A short history of the Indian classical dance form called Odissi: It's more than 2,000 years old -- almost five times the age of Western ballet. And a century ago, the West, in the form of the British Raj, almost succeeded in wiping it out.
Odissi began as a temple dance with sensual overtones, its undulating forms echoing ancient Hindu sculptures. But Victorian-era British rulers decreed that such display was unseemly for a religious ceremony, says Surupa Sen, artistic director of the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, which makes its Boston-area debut tomorrow night with an Odissi program Sen has choreographed.
''In the last 65 years, Odissi has seen a revitalization," says Sen, who has been part of that rebirth.
''Odissi is a language, like French, that gives you a vocabulary," Sen explains, speaking over the phone from South Bend, Ind., where the company recently performed. ''I use that language to make my own choreography." A short video of her work is tantalizing: darting eyes, heads moving side to side, fluid wrists, flexed feet accented by anklets of jingling bells. There is intricate choreography for the facial muscles, which are all but ignored in most Western dance. Ditto for the fingers. In Western dance they're usually just extensions of the hands and arms; in Odissi they are independent storytellers.
There are seven Indian classical dance forms, notes Neena Gulati, a Brookline-based teacher of Odissi and other classical forms, but ''Odissi is unique among them because the torso bends. From the waist above, it's fluid and subtle."
Odissi was resurrected thanks to the efforts of devotees including Sen's guru, Protima Gauri, who in 1990 founded Nrityagram, a ''dance village" outside Bangalore, in the south of India. There she took six students at a time to train for six years each. After Gauri's death in 1998, Sen inherited her mentor's role. But she doesn't feel she has achieved guru status, which involves being a spiritual leader. ''That's the intention," she says, ''but I don't feel I'm there yet."
''Gauri taught me to believe that it was possible to be a full-time dancer in the way I wanted to be, to make dance a way of life," she says. ''It helps that we live the way we do." She and her colleagues run what sounds like an idealistic community, akin to those of the Shakers or Transcendentalists in 19th-century New England. The village population of about 20 includes students who grow vegetables and flowers, do the cleaning and office work, and, for 10 to 12 hours a day, study Indian classical dance and related subjects.
''We have rules," Sen goes on. ''Students have to follow a schedule, and if they don't want to, too bad. They can't dress up in rags when they go out because they represent the village. We believe in a code of conduct governed by a sense of humility."
Strict, yes, but the few students who are accepted are fortunate. They pay no tuition. Their admission is based solely on talent, not rank or riches. ''Compared to the rest of India, their lives are very good," Sen says. ''I have lived in the village for 14 years without having to worry about money. The performing group sustains the whole village. There is no regular government or corporate support."
She describes the community as a latter-day temple, with the dancers dedicated to a god -- the god of dance. ''We need to be quiet inside ourselves in order to dance," Sen says. ''When we're not dancing, we're involved in simple activities that don't distract from the dance. We don't practice in front of mirrors, as Western dancers do. We feel the dance rather than seeing it."
Odissi was traditionally a solo dance form, performed primarily by women. ''We dance both male and female roles," Sen says. ''You just change your body language."
But Sen looks forward as well as back. ''I've been researching movement including martial arts and yoga and the modern dance of Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, and others," she says. ''It all informs my work in a subconscious way."
''Nrityagram's choreography is tremendous," says Gulati. ''They combine the lyrical grace for which Odissi is known with a contemporary energy."
One of Sen's innovations has been choreographing Odissi not only as solos, but for a group whose members have physical contact with one another.
''There was a lot of negative reaction to this from the Indian public," she says. The reaction was heightened by her inclusion of a man, who lifted and carried the women. ''I trained him for 10 years and worked with him on a dance for two years. Then his family made him leave, and I had to start over."
''When something like that happens," she goes on, ''it's an opportunity to do something better." The something in this case resonates with the same-sex partnering used by Morris and other Western contemporary choreographers.
''I found," Sen says, ''that the women could lift each other."