your side. Have a partner hold firmly at your ankles. With a straight back, lean forward leading with your hip. Your knee, hip and shoulder should be in a straight line as you lean toward the ground. Do not bend at the         waist. You should feel the hamstring in the back of the thigh working. Repeat exercise for 30 seconds and switch with your partner.


2.2.3 Single Toe Raises

Suggested Duration : 1:00 minute

Purpose: Strengthen calf muscle and improves balance.

Instruction: Stand with arms at your side. Bend the left knee up and maintain balance. Slowly rise up on your right toes with good balance, outstretching arms to help if needed. Repeat slowly 30 times and switch to the other side. As strength develops, add more         repetitions to continue the strengthening effect of the exercise.


2.3 Plyometrics

These exercises are explosive and help to build power, strength and speed. Most importantly, landing must be soft in all plyometric exercises. When landing form a jump, softly accept your weight on the balls of your feet slowly rolling back to the heel with a bent knee and bent hip. Please begin the exercises with a visual line in the studio (using easily removable masking tape for example).


2.3.1 Lateral Hops

Suggested Duration : 0:30 seconds

Purpose: Increase power emphasising neuromuscular control.

Instruction: Stand with a 2 inch cone to your left. Hop to the left over the cone softly landing on the balls of your feet while bending the knee. Repeat this hopping to the right. Progress to single leg hops.


2.3.2 Forward / Backward Hops

Suggested Duration : 0:30 seconds

Purpose: Increase power emphasising neuromuscular control.

Instruction: Hop over the cone softly landing on the balls of your feet and bending at the knee. Now hop backwards over the ball using the same landing technique. Be careful not to snap your knee back to straighten it. Maintain a slight bend to the knee throughout the         exercise. Progress to single leg hops.


2.3.3 Vertical Squat Jumps

Suggested Duration : 0:30 seconds

Purpose: Increase height of vertical jump.

Instruction: Sqat into a half-sit position with legs slighter wider than hip-width and bent knees. From the squat position push off jumping straight up still bending the knees and raising the thighs up in squat position while in the jump. Land softly, accepting your weight on the ball of the feet with a slight bend to the knee. Repeat 12-15 times.


2.3.4 Lunge Jump

Suggested Duration : 0:30 seconds

Purpose: Increase power and strength of of vertical jump.

Instruction: Lunge forward leading with your right leg. Keep you knee over your ankle. Now, push off with your right foot and propel your left leg forward into a lunge position. Ensure that the knee does not cave in or out, but stays stably over the ankle. Land softly, accepting     your weight on the ball of the feet with a slight bend to the knee. Repeat 15-20 times.


2.4 Agility Exercises

2.4.1 Forward Run with 3-step Deceleration

Suggested Duration : 1:00 minute

Purpose: Increase dynamic stability of the ankle/knee/hip complex. Engage the hip, buttock and hamstring musculature.

Instruction: Starting from one end of the studio, sprint forward to the mid point (lengthwise). As you approach the other end, use a 3-step quick stop to decelerate. Continue to the other end of the studio using the same strategy to deceleration. Do not let your knee extend over your toe, or cave inward.


2.4.2 Lateral Diagonal Runs

Suggested Duration : 1:00 minute

Purpose: Encourage proper stabilization of hip and knee. Deter occurrence of a ‘knock-knee’ position which is dangerous for the Anterior Cruciate Ligament.

Instruction: Face forward and laterally run to the first cone on the right. Pivot off the right foot and shuttle run tot he second cone. Now pivot off the left and continue to the third cone. Ensure that the outside leg does not cave in. Keep a slight bend to the knee and hip     and make sure the knee stays aligned over the ankle joint.


2.4.3 Bounding Run

Suggested Duration : 1:00 minute

Purpose: Increase strength of hip flexion. Increase power and speed.

Instruction: Starting on one end of the studio, unto the far side (lengthwise) with knees up toward chest. Bring your knees up high. Land on the ball of your foot with a slight bend at the knee and a straight hip. Increase repetitions back and forth as exercise gets easier.


2.5 Stretching Exercises

It is important to incorporate a short warm-up prior to stretching. Never stretch a “cold muscle”.  By performing these stretches, you can improve and maintain your range of motion, reduce stiffness in your joints, reduce post-exercise soreness, reduce the risk of injury and improve your overall mobility and performance.  Note that this portion of the program may also be moved to the end of your training session. Gently stretch to a point of tension and hold.  Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Concentrate on lengthening the muscles you are stretching. Breathe normally.


2.5.1Calf stretch                    

Suggested Duration:  30 seconds x 2 repetitions

Purpose:  stretch the calf muscle of the lower leg

Instruction:  Stand leading with your right leg. Bend forward at the waist and place your hands on the ground (V formation). Keep your right knee slightly bent and your left leg straight. Make sure your left foot is flat on the ground. Do not bounce during the stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.


2.5.2 Quadricep stretch 

Suggested Duration:  30 seconds x 2 repetitions

Purpose:  stretch the quadricep muscle of the front of the thigh

Instruction:  Place your left hand on your partner’s left shoulder.  Reach back with your right hand and grab the front of your right ankle.  Bring your heel to buttock. Make sure your knee is pointed down toward the ground. Keep your right leg close to your left. Don’t allow     knee to wing out to the side and do not bend at the waist. Hold for 30 seconds and switch sides.


2.5.3Figure Four Hamstring stretch 

Suggested Duration:  30 seconds x 2 repetitions 

Purpose:  To stretch the hamstring muscles of the back of the thigh.

Instruction:  Sit on the ground with your right leg extended out in front of you. Bend your left knee and rest the bottom of your foot on your right inner thigh. With a straight back, try to bring your chest toward your knee. Do not round your back.  If you can, reach down toward your toes and pull them up toward your head. Do not bounce. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat with the other leg.


2.5.4 Inner Thigh Stretch                      

Suggested Duration:  30 seconds x 2 repetitions 

Purpose:  Elongate the muscles of the inner thigh (adductor group)

Instruction:  Remain seated on the ground. Spread you legs evenly apart. Slowly lower yourself to the center with a straight back. You want to feel a stretch in the inner thigh. Now reach toward the right with the right arm. Bring your left arm overhead the stretch over to the right. Hold the stretch and repeat on the opposite side.


2.5.5Hip Flexor Stretch 

Suggested Duration:  30 seconds x 2 repetitions

Purpose:  Elongate the hip flexors of the front of the thigh.

Instruction:  Lunge forward leading with your right leg. Drop your left knee down to the ground. Placing your hands on top of your right thigh, lean forward with your hips.  The hips should be square with your shoulders. If possible, maintain your balance and lift back for the left ankle and pull your heel to your buttocks. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

3.0 A note on Primary Structure II: Mental Preparatory Exercises

Devising a range of mental exercises as a preparatory phase is a necessary step in integrating physical and mental attributes of the practitioner towards dance-making. These exercises may be drawn or adapted from meditation techniques as well as improvisation strategies used in a range of yoga, contemporary dance and theatre practices. 

Although it has not been the scope of the current research project to develop such exercises, the demand placed on the practitioner by the Physical Preparatory Exercises to focus on proper technique of execution, would serve to develop her/his focus and concentration to a significant extent.

The development of Mental Preparatory Exercise is the suggested purview of future research.

4.0 Secondary Structure: Inhabiting Shape

Following basic physical and mental preparatory exercises, I will propose that the secondary layer of structure in dance-making is that of inhabiting shape.

Here I draw a distinction between the striking of a pose and the inhabiting of a shape. While the former amounts to a momentary manipulation of the body into a posture, the latter demands a durational commitment to the posture. This layer of structure demands that the practitioner, with a well prepared mind and body, inhabits a range of specific shapes with the intention of ‘moving into’ or ‘living within’ them for the purposes of dance-making. Merely striking postures without developing the physical and mental endurance necessary to inhabit them only creates a weak foundation upon which to precariously build further layers of structure.

This structural layer of inhabiting shape is the most rudimentary of aesthetic structures in dance-making.


4.1 Posture Exercises

These exercises have been devised to ease the body’s access to a range of shapes recurrently used in Odissi. The number of shapes have been distilled into a few fundamental ones based primarily on the principles of symmetry and asymmetry.

The exercises use a combination of

  1. eccentric-concentric movements (i.e. expansion-contraction in length) 
  2. isometric states (i.e. no change in length)

in order to strengthen muscles and fascia towards inhabiting shape in a manner that is comfortable for the practitioner as well as has a low-risk of injury.

At this stage of exercises, the practitioner is tasked with elongating her/his breath by deepening inhalations and slowing down exhalations. The practitioner uses her/his own breath cycles to mark duration for the exercises. The termination points of the exercises would change with progressive strength building, and therefore the sensation of exhaustion in muscles should be used as a gauge rather than numerical counting.


4.1.1 Symmetric Postures

    a. Samapada

    b. Kumbha

    c. Chowk

    d. Mandala

Video 4.1.1: Posture Exercises - Symmetric Postures (password: chowkodp)


4.1.2 Asymmetric Postures

    a. Chowk Balance (Sideways)

    b. Chhau Balance (Lateral)

    c. Chhau Balance (Forward Backward)

    d. Tribhang

Video 4.1.2: Posture Exercises - Asymmetric Postures (password: chowkodp)



4.2 Isolated Articulation Exercises

Upon inhabiting shape, the practitioner is tasked with developing the range of motion of his/her body parts using the physical constraint of the basic shapes outlined in 4.1 as starting points.

The following series of compound articulation exercises are devised using isolation of parts as a strategy to direct the practitioner’s focus to these parts.

4.2.1 Gaze

4.2.2 Neck

4.2.3 Arm: Shoulder

4.2.4 Arm: Wrist

4.2.5 Arm: Fingers

4.2.6 Torso: Spine

4.2.7 Leg: Foot

Video 4.2: Isolated Articulation Exercises (password: chowkodp)


Here it is important to draw the practitioner’s attention to the idea that isolation of parts does not amount to fragmentation of the body. Favouring a holistic/integrative approach to practice, the isolated part is kept consciously active while other parts are consciously maintained in a state of restful tension or in relaxation. While isolating a body part, its relation to the rest of the body is maintained within the bounds of aesthetic logic of the shape inhabited. The practitioner’s own agency need be exercised in delimiting the aesthetic logic in question, rather than entirely relying on the judgement of a teacher.

5.0 Tertiary Structure: From Shape to Form

Further to inhabiting shape and developing isolated articulations thereof, I propose the creation of ‘form’ as a tertiary structure in dance-making. This ‘form’ refers to conscious relational articulations of body parts that is initiated and developed from a postural starting point.

While the basic shapes as outlined in 4.1 often initiate the relational articulations, I believe that the relations need not be didactically or even deterministically defined. Indeed it is this layer of aesthetic structure in dance-making that marks the expressive range of form. The relation articulations need to be constantly written and rewritten in order to develop the dance form. It is such a writing that constitutes the fundamentals of choreo-graphy in Odissi.

The following sections, 5.1 Basic Movements in Chowk and 5.2 Basic Movements in Tribhang, focus on the specific relational articulations developed by the late Odissi choreographer Kelucharan Mahapatra, with some modifications made by his student and Odissi choreographer Madhavi Mudgal. These basic movements are as taught at Chowk Centre for Dance by the Artistic Director and principal teacher Raka Maitra. As such they are are an indication of predominantly one choreographer’s development of tertiary structure in Odissi.


5.1 : Basic Movements in Chowk

Audio 5.1: Vocal Descriptors of Basic Movements in Chowk

Video 5.1: Basic Movements in Chowk (password: chowkodp)



5.2 : Basic Movements in Tribhang

Video 5.2: Basic Movements in Tribhang (password: chowkodp)


Audio 5.2: Vocal Descriptors of Basic Movements in Tribhang

6.0 Further Complex Structures : Musicality


I have already proposed that inhabiting shape constitutes a fundamental aesthetic structure in dance-making, secondary only to the primary structure of body (and mind) conditioning. Further, I have said that the creation of relational articulations constitutes a tertiary structure in dance-making. The reconstructive work of the late choreographer Kelucharan Mahapatra has already been offered as one particular example of such tertiary structure in 4.1 and 4.2. While I would reiterate that the work of any one choreographer need not be seen as conclusive in its proposal of aesthetic structure, I will identify one of the merits of Mahapatra’s work at the tertiary layer of structure as that of being non-deterministic in its proposal of relational articulations. In my view, it is important to preserve this openness in creating further complex layers of aesthetic structure in dance-making.

The creation of (dance) form through relational articulations makes the practitioner available and receptive to respond to musicality, an aesthetic field broadly (and generally) described by the presence of audible music. Odissi has in the past drawn on musical traditions of Orissa as well as those of Carnatic and Hindustani music.

With the notion of allowing further complex layers of aesthetic structure in dance-making to remain open, I will eschew didactic definitions and present instead a glossary of terms and concepts grouped under a nebulous category of ‘elements of musicality’. For this research I have identified and focused on rhythm as one such element.


6.1 Elements of Rhythm


6.1.1 Taal

A rhythmic cycle comprising a specific grouping of pulses.

Appendox 6.1.1 Rhythmic cycles in Odissi


6.1.2 Sam

Sam is a marker of an affective point. This affection affords the sam its status as a ‘starting point’ of a rhythmic cycle. To describe the sam as purely an arithmetic starting point is to miss its affective quality.


6.1.3 Avartan / Vibhag / Matra

Avartan refers to a single cycle of rhythm, i.e. one loop of Taal.

Vibhag refers to the section/s within a single Avartan of Taal.

Matra refers to each unit within a Vibhag of an Avartan of Taal.

Example: One Avartan of an 8-beat rhythm cycle may be constituted by 2 Vibhag-s of 4 Matra-s each.


6.1.4 Ginti

This refers to an act of numerical counting. Neverthelss under the framework of musicality, ginti exploits the nature of the numerical as spoken word rather than mathematical fact.

See Audio 6.1.4 Ginti Tukras in Kathak


6.1.5 Bol

Bol, meaning ‘speech’, in refers to a range of vocables that are essentially meaningless but in some cases are onomatopoeic sounds related to drug beats. They are used to create a sense of musicality through speech while eschewing the production of literary meaning.


6.1.6 Theka

Theka is a short set of Bol-s that serves as descriptor for basic rhythmic sequencing of Taal. Theka is used to communicate rhythmic patterns vocally.


6.1.7 Ukuta

Ukuta is a set of Bol-s that serves as descriptor for a movement sequence. Ukuta is used to communicate movement patterns vocally.


6.1.8 Godi

This is a set of Bol-s that use a very short vocable pattern repeated continuously on loop.

Video 6.1.8 Godi (password: chowkodp)



6.1.9 Khandi

Khandi refers to a Bol pattern that is left unresolute in terms of compositional patterns of symmetry and repetition; an ‘incomplete’ unit.


6.1.10 Arasa

Arasa-s are compositions of Bol-s that are large enough to be set into a few loops of a rhythmic cycle or Taal. They may range from short and simple to more elaborate and complex compositions.

Video 6.1.10 Arasa-s (password: chowkodp)


6.1.11 Tehai

Tehai refers to Bol patterns that are repeated three times and are set into a few loops of a rhythmic cycle. They may range from short and simple to more elaborate and complex compositions.

Videos 6.1.11 Tehai-s (password: chowkodp)


6.1.12 Laykari

Laykari refers to the nature of a composition in relation to a rhythmic cycle, using any one one or more elements such as Bol, Ginti, Theka, Ukuta, Godi, Khandi, Arasa and Tehai.


6.2 A note on other elements of musicality

Although the focus of the present research has been Rhythm, Melody and Word are other elements of musicality that demand further research both in independent terms as well as in relation with each other.