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Bijayini Satpathy’s Odissi

This fall, Bjayini Satpathy has returned to New York to present what she has been developing in her home studio just outside of Bangalore in India. Satpathy, a consummate artist of the Odissi form of classical Indian dance, is renowned for her 25 years as a leading dancer and director of training for the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. But now she is forging a new chapter. In 2018 at age 46, Satpathy left Nrityagram impelled by the desire to explore her potential─both as a soloist and as a choreographer. She began the laborious and often lonely effort of planting her own garden of creation.

Performance

Bjayini Satpathy in New York

Place

Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York City Center, New York, NY, October 2023

Words

Karen Greenspan

Bijayini Satpathy. Photograph by Maria Baranova

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At first, Satpathy performed classic works acquired from her gurus and other choreographers. This followed with a commission from Baryshnikov Arts Center and Duke Performances (in North Carolina) that allowed her to begin to fulfill the dream of creating her own work. In the position of 2021-2022 MetLiveArts Artist in Residence, Satpathy choreographed and performed solos that brought new meaning to four of the museum’s galleries with their distinct artwork and architecture along with the evening-length work “Dohā” in Met’s auditorium. For the residency, she moved beyond Odissi’s vocabulary, subject matter, and aesthetics in a masterful exploration and collaboration with award-winning Indian composer and vocalist Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy.

This fall of 2023 has brought several opportunities to enjoy some of Satpathy’s early solo endeavors.  Baryshnikov Arts Center presented Satpathy performing its initial commission “Abhipsaa—A Seeking.” The work has grown since she premiered it two years ago at the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke University. During that time, she has added a fourth section to the work and has unleashed a soulful freedom and generosity in her performance. 

The piece began with the new section called “Vigraha—Oned,” a narrative work depicting the internal experience of a young woman, who ponders love and marriage while visiting a temple dedicated to the cosmic deity Shiva. There, she encounters the evident sexual symbolism—the linga, or phallus, which represents Shiva’s generative power. Whether you understood the details of the narrative or not would not have affected one’s enjoyment of this sensuous dance. Suggesting a riverside location, Satpathy embodied the play of water as it coursed through her outstretched arms and then poured from her cupped hands as an offering to the deity. She sauntered sensuously from pose to pose bringing the temple sculptures to life and then described Shiva’s characteristics with vivid gestures and facial expression. With a trembling hand, she sent out fearsome energy from her (Shiva’s) wisdom eye—a third eye imagined above and between the other two. Gathering fierceness, Satpathy slapped her feet audibly against the floor and flicked her legs in powerful martial kicks. She concluded the scene as the supplicant once again, making a heartfelt offering—having found a sense of peace. 

Bijayini Satpathy. Photograph by Maria Baranova

Satpathy then danced “Vibhanga, broken & rebuilt”—an abstract dance piece inspired by a Carnatic musical form called a Thillānā. Here, she used a rhythmic-melodic composition of infectious joy and freedom to fuel her process of dissecting and reworking Odissi movements stored within her dancing body. Each movement was suffused with the innate pleasure of its exploration—from a sensual weight shift into tribhanga (triple curved pose) to a burst of ribcage circles that expand into spiraling patterns around the stage. Satpathy’s eyes flirted with her gesturing hands until she suddenly exploded into rhythmic footwork that propelled her about the space. Then with measured pacing, she allowed us to savor her sumptuous poses—perfectly synchronized with the luscious, earthy vocals sung by Bindhumalini Narayanswamy in the recording. The dance built into an outpouring of intoxicating energy. 

Virahi—in longing” provides a marked contrast with its slow build-up of emotion that follows a narrative from the Gita Govinda love ballad by the 12th century poet-saint Jayadev. In the verses that inspire the choreography, Lord Krishna pines for his beloved Radha and implores the sakhi (confidant) to intervene in reuniting the two. Satpathy painted a picture of lovesick lethargy as she began on the floor to sorrowful strains played on the flute and violin. To the repeated vocals pleading “Sakhi He,” she launched into a stream of floorwork, replete with dreamy movements and gestures of blissful lovemaking surrounded by nature’s perfection. Carried away with imaginings of reunion, Satpathy traversed back and forth along a lit diagonal (lighting design by Itohan Dedoloyi), while deftly transitioning between the roles of Krishna, the sakhi, and Radha.

For the final ecstatic dance “Vimukthi,” Satpathy took inspiration from the spiritual poetry of the 15th century Indian mystic-poet Kabir Das, whose lyrics transcend religious affiliation. She immediately shifted the energy with rapid-fire claps, jumps, and percussive foot slaps to vocalized and drummed percussion. The floor filled with a pool of light and a projected latticework design, upon which Satpathy danced with spiraling twists, repeated turns, and spritely jumps. Driven by the poet’s lyrics celebrating the formless Divine who fills all space, she repeatedly moved forward and back, her arms cajoling the surrounding molecules into a state of excitation. Then directing the energy outward, she sent a burst of blossom gestures from her heart. Finally, she set free her creation, spinning like a Sufi—her head inclined as one palm reached for the heavens and the other toward the earth—giving a visible form to the “formless Divine.”

Bijayini Satpathy in “Sita Haran.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

A week later, Satpathy was the guest of critic and historian Alistair Macaulay for the Studio 5 series at New York City Center. From her presentation, it was apparent that she is as eloquent with thoughts and words as she is with her dancing and dancemaking. Satpathy, with the help of her four musicians and two highly trained students, gave detailed insight into the art of Odissi dance. After her students demonstrated the 28 single-handed gestures used in Odissi, they continued to dance approximately 43 moods or situations that could be evoked using variations on only one of those gestures. The evening reached a high when Satpathy danced the opening of her abhinaya (dramatic narrative) section of “Abhipsaa,” in which Krishna yearns for his absent lover. As she performed it with music played live by the quartet of musicians (two of whom are her brothers), the vocalist narrated the dramatic subtext that informed Satpathy’s dance. Narayanswamy merged the English narration seamlessly into her Sanskrit vocals as Satpathy plunged into the main part of the dance in a rich rendering. Everyone in the audience felt the power of the artistry and the artist performing this emotional tale just feet away in the intimacy of a dance studio.

Completing her New York stint at City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival, Satpathy offered up a tour de force from the classical Odissi repertoire—Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra’s “Sita Haran” (The Abduction of Sita). This episode from the Indian epic The Ramayana was choreographed by Mohapatra specifically for Satpathy’s guru, Protima Bedi. Satpathy once described to me how she used to stand in the wings and watch her teacher whenever she performed the solo. She had watched it for so long that it only took a few days to learn to dance the work. The twentyfive-minute, high intensity, action-packed drama involves six characters, all of whom Satpathy played with nuance and intensity. The evocative score and live performance by the four superb musicians seated upstage partnered equally in the production.

Bijayini Satpathy in “Sita Haran.” Photograph by Shalini Jain

The character-switching drama built to a fevered pitch as the vicious monster Ravana lured Princess Sita from her home, lifted the ground upon which she stood, and abducted her in his flying chariot. Satpathy, on the floor as Sita, beat her fists to her head in despair. Then she rose from the floor as a giant vulture, who comes to rescue the princess. With a slow promenade turn—one leg extended behind, and arms stretched wide like powerful wings—Satpathy cocked her head this way and that in bird-like movements. Dancing as Ravana, she wrestled the bird to the floor and pounced severing one of its wings. In an emotional finale as the bird, Satpathy sank to the floor—the last tremors of life twitching from her remaining wing.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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