The foundations of Odissi are found in Natya Shastra, the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text of performance arts. The basic dance units described in Natyashastra, all 108 of them, are identical to those in Odissi.
Natya Shastra is attributed to the ancient scholar Bharata Muni, and its first complete compilation is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, but estimates vary between 500 BCE and 500 CE. The most studied version of the Natya Shastra text consists of about 6000 verses structured into 36 chapters. The text, states Natalia Lidova, describes the theory of Tāṇḍava dance (Shiva), the theory of rasa, of bhāva, expression, gestures, acting techniques, basic steps, standing postures – all of which are part of Indian classical dances. Dance and performance arts, states this ancient text, are a form of expression of spiritual ideas, virtues and the essence of scriptures. The Natya Shastra refers to four vrittis (methods of expressive delivery) in vogue – Avanti, Dakshinatya, Panchali and Odra-Magadhi; of these, the Odra refers to Odisha.
More direct historical evidence of dance and music as an ancient performance art are found in archaeological sites such as caves and in temple carvings of Bhubaneswar, Konarak and Puri. The Manchapuri cave in Udayagiri shows carvings of dance and musicians, and this has been dated to the time of Jain king Kharavela in the first or second century BCE. The Hathigumpha inscriptions, also dated to the same ruler, mention music and dance:
(he [the king]) versed in the science of the Gandharvas (i.e., music), entertains the capital with the exhibition of dapa, dancing, singing and instrumental music and by causing to be held festivities and assemblies (samajas)...
— Hathigumpha inscription, Line 5, ~ 2nd-1st century BCE
The musical tradition of Odisha also has ancient roots. Archeologists have reported the discovery of 20-key, carefully shaped polished basalt lithophone in Sankarjang, the highlands of Odisha, which is dated to about 1000 BCE.
The Hindu, Jain and Buddhist archaeological sites in Odisha state, particularly the Assia range of hills show inscriptions and carvings of dances that are dated to the 6th to 9th century CE. Important sites include the Ranigumpha in Udaygiri, and various caves and temples at Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Alatgiri sites. The Buddhist icons, for example, are depicted as dancing gods and goddesses, with Haruka, Vajravarahi, and Marichi in Odissi-like postures. Historical evidence, states Alexandra Carter, shows that Odissi Maharis (Hindu temple dancers) and dance halls architecture (nata-mandap) were in vogue at least by the 9th century CE.
According to Kapila Vatsyayan, the Kalpasutra of Jainism, in its manuscripts discovered in Gujarat, includes classical Indian dance poses – such as the Samapada, the Tribhangi and the Chuaka of Odissi. This, states Vatsyayan, suggests that Odissi was admired or at least well known in distant parts of India, far from Odisha in the medieval era, to be included in the margins of an important Jain text. However, the Jain manuscripts use the dance poses as decorative art in the margins and cover, but do not describe or discuss the dance. Hindu dance texts such as the Abhinaya Chandrika and Abhinaya Darpana provide a detailed description of the movements of the feet, hands, the standing postures, the movement and the dance repertoire. It includes illustrations of the Karanãs mentioned in NãtyaShãstra. Similarly, the illustrated Hindu text on temple architecture from Odisha, the Shilpaprakãsha, deals with Odia architecture and sculpture, and includes Odissi postures.
Musician and dancer relief at the Konark Sun temple.
Actual sculptures that have survived into the modern era and panel reliefs in Odia temples, dated to be from the 10th to 14th century, show Odissi dance. This is evidenced in Jagannath temple in Puri, as well as other temples of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Vedic deities such as Surya (Sun) in Odisha. There are several sculptures of dancers and musicians in Konark Sun Temple and Brahmeswara Temple in Bhubaneswar.
The composition of the poetic texts by 8th century Shankaracharya and particularly of divine love inspired Gitagovinda by 12th century Jayadeva influenced the focus and growth of modern Odissi. Odissi was performed in the temples by the dancers called Maharis, who played out these spiritual poems and underlying religious plays, after training and perfecting their art of dance starting from an early age, and who were revered as auspicious to religious services.
Mughal and British period
After 12th-century, Odia temples, monasteries and nearby institutions such as the Puspagiri in eastern Indian subcontinent came under waves of attacks and ransacking by Muslim armies, a turmoil that impacted all arts and eroded the freedoms previously enjoyed by performance artists. The official records of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq's invasion in Odisha (1360–1361 CE), for example, describe the destruction of the Jagannath temple as well as numerous other temples, defacing of dancing statues, and ruining of dance halls. This led to a broad decline in Odissi and other religious arts, but there were some benevolent rulers in this period who supported arts particularly through performances at courts. During the Sultanate and Mughal era of India, the temple dancers were moved to entertain the Sultan's family and courts. They became associated with concubinage to the nobility.
The Odissi dance likely expanded in the 17th century, states Alexandra Carter, under King Ramachandradeva's patronage. This expansion integrated martial arts (akhanda) and athletics into Odissi dance, by engaging boys and youth called Gotipuas, as a means to physically train the young for the military and to resist foreign invasions. According to Ragini Devi, historical evidence suggests that the Gotipuas tradition was known and nurtured in the 14th century, by Raja of Khurda.
During the British Raj, the officials of the colonial government ridiculed the temple traditions, while Christian missionaries launched a sustained attack on the moral outrage of sensuousness of Odissi and other Hindu temple dance arts. In 1872, a British civil servant named William Hunter watched a performance at the Jagannath temple in Puri, then wrote, "Indecent ceremonies disgraced the ritual, and dancing girls with rolling eyes put the modest worshipper to the blush...", and then attacked them as idol-worshipping prostitutes who expressed their devotion with "airy gyrations".
Christian missionaries launched the "anti-dance movement" in 1892, to ban all such dance forms. The dancers were dehumanized and stigmatized as prostitutes during the British period. In 1910, the British colonial government in India banned temple dancing, and the dance artists were reduced to abject poverty from the lack of any financial support for performance arts, combined with stereotyping stigma.
The temple dance ban and the cultural discrimination during the colonial rule marshaled a movement by Hindus to question the stereotypes and to revive the regional arts of India, including Odissi. Due to these efforts, the classical Indian dances witnessed a period of renaissance and reconstruction, which gained momentum particularly after Indians gained their freedom from colonialism.
Odissi, along with several other major Indian dances gained recognition after efforts by many scholars and performers in the 1950s, particularly by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattanayak, an Oriya poet, dramatist and researcher. Pattanayak is also credited with naming the dance form as "Odissi".