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An Odissi Dancer Contains Sublime Multitudes


Sujata Mohapatra performed in the Drive East festival on Monday night.

Photographs by Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The child Krishna, playing, has filled his mouth with mud. Yashoda, his mother, rebukes him. He winces, and when she orders him to open his mouth, he refuses. Finally, however, he opens it. She is overcome by amazement. For his mouth contains the whole universe: moon, stars, sun and more. He is, she realizes, the lord Vishnu.

On Monday night — the first evening of the annual Drive East anthology of Indian music and dance, at Dixon Place — this was just a single incident among many in Sujata Mohapatra’s 90-minute recital of Odissi dance, just a single facet of her astonishingly complex art. Ms. Mohapatra is a dancer as marvelous as any in the world today, and part of her skill lies in abhinaya, the expressional aspect of Indian dance. Without skipping a beat, she embodied mother and son in the same long, action-packed phrase – and then suddenly slowed for that moment of epiphany: to Yashoda’s expression of wonder as she sees what her naughty young son’s mouth contains and who he is.

One vivid character melts into another; we’re also shown the human charm of the storyteller herself, delighted to have shared this myth in which an adorable fairy tale turns into a demonstration of religious awe. The dancer embodies many people: to borrow from Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes. Sometimes there seems to be nothing but face for us to see. The eyes, the mouth, the cheeks – the changing expressions that these contain prove all-absorbing: intensely beautiful, too.

Yet this is just the top layer of Ms. Mohapatra’s ravishing art. For these narrative incidents – about gods, demons, destruction, love — are acted out on a musical current, pouring forth in marvelously changing meters. The communicative face is blended with the arcs, lines, sub-phrases of arms, shoulders, thighs, feet. Acting and dance become indivisible.

Until the dancer divides them. For Odissi, like other classical dance forms of India, alternates between abhinaya and nritta, or pure form. The story dissolves; rhythm, shape, harmony become ends in themselves. The dancer becomes both impersonal, a high priestess embodying larger qualities, and personal, delighting in sharing this with the audience.

The sensuous marvels of coordination that distinguish Odissi are as seductive as anything to be found in world dance. The curve of an arm through the air, as if tracing a rainbow, becomes a totality because the large eyes follow it and the torso bends in support. In some passages on Monday, Ms. Mohapatra maintained brisk, soft rhythms with her bare feet, while her entire upper body tipped and bent in slow, steady, lavish arcs. At times, the face looks up in joy even as the torso arches back. At other times, pelvis and shoulders move gorgeously against each other like opposing slopes: the effect can be subtle or colossal.

Another feature of Odissi is its sculptural stillnesses, sometimes maintained on one leg. Indian philosophy refers to stillness in motion, motion in stillness: Ms. Mohapatra shows multiple aspects of these, sometimes holding a pose firmly as she rotated on one foot, sometimes motionless like a bird hovering in the air. At the end, while the word “om” sounded, she moved seamlessly from one sustained position to another, finally achieving a stillness that seemed the perfect image of tranquil acceptance and meditation.

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