Devotional expression

heritage

Devotional expression

charming Acrobatics is an essential part of a Gotipua performance.

It is the most intriguing dance of our land. Born out of necessity, sculpted by history, a classic performing art, Gotipua is unique in many ways. But all this came as a great surprise to us. We were preparing to fly to Orissa to experience the great rath yatra of Jagannath when the state’s director of tourism asked, “Why don’t you research Gotipua?” There was a Himalayan monsoon storm raging outside our cottage. “What’s Gotipua?” we bellowed down the phone. Thunder distorted his reply, but we did hear “.... ancient ... young boys only ... see it.”

So we did. On a cloud-scudding day, we drove through the green and watered countryside of Orissa to the crafts village of Raghurajpur. There, trudging down a narrow road with shrines on one side and houses with murals on the other, we stepped into a seemingly ordinary cottage. That was deceptive. It was an ashram in the revered tradition: young students lived here with their guru. It was also an akhara, a gymnasium in which they were trained, massaged and groomed to achieve the flexibility required by their eclectic art. And it was a non-profit organisation to preserve a heritage endangered by creeping modernity. It was called the Dasabhuja Gotipua Odishi Nrutya Parishad. A bust of the founder, Guru Manguni Das, was enshrined outside this cottage in which he had lived and trained his young chelas.

As we said, however, we didn’t know all this when we entered the central room. There was a single line of chairs for spectators, a framed and garlanded portrait of the founder on a wall, pictures of performers and oleographs of gods and goddesses. At one end sat the musicians — the current guru on a harmonium, a percussionist with the two-sided mardala drum, another with the small cymbals called gini, and a young Gotipua performer. Gotipua troupes, traditionally, travel from village to village to sustain themselves.

We sat down, not quite sure what to expect. The musicians began to play and, through a side door, the dancers trooped in. They were all young girls in bright saris and blouses with anklets of bells, jewellery and elaborate make up on their faces. Their ages ranged from seven or eight to 13 or 14. They were very graceful, very expressive and very devout as they danced. Then, slowly, it dawned on us that these lissome performers, with their gently feminine movements, were not girls but boys. We felt disoriented.
Generations of cultural stereotyping welled up unconsciously: this was bizarre. Then, very deliberately, we opened our minds and began to accept it for what it was — a beautiful expression of devotion, evocatively choreographed. Our socially-conditioned mindsets began to soften with the perfection of their performance.

During the hour that we spent with them, we were enchanted by their show. It had been a visual delight. It was only later that we realised the significance of what we had seen. More than any other classical dance form, Gotipua holds a mirror to the chequered past of this eastern state. We learnt this when we met the elegant and warm Aruna Mohanty. She is an award winning Odissi dancer who heads the Orissa Dance Academy. Our long conversation with her, as well as the informative Odissi dance by D N Patnaik, which she presented to us, suddenly made everything we had seen realign itself. It was as if we had turned a kaleidoscope and a pretty picture had reassembled itself into intriguingly significant patterns.

We realised now why, after the invocatory chanted dance, the tempo had changed. It had became more languorous, sensuous. As in many of the arts of Orissa, Gotipua too had been influenced by Puri’s great temple of Lord Jagannath. In fact, it has its origins there. It was the temple’s tradition to have professional dancers to entertain the lord. Like the vestal virgins of ancient Rome, these maharis had taken a vow of chastity. But, over the decades, their lives had been corrupted by a succession of libidinous prelates and princes. The women dancers fell into disrepute and the arrival of invaders with their prohibitions about women being seen in public, hastened the decline of the maharis. As a substitute, the Gotipua was created. At first, they were goti (single) pua (boys), but later, they grew into small groups.

In that room in Raghurajpur, the dancers were now clearly capturing the seductive gestures and movements of the despised maharis. We noticed the three-bend pose in which the legs are crossed, the out-thrust hip emphasises the slimness of the waist, and the come-hither inclination of the head, invites attention. This tribhangi, often seen in temple sculptures, creates a gracefully voluptuous body language that is appealing without being blatant. It says much for the skill of the dancers that even though we knew that they were young men and not women, their body language was still evocative.

As we watched them, however, a new tempo began to emerge. History was still at work on Gotipua. When the alien invaders had left, a local ruler decided to set up gymnasia in every street so that future attackers would face stiff resistance from an athletic home guard. This gave rise to a performance which is unique to Gotipua. The dancers now began to execute the most intricate acrobatic formations. To achieve this Bandha Nrutya, Gotipua dancers start very young; at the age of six or seven when their bodies are still flexible. Even so, nature curtails their careers as Gotipua dancers. Age catches up, and the physical changes that occur in the mid-teens compel Gotipua dancers to leave the ashrams that have nurtured them. It is a heart-breaking but inevitable farewell.

Many do, however, put their arduous years of training to good use — they become Odissi dancers. The late Guru Kelucharan Mahapatra had been born in Raghurajpur and trained in the village Gotipua Akhara before he became a famous Odissi dancer. Odissi, because it accepts both men and women, does not evoke the social prejudice that boys-dressed-as-girls do. It has been accepted as one of the many classical dances of India. Gotipua, its parent, has not. Clearly, however, that sexist mind-set is changing. Girls from traditional families have taken to the sports field and gymnastics, risking public exposure that the orthodox would have once condemned as obscene.

Gotipua has the right combination of grace, physical challenge and adaptability that would appeal to young people today. If its mentors can insulate it from the insidious inroads of Bollywood item numbers, publicise it, and open its doors to out-of-state and foreign students, it could become the eclectic classical dance of the future. And it doesn’t have to be restricted to pua.

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