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Dancing the Sambalpuri way

Last updated: 21 May, 2011
Prafulla Kumar Mohapatra

Folk tradition

India has variegated dance forms. While classical dances trace their origin to different religions of the country, folk dances have their deep roots in the social lives of people.

Very often, folk dances portray the daily activities of people — their rites, rituals and beliefs — and other social events like marriage, fairs and festivals.

Sambalpuri dance, a folkloric dance form, owes its origin to the western part of Odisha, particularly the erstwhile Sambalpur district of Odisha. This place is known for its sculpturisque Odissi dance form. Deriving its name from the presiding deity of ‘Samalai’, Sambalpur has a distinct cultural identity of its own.

According to legends, the image of the presiding deity of Sambalpur was found under a simul (silk cotton) tree by Balaram Dev, Sambalpur’s first Chauhan king, in about the middle of 16th century AD. Greek geographer Ptolemy, in his famous book Geographika, describes the existence of Sambalpur in second century AD in the name of  ‘Sambalaka’ on the banks of River Mahananda. The two names — Sambalaka and Mahananda — refer to the modern name of Sambalpur and Mahanadi respectively. In French traveller Taverner’s travelogues, there is a mention of ‘Sumelpur’ as a region rich in diamonds and that which supplied them to the Roman Empire. The Sumelpur mentioned there is the present Sambalpur.


Sambalpur is ethnically very diverse with about 14 communities like brahmin, karan, teli (oil extractors), gour (milkmen), guria (maker of sweetmeat and pastries), agaria (industrious cultivators), sunari (goldsmith), kultas (cultivators), kewat (boatmen and fisherman), dhobi (washermen), kuli (weaver), bhandari (barber), kamar (blacksmith) and ganda (pipers and drummers) cohabiting together.

Over the centuries, the blend of 14 diverse communities has led to a distinct variety of colourful folk dance tradition. Purely indigenous, it creatively blends both traditional and modern steps. Among the popular dances are Sambalpuri, Ghoomra, Sua dance, Danda Nata, Koisabadi dance, Humo and Bauli besides Karma and Dalkhai. The ceremonies like Sitalsasti (the celebration of the marriage ceremony of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati), Nuakhai (cooking of new rice with milk and sugar), Mahul gundi (new gram, mango and mahua offered to family deity) and other festivals like the rathayatra (car festival) and Sivaratri (Shiva’s birthday) are the melting pots in which the recreation and reformation of dance take place.

Over the years, Sambalpuri dance has undergone many changes to suit the climatic, dialectic, cultural and behavioural diversity of the people of Sambalpur. Initially, the performance of this dance was to propitiate the gods, to fight against evil, and to pacify the invisible tiny atman (soul). It was performed during fairs, festivals, marriages and around the time of harvest.

The most exciting and popular presentation in the form of ‘Rasarkeli’, ‘Dalkhai’, Maelajad’, ‘Bayar man’ and ‘Chutuku Chuta’ has made this dance a memorable one. Scintillating movements of feet, punctuated with teaming pauses, are its striking features. The rhythm of dhol, drum, flute and dholak, coupled with the tinkling of ghungroos can thrill one’s heart. Sambalpur Kala Parishad, the pioneering organisation for the promotion of this dance, has been responsible for the revolutionary growth of this dance.

This form of dance has become synonymous with the traditional attire of the people of the region. The designs are varied — Bichitrapuri, Nakshatramala, Saptapadi and Payola — and the methodology is the tie and dye process, imparting elegance. The harmonious blend and interlacement of dyed yarns of different materials, coupled with floral and animal motifs, make this sari befitting for this folk dance. Along with the sari, the red coloured blouse and handkerchief the danseuse wears, add colour to the dance.

The ornaments and jewellery the danseuse wears include traditional bangles, armlets, bracelets, thread khagala on the neck, pan petri and flowers on the head, earrings, nose ring and anklets. The red alta around the dancer’s feet makes the dance very lively. The male dancer wears a simple khadi cloth and a Sambalpuri hawaii shirt, and ties a red towel round his waist. His ornaments include a herbal root necklace and a turban with peacock feathers on it. The Sambalpuri dance is definitely the pride of Odisha.

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