Odissi dance has its roots in devotional ritual, originating from Orissa state in the northeast of India. It was founded by the Mahari (devadasi) temple dancers, who worked in the service of religious centres such as Puri, Bhubaneshwar and Udayagiri in the 2nd century AD. Odissi is a graceful and erotic style of dance, performed only by females, and is based on the history of the Maharis. Being based on devotional ritual, Odissi performances consist of one continuous theme beginning with an invocation to Hindu deities, the earth and dance gurus and ending with a highly technical finale.
A flowing, lyrical dance style, Odissi emphasises the use of the neck, waist and knee. A distinguishing characteristic of Odissi is the deflection of the hips. The importance is given to rigid stances and balance and the art form consists of structured footwork techniques, whirling movements and patterns of choreography. Dancers wear a choli and a sari is worn with one end forming a fan-like apron at the waist. Silver jewellery and jasmine flowers in the hair are used as decoration and bells are tied around the ankles and the palms and feet are red-hued.
The most popular work expressed through Odissi dance is the Geet-Govinda by the poet Jayadeva, a story of the playful antics of the child Lord Krishna. A typical Odissi performance opens with a bhumi pranam (obeisance to the earth) and is performed to percussion only, usually the pakhawaj. This is followed by abaatu, a pure dance piece, where whirling patterns are weaved according to certain rhythmic cycles, accompanied by the cymbals and flute. The dancer then expresses her movements to a musical melody (swarapalavi) and finally concludes the performance with an abhinaya-nritta, an expressional item using verses of poetry.