Odissi is reminiscent of the images of female dancers that are carved into the friezes of Hindu temples. The upper half of the body articulates precise movements that allow for interpretation, while the lower half maintains any of five statuelike stances. The costumes consist of a headdress, called a tahia; lots of silver jewelry; dozens of tiny bells on each foot; and vibrant silk or cotton dresses with elaborate thread work.
Ms. Devi was a consummate actress, conveying emotions through every part of her body, be it the flexing of a toe or the swooping of an arm. Even her face seemed to dance; her lips, brows and gaze all helped tell the story.
“To miss one raising of her eyebrow or the precise relationship of her hip to the angle of her elbow is to miss the harmony of images she has taken such care to construct,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times in a review of a performance at Carnegie Recital Hall in December 1975.
Though only 4 feet 11 inches tall, Ms. Devi could command the stage, taking several different roles in a single tale told through movement and dramatic mime dialogue. Her performances often ran three or four hours.
In her United States debut, in 1968 at Jacob’s Pillow, the annual summer dance festival in Becket, Mass., she danced multiple roles in enacting the legend of Ahalya, a story of passion, revenge and redemption revolving around the chaste and beautiful wife of a Hindu sage.
She was born Rita Mukherjee on Dec. 6, 1924, in Assam, a state in northeastern India. The arts were central to her family life. Her mother, Aruna, taught music and organized stage performances in their town. A relative, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.
The family later moved to Baroda, a state in western India in a region now known as Gujarat. Ms. Devi’s father, Satyabrata Mukherjee, was a government official there.
Over her father’s objections, Ms. Devi began studying classical dance after graduating from Bombay University. She started with the dance style known as Manipuri, which is derived in part from the martial arts and is named after the region in northeast India in which it originated.
Her parents, eager to marry her…