COVID-19 protocol, fear hit Odisha’s tribal dance performances

For more than two years now, out of practice and livelihood, tribal artists are losing touch of the art 

For more than two years now, out of practice and livelihood, tribal artists are losing touch of the art 

When researcher Jitu Mishra went to Kalahandi in Odisha to document tribal art and culture and the Dhap dance in particular, he was dismayed by the local organiser’s struggle to get the tribal performers on stage.

“I stayed in Kalahandi for three days to see Dhap dance by the Kondh tribe. But I was told the pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to tribal dance, song and music; and the performers could not be arranged,” Mr. Mishra, who visited Kalahandi in February, told this reporter.

He explained how the indigenous culture that was already under threat from the onslaught of modern-day entertainment had further degenerated due to the pandemic. The tribal dancers, belonging to both genders, perform in a group as singers, dancers and drummers all rolled into one. In this, they are different from the folk dancers, who take on specific roles on stage.

COVID spreads fear

According to Paramananda Patel, who researches on tribal life, the COVID guidelines on maintaining physical distance and legal action upon violation created panic among tribals in the State.

“The community that had strong bonding began to live in isolation due to the fear of the coronavirus infection. The evening dance performances in villages and during festivals came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown and badly affected their socio-cultural life,” Mr. Patel said.

Not only did the performers stop singing, dancing and beating drums, the young members of the community also lost the opportunity to watch the veterans perform and learn from them. The costumes and instruments of the tribal dancers, musicians and singers, have also remained untouched for the last two years and suffered damage due to non-use and termites.

“The community that had strong bonding began to live in isolation due to the fear of the coronavirus infection. The evening dance performances in villages and during festivals came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown and badly affected their socio-cultural life”Parmananda PatelResearcher

Losing skills from misuse

Yet another casualty in the disruption of performances has been the traditional form of tribal rendition. “Many tribal performers known to be instant poets have lost the skill of singing spontaneously,” Parameswar Mund, a Bhawanipatna-based folklorist, pointed out. He said the artists now struggle to recall the songs they once sang effortlessly during pre-COVID times. “When they are unable to sing, the interlude music is played on, and the tribal dancer then loses the rhythm, the hallmark of every performance,” he added.

Kumuda Pujhari, a Bhadra tribesman who performs Dandari dance, said, he now dreads returning to the stage. “Pasri hoi galana geet mane (I have forgotten all songs); There was a time when I used to perform in. Bhubaneswar and outside the State.”

Non-tribals grab chance

The addiction of the new generation performers to internet has been another bane. It has diminished their interest in traditional forms and started affecting their performances. Their steps now inadvertently tend to follow the modern dance steps in order to get a chance to showcase their skills on bigger platforms. It is usually the non-tribals who adopt the tribal dance steps and usurp the lucrative platforms created by government agencies.

With the district and block level cultural functions discontinued and restrictions imposed on congregations, the tribal dancers have lost even those limited opportunities.

Earlier, the Government-run Academy of Tribal Language and Culture (ATLC) used to sponsor at least 100 visits of tribal performers to different festivals annually. The opportunities to perform kept them busy and in practice of their art. “We have not sponsored any tribal dance troupes in the last two years,” lamented Mr. Patel, senior tribal domain expert with ATLC.

The dance forms of Bhatra, Paraja, Dongria Kondh, Kutia Kondh, Gond and Saura have also suffered due to COVID-19 protocol.

In Juanga community in Keonjhar, there is a social tradition called ‘Samuduni Dekha’, in which the mother goes to stay with her married daughter and the entire community comes out in celebration to welcome her often with song and dance. This ceremonial practice involving song and dance at community level too received a jolt during the pandemic.

Financial sustenance

“If we want to ensure our tribal dance and music survives, then the master tribal dancers and singers need to be identified on priority and provided remuneration to preserve the art forms. Financial assistance for safe keeping of their costumes and instruments should be considered or else this intangible heritage will become a relic in the museum,” Mr. Mishra warned.

“If we want to ensure our tribal dance and music survives, then the master tribal dancers and singers need to be identified on priority and provided remuneration to preserve the art forms. Financial assistance for safe keeping of their costumes and instruments should be considered or else this intangible heritage will become a relic in the museum”Jitu MishraResearcher

Odisha is known to have one of most diverse groups of tribal communities in the country. According to 2011 Census, Odisha’s tribal population constitutes 9.17% of the country’s tribal population. About 22.85% of Odisha’s total population is tribals. In terms of tribal population, it occupies the third position in India. It has 62 tribal communities. Similarly, of India’s total 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups, 13 reside in Odisha.

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