Old charm of deer dance

Old charm of deer dance

Lit by theatrical lights at Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Peepal tree, a habitat to numerous echoing bats, with rustling leaves served as the perfect setting for ‘Shishi Odori’ – the deer dance. ‘Shishi Odori’ is a ritual dance performed on different occasions like requiem, memorial service for ancestral spirits, to purify evil spirits or as an expression of gratitude for an abundant harvest. And as the tree is considered holy in many religions, this venue was chosen.

Organised by the Japan Foundation, the event began with Manipuri Dhol Cholom – a dance performed on the festival of Holi. After the performance, four dancers dressed in traditional Japanese ‘Shishi Odori’ costumes mesmerised the audience.

The costume included a 270 cm-long bamboo headgear called ‘Sasara’, which was decorated with white handmade paper, and the theatrical deer mask ‘Kashira’ along with ‘Maku’, a fine blue cloth with crests on it, which was used to cover faces of dancers. With ‘Taiko’ drums tied to their waists and ‘Hakama’ kimono pants, the dancers cheered up the audience just with their appearance on the stage.

As the costume weighs 15-20 kilos, a lot of strength and willpower is required   to perform the dance form. Although it is traditionally performed with eight dancers, the evening saw performance by four  – Koichi Sato, Shutaro Koiwa, Takeshi Yoshida and  Kosuke Hachiya.

“We all have day jobs and are not professional dancers, but we are trying to revive this 300-year-old dance form. The deer dance was only performed by the eldest son earlier but now anyone can do it,” explained Koiwa. All the dancers were from Gyozan school, Maikawa, which has a drum dance style.  Explaining more about the dance, Koiwa said, “Shishi literally means meat. As deer meat was a familiar sight and a staple diet in Japan, this dance is a form of thank you to the deer for providing food and an apology for killing it.” The dance includes one main deer, a female deer and six young deers. The main deer wears purple knotted headgear above the deer mask and the others wear red headgears. The designs   and crests on the main deer’s are also different from the rest.

The ‘Shishi Odori’ dancers weave their way through Shinto shrines, temples and houses, bobing up and down, beating their ‘Sasara’ on the ground, all the while playing drums, singing and dancing. “It is believed that the jumps drive away the bad spirits,” shared Koiwa.

“This performance was a requiem for the people   who lost their lives in the Tōhoku tsunami in Japan in 2011 and to the deer who lost their lives over ages,” Koiwa added.
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