CHOWK Studio Series: Maharis of Odisha

a documentary film by Sharmila Biswas


In the 6th century A.D the first reference of Odiya Devdasi / Mahari (temple dancer) was found. In 10th century A.D during the rule of the Ganga dynasty, the construction of the Jagannath temple started around an existing Devi temple. The rulers brought many Devadasis from the south. Mahari-s were treated with great respect. They not only served the lord but also enlightened the minds of common people through dance and music. The Mahari symbolized beauty, grace and knowledge. Oriya Gyanakosh in the Jagannath temple, describes the Mahari as one of the most important servants of the temple. The services of the Mahari were disrupted many times from 13th Century onwards, due to political turmoil. During the British rule Mahari-s had to give up their services altogether and seek other means of livelihood, losing all their social respect.

Sharmila Biswas undertook research on the life and work of the Mahari of Odisha in order to connect the past with the present dance and dancers. She started the study in 1994, guided and supported by several scholars, artistes, and practicing priests who were closely associated with the Jagannath Temple, Puri, and the age-old tradition of the Mahari. She worked intensively with the last two Mahari-s, Shashimoni and Parashmani, who later took active parts in the dance production Sampoorna, based on her research. The book Debadasi, written by Bijayini Das, narrating her experience with Harapriya Mahari, in a novel form, helped Sharmila immensely in her understanding of the psychology of the Mahari. In 1997 Sharmila produced Sampoorna, to share her work with her audience. Both Shashimoni and Parashmoni took part in that production in Kolkata, Delhi and Bhubaneswar among other places. In 1998, Sharmila Biswas received the Uday Shankar Award from the Ministry of Information & Broadcast, Govt. of West Bengal, for Sampoorna.

In 2006, the documentary the Maharis of Odisha was made, to tell the story of the Mahari, with some rare images of the Mahari-s, and the ambience in which they existed. The documentary describes the life of the Maharis, their different sects, daily rituals and festivals in which they sang and danced. This production has some rare images of Mahari-s, and the ambience in which they existed. The film also shows excerpts from the production Sampoorna.

The screening will be interspersed with live dance demonstrations by Sharmila Biswas.

Maharis of Odisha was premiered in the seminar ‘Sacred and Profane’, in Tokyo University with support of Asia Pacific Performing Art Network in 2006.

Sharmila Biswas worked intensively with the last two Mahari-s, Shashimoni and Parashmani, in her research and the making of this film. Shashimoni Mahari passed away on 19th March 2015. Parashmoni Mahari is the only surviving Odiya temple dancer today.



CHOWK is a centre for dance. The centre runs three program streams: training, research and artistic production. The training program includes regular lessons in Odissi dance and Hatha-Vinyasa Yoga, as well as periodic workshops in other Asian traditional somatic practices. Current research projects involve documentation and archival of the Odissi form. CHOWK’s artistic productions have included full-length performance works that have been commissioned by local theatres and festivals in Singapore and have toured internationally. Most recently, The Hungry Stones was invited by the Centre du Developpment Choreographique (France) to Les Hivernales 2015 in Avignon.

The centre was founded in 2007 by Raka Maitra, who is its current Artistic Director. Based in Singapore, CHOWK’s studio is atop the idyllic Emily Hill at 11 Upper Wilkie Road, (S) 228120. CHOWK is a recipient of the National Arts Council (Singapore) Seed Grant 2014-17.


Fri May 1, 2015
11:00 AM - 12:30 PM SGT
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Venue Address
11 Upper Wilkie Road. 228120. Singapore