Kalinga Mahotsav, a national festival of martial dances 
by Ileana Citaristi, Bhubaneswar  
e-mail: ileana5@hotmail.com 

February 19, 2003

The first ever festival exclusively dedicated to martial dances was conducted on the platform at the footstep of the Dhauli stupa, the Japanese Buddhist Temple situated on a hill at the outskirts of modern Bhubaneswar, on the 1st and 2nd of February 2003. This is the place where Emperor Ashoka is believed to have fought his last battle of the great Kalinga war before surrendering the sword and embracing Buddhism. It seems in the 9th century there was a Buddhist monastery in the spot where the Santi stupa, built in 1972 by the Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangha, is now situated.  

The festival, organised jointly by Orissa Tourism, Art Vision and Eastern Zonal Cultural Center and sponsored by Nalco, showcased the crude and vibrant Paik dance from Orissa, the dignified and rigorous Kalarippayattu from Kerala, the svelte and agile Thang-Ta from Manipur and the sophisticated and stylised Chhau dance from Mayurbhanji, besides presenting a special choreography ‘Jarjara’ on the opening day. The calm and solemn statue of Buddha overlooking the entire stage from the top of the stupa and the tranquil expanse of the countryside populated by paddy fields and cashew plantations provided the peaceful background to the outburst of movements and sounds, which accompanied the performance of the martial artists. The aim of the organisers to ‘harmonise the vigour of martial tradition with the sublimity of peace through dance performances’ was totally fulfilled; the audience, more than a thousand each day, was a mix of intellectuals, researchers, tourists, peasants, villagers and town dwellers, all of whom seemed to equally enjoying the leaps, whirls and movements of the martial artists. 

Every region in India has developed a system of exercises to be used as technique of attack and defence in wars and combats. The daily training at the base of these techniques involves a high degree of physical and mental concentration for the complexity of movements and the considerable amount of strength required for their execution. These martial techniques, apart from being useful as systems of attack and defence, are also a storehouse of information for studying the kinetics of body language from a shastric point of view. Classical styles of dance such as Kathakali, Manipuri and Chhau have directly developed from the respective martial forms of their region and in the Natya Shastra, the classical text of Indian dramaturgy and aesthetics, we find continuous references to the arts of combat as basic sources of inspiration. 

The martial styles presented at the festival covered quite a large spectrum of techniques and gave a picture of various degrees of sophistication. The opening item ‘Jarjara’ was a creative choreography conceived appositely for this festival and meant to bring together the dynamic and vigorous qualities of two styles of martial dance, the Thang-Ta of Manipuri and the Chauu style of Orissa.   

The item takes inspiration from the opening section of the Natya Shastra, which describes how the enactment of the first play by the sage Bharata and his sons at Indra’s court was disrupted by the interventions of the demons who, displeased for being adversely depicted in the play, paralyse the power of speech and movements of the actors. Lord Brahma by holding the ‘jarjara’ or sacred flag as a weapon, defeats the demons and suggests that the installation of the sacred flag and the puja to it should precede every dramatic performance for the purpose of warding off the evil spirits from the stage. He subsequently pacifies the demons by explaining them the all comprehensive nature of the dramatic art.   

It has been an incredibly rich experience for me to work as a choreographer for about ten days with these two group of dancers, the Chhau group from Rairangpur and the Thang-Ta group from the Huyen Lallong Manipur Thang-ta school of Imphal. For the Manipuri martial artists, coordinating the steps to different rhythmic variations and melodic patterns was not at all easy; they themselves confessed that for the first time they were learning to listen to the music while dancing. Another challenge was to find a common denominator in the movements belonging to these two different styles; the martial origin of the Chhau dance came to my rescue and the result has been an harmonious blend of techniques, each one maintaining its own characteristics. The music composed by Shantanu Mahapatra, availed of the instruments belonging to each of the two styles: the dholak, mohuri and chadchadi of the Chhau orchestra and the pena, lande pung and  mang gang of the Thang-ta. 

After this sophisticated presentation, the entry of the vigorous Paiks in procession accompanied by drums and swords created quite an impact. Their precarious conditions notwithstanding, due to lack of patronage and encouragement, the Paiks are still ‘heroes’ to the eyes of the Oriya people, their daring somersaults, acrobatic feats, balancing formations and display of strength and vigour still inspires fear and admiration. The true depiction of the ‘vira rasa’ is imprinted in their looks, gait and chali-s; the sound of the accompanying drums underlies each phase of combat with vigorous strokes. 

The performance of kalaripayattu by the Udaya Kalari Sangam from Manjakkal, Kerala, was marked by precision and elegance of execution. It started with Thozhuthu or puja to the training ground (kalari) and then went on through such items as May payattu, Otta chumada, Cheruvadu payattu, Kettuvary and other exercises with swords, spears, sticks and fire play. The absence of any percussion to underlie the different phases of combat perhaps took away some appeal from the show but it did not diminish the visual impact created by the neat executions of jumps and leg extensions so typical to the style. 

On the second evening the Thang-ta (literally meaning sword-spear) troupe performed their traditional items such as Ta-khousaba, Thang-chungoi yannaba, Thang ahum yannaba, Thang-ta chainabas etc. consisting of a series of solo, duet and group formations displaying combats with swords, spear and daggers. The sharp edges of the swords created sparkles in the air during the fighting numbers and the performers mesmerised the audience by the quickness and agility of their movements. It was interesting to see how the numbers performed by the female members of the troupe were no less perfect than the ones performed by the males; surely an example of how the gender is no obstacle to the achievement of any skill. Some of the group presentations had all the elements  of a dance choreography incorporated in them and some of the steps and poses of these dances have created the framework for the development of  classical forms like Lal-haraoba, Ras Leela and Sankirtan of Manipur. 

After this powerful display of sharp edged swords, the choreographed mock fight presented by the Chhau dancers in their first item ‘rook-mar’ appeared a little bit slow and lacklustre. This is a simplified version of the famous ‘war dance’ staged in 1912 in honour of the Emperor George VI at Calcutta. The Maharaj of Mayurbhanj Sri Ram Chandra Bhanji Deo took personal interest in choreographing the item, which was performed on that occasion by a total of sixty-four dancers holding real shields and swords in their hands. The simplified version which is part of the present repertoire has a rather monotonous long introduction in which the dancers, divided into two sections, execute different ‘bhangi’ (in the Chhau terminology it refers to a group of movements united to form a section of dance) in straight line formations, culminating into a rather too short ‘nartiki’ in which some fighting combinations are attempted. 

Much more vibrant and interesting was the item inspired by the story of Abhimanyu, the  heroic youth of the Pandava clan. This is a relatively recent choreography, which gives ample scope to the dancers to display their impeccable technical training and also a good understanding of the idiom of choreographic formations. This item departs considerably from the rigid structure of ‘chali’, nata’, ‘nartiki’ of the traditional Chhau repertoire which had come to be rather monotonous and repetitive and is a clear example of the new wave of sensitivity which circulates among the dancers and the oustads as a result of the project undertaken since quite some years by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi for the development and sustenance of the Chhau dance. 

Altogether a commendable and successful effort from the part of the organisers, who have all pledged to make the festival an annual event.   

Dancer, choreographer and writer, Ileana Citaristi is based in Bhubaneswar. She is the author of the book ‘The Making of a Guru’ about Kelucharan Mohapatra.