Boys' best laid steps

folk dance

Boys' best laid steps

As the dancers moved around lithely in rapidly executed acrobatic movements and finally formed a pyramid, the audience broke into applause. Then a lady seated beside me leaned over and asked in a whisper, “Is it really true, as the compere said, that the dancers are not girls, but boys... all boys?” I reassured her, smilingly, that they were indeed boys... all of them.

It was easy to understand her incredulity — it is not an uncommon reaction among the uninitiated. It is also understandable and a compliment to these artistes of Gotipua, the famous folk dance of Odisha.

Gotipua is performed by young boys who dress up as girls, complete with female costumes and jewellery — kumkum on forehead, kohl lining the eyes, flowers in their long hair that is tied in a bun. So total and perfect is the disguise and their feminine poise and grace that even those who are aware of this actually have their moments of disbelief.

The best of Gotipua performances are visually arresting. The dance is in praise of Lord Krishna and Lord Jagannath, and draws from the life of Lord Krishna and Radha. The boys begin learning at a tender age and continue to perform until their adolescence, when their androgynous look begins to disappear and they can no longer carry off the girl-like appearance. In Odiya language, goti means single and pua means boy.

A difficult art to master, Gotipua entails training from an early age, and it is a very rigorous training indeed. The dance is characterised not only by grace and poise, but equally by tough acrobatic movements, gymnastics, complex group formations calling for perfect balance and synchronisation too. All this and the fast pace at which many items proceed, the boys have to practise hard and thoroughly for years.

Going around Raghurajpur (near the pilgrim town of Puri), where the art has flourished for centuries, we saw the tough regimen imposed on the students. We noted how disciplined these boys were and the systematic training they underwent.

Village training

Singing classes are also part of the tutelage. Today, Raghurajpur is recognised as a heritage or artists’ village and is much visited by art-lovers. It is nowadays a tourist attraction. Around this area are other villages where you see Gotipua schools, and we made brief visits to them. Gotipua dancers impersonate girls effectively with feminine grace and gait as well as external aids like feminine accessories and make-up. Silver filigree jewellery is common. The dancers wear necklaces, earrings or studs, armbands, bracelets, anklets with bells etc, and use aaltha or a red liquid (used by brides in this region too) to paint their hands and soles.

First there was a traditional female costume, which has now evolved into a pattern that makes moving around in it easier. A bindi, kajal or kohl for the eyes, and certain designs painted on the face, besides long hair (boys are made to grow their hair) adorned with flowers, complete the look.

Once you see a few Gotipua performances, you will become familiar with the repertoire that, like most Indian classical dances, follows a set pattern. It begins with a Guru Vandana or obeisance to the teacher, which includes prayers expressing gratitude to Lord Jagannath, the dance teacher, Mother Earth and also a welcome to the audience. Sa ri ga ma is a nritta or pure dance item.

Then comes abhinaya, the well-known element of Indian dance in which facial expressions convey moods and stories. Poems drawn from the life of Radha and Krishna are danced to.

Twelfth century poet Jayadeva’s renowned Sanskrit work Gita Govinda is a favourite. Incidentally, Gita Govinda finds a place even among Hindustani and Carnatic music recitals as well as repertoires of classical-dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak... This part of the performance is soft, gentle and sensual. It narrates the story through facial expressions or abhinaya, mudras and gentle movements.

The Bandha Nrutya/Nritya features numerous acrobatic postures/poses and movements. One sees difficult and intricate formations and poses, calling for unerring synchronisation and balance which testify to the skill of the artistes. This part generally draws the most applause and is the most photographed part of the recital. The human pyramid formed by the dancers is very popular with the audiences.

Musical accompaniment

Like every dance, folk or classical, Gotipua has a few singers to provide the vocals and a host of musical accompaniments. There is the percussion instrument called mardala (used widely in cultural performances in Odisha), the flute, violin, harmonium and gini or small cymbals etc.

Among the well-known troupes are Konark Natya Mandap troupe, Chandrasekhar Gotipua Kala Samsad, Dasabhuja Gotipua Odissi Nrutya Parishad, Odisha Dance Academi, Nakshyatra Gurukul, Natyambara troupe, Nakshyatra Gurukula, Laxmipriya Gotipua Nrutya Kendra, Nilekantheswar Gotipua Gurukula, Abhina Sundar Gotipua Nrutya Parishad, Aradhana Dance Akademi etc (names mentioned are not in any particular order).

Female impersonation is well known in Indian classical dance — in Kuchipudi and Kathakali for instance, where one finds male artistes donning female roles. In Gotipua, however, the entire troupe is always made up of preadolescent boys. In Kuchipudi and Kathakali, artistes from ages 16 to 60-plus (even septuagenarians) don female roles.

How did this folk dance come into being? There are several theories. One says that a section of puritan Vaishnavites who did not approve of devadasis aka maharis  dancing in temples introduced this practice so that devadasis could be substituted by young boys dressed as girls.

Art spreads

Whatever the reason, from around the 16th century, one found that young boys were dancing the dance of the maharis while keeping its integral components of madhura rasa and sakhi bhaava. The akhada culture that was growing in Odisha at the time also contributed to the development of Gotipua and its popularity. Slowly, Gotipua stepped out of the temple precincts and went on to public platforms. Some of today’s Odissi and Gotipua gurus add that the strenuous nature of the dance form led to its teaching and performance being limited to young boys and females being kept out.

Gotipua has strong links to Odissi and is very close to this classical dance of Orissa in its style, though there are several distinguishing features. In fact, it is sometimes described as the precursor of Odissi. Several well-known Odissi dancers and teachers began life as Gotipua performers, including the legendary (late) Kelucharan Mohapatra. Years ago, this Odissi icon spoke to us very fondly of Gotipua dance traditions.

Around the early and middle part of the last century, Gotipua had gone into decline. However, in recent years, due to the efforts of the Odisha state government, of which the annual Gotipua Dance Festival is one, and art lovers of the state, the dance form has seen a revival, which is heartening.

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