Starting an Odyssey in Odisha: Rethinking Gender, Tradition, and Culture

‘Odyssey’ refers to “an important intellectual or physical journey, one which is filled with excitement and different experiences” [1]. Also as “a person’s progress from one stage of life or set of beliefs to another” [2]. 

I have always been amazed by the diversity of the Indian subcontinent. The geographic mass of India is not only filled with physical but also cultural, linguistic, and other miscellanies. I have never traveled beyond the central plains of India.

Being born as a North Indian, I have been socialised into the specific culture of that region. Landing as an American India Foundation Clinton Fellow in Odisha, I realised the variation in the culture of Odisha when compared with the land where I have been socialised into the person that I am today. I was filled with enthusiasm to work for the next ten months in Odisha with my host organisation. I was feeling like being there. I felt that it would be a start to an altogether new journey with many new forms of learning. It might have been triggered due to my interest to work in a rural setting. Being born and brought up in the capital city of India, I always had a wish to live away from the glimmer and glitters associated with city life. I wanted to live a life that is more attached to the land which gives us food, where people are more emotionally connected with each other, where they have time to listen to each other.

A group of women farmers standing beside the vermicompost and trying to learn the process.
Learning the process of vermi-composting in Nuabandhu village. (Photo by G. Adinarayan)

My notions about rural life of India have been constructed based upon my experiences and learning. While studying about development and different perspectives associated with different questions related to development vis-a-vis modernisation, industrialisation, globalisation, urbanisation and theories of different world views, have shaped my current world view about it.

I have availed the opportunity to work in the rural setting by delivering my services as an AIF Clinton Fellow with the Voluntary Integration for Education and Welfare of Society (VIEWS). It’s a growing grass-root NGO working to improve food and livelihood security of the marginalised and landless farmers of Odisha [3]. The target groups of the work is the Schedule Tribes and Scheduled Caste communities in the interior villages of Ganjam district. Ganjam is a border district of Odisha which connects to Andhra Pradesh. This region hosts an amalgamation of both the Andra and Odia culture. I have been lucky in experiencing the shared traditions of this bordering region, as the glimpses of both the cultures is present in this geographical area. 

Back at home in Delhi, my Hindu neighbors and friends used to make Rangolis on special occasions like festivals or pooja ceremonies. But in Ganjam, I saw women of the house making Rangoli which is also known as Muggulu in Telugu and Jhoti in the Odia community. Here, they make it on a daily basis in the morning before the sun rises with chalk stick and powder. This can only be seen in Southern Odisha, as shared by Mr. Sunil who belongs to the Northern part of the Odisha.

An elderly women with two of her grand daughters seating in a cemented floor and making Muggulu
S. Korlamma giving final touch to Muggulu with her granddaughters. (Photo by Sahana Afreen)

Although they are beautiful, decoration is not their only purpose [5]. According to Wikipedia, their significance lies in religion:

“In olden days, kolams were drawn in coarse rice flour, so the ants would not have to walk too far or too long for a meal. The rice powder also invites birds and other small creatures to eat it, thus welcoming other beings into one’s home and everyday life: a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence. It is a sign of invitation to welcome all into the home, not the least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.” [6]

The main difference in both of them is the basic structure of the art. Muggulu is built as a geometrical line drawing composed of curved loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots. While Jhoti is a free hand drawing consist of flowers. 

Yasoda a adolescent girl of Odisha drawing jhuti in the entrance of her house
Yasoda drawing Jhuti in the entrance of her home. (Photo by Sahana Afreen)

VIEWS also work as a supporting partner of Divya Jyoti Mahila Vikas (DJMV), which is a women self-help group of Ganjam district with a vision of a society where women have opportunities of development to exercise their right to education, health, livelihood and social security [4]. Under their awareness and livelihood structure, they are running a sanitary pad making unit. They also conduct workshops in the community and in schools for awareness and hygienic practices. When I was asked to take a workshop with community adolescents, I got to know about the first menstruation celebration. Until now, I only had an idea that South Indian states and some Northeastern states celebrate these. But here, they all celebrate, whether one speaks Telugu or Odia as the mother tongue. This helps the community to be well known about this important aspect of women’s life, which is considered to be a shameful thing in the parts of India where I grew up in and therefore has to be kept a secret from the male kins.

My colleague Mr. Sunil, who has been with the organisation for five years, shares that he is born and brought up in Northern Odisha where they don’t talk about menstruation the way he experiences in Southern Odisha while working. He says that it’s a good way to make the whole community, including men, to be mindful. He also shares that the boy and the man of the house cook and do the household chores, which gives a way of rest to women in those days.

A group of adolescent girls seating in a circle. its a office location in which the group is seating on floor.
Conducting a menstruation workshop with community adolescent girls in Gopalpur. (Photo by G. Bhanu)

Culture is not bounded by a territory. Rather, people are the carriers, movers, consumers, and inventors of a culture. When they move from one place to the other, they carry their cultures, their personal outlooks with them. And that’s how together, we make a multicultural society which helps us to adopt different cultures which turns to educated us in different ways of understanding life perspective and helps to expand our horizon and uncover the unseen.


  1. “Word of the Day: Odyssey.” MacMillan Dictionary Blog, 2018.
  2. “Word of the Day: Odyssey.” MacMillan Dictionary Blog, 2018.
  3. “About Us.” VIEWS India, 2015.
  4. “About DJMV.” Divya Jyoti Mahila Vikash, n.d.
  5. Renuka M. “Kolam.” Singapore Infopedia, 2016.
  6. “Kolam.” Wikipedia, 22 Sept. 2019.

Sahana is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Voluntary Integration for Education and Welfare of Society (VIEWS) in Gopalpur, Odisha. For her Fellowship project, she is supporting women self-help groups in launching social enterprises focused on organic farming practices to popularize the use of organic versus chemical fertilizers in the region. Sahana is a 23-year-old woman passionate to work towards gender equality. She has completed her Master’s degree in the discipline of social work with a specialization in rural development, mental health, disability, and counselling. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in political science. She has interned with Roshini, working with government school adolescent girls on life skills and creating a module on cyber security. She has also worked for the community in a slum in Delhi called Seelampur on different issues including gender, livelihood, education, and disability as part of her social work degree course. She was a part of the Youth Accountability Advocate (YAA), working towards understanding the needs of young people on sexual and reproductive health and rights. As a YAA member, she has been selected by the ‘Women Delivers’ in 2019 to share her experience and learnings in their international conference in Vancouver, Canada, with more than 8000 participants from all over the world. Sahana has been actively volunteering for an organisation called Pehchan for girls education in the peripheries of New Delhi. With AIF Clinton Fellowship, Sahana aspires to gain in-depth knowledge of the diversity in socio-economic, cultural, and educational fabric of India. She aims to hone her skills and build perspectives of working and solution generation in development sector.

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