How the tribals learned to dance

Shuchita Jha

Dances like kathak, Bharatnatyam, kathakali, chhau are very popular and much loved in our country for their grace and beauty. Tribal dances of these regions are as beautiful and diverse as folk and classical dances.

Tribal dances have a beautiful history and a deep connection with the divine. Dance is an important part of several religious rites and rituals and there is a different dance for each festival.

There are several stories telling us about the history and origin of folk dances in India. The Natya Shastra says that the Divine couple Shiv and Parvati were the Gurus of Tandav and Lasya, respectively, and they form the foundation of all other dances that originated further.

Today we will visit the tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh, Charttisgarh abd Maharashtra and have a little peek into their dances and spiritual beliefs.

Tribal people however, being nature worshippers have different beliefs and origin stories for their dances.

People of the Gond Tribe believe that their deities incarnated as a peacock to show them the beauty and divinity of dance. That is why they wear colourful clothes and accessories themselves to bear resemblance to the peacock’s tail while performing dances. They appreciate the beauty in nature and try to recreate it with their dance.

The Baigas have a different story. According to them, once upon a time, in the moonlight, their ancestors saw that a tiger was playing the nagada , a panther was playing the dundubhi and a peacock was dancing to its rhythm. They then learnt the dance steps from the bird and the rhythm form the two animals and taught it to their clan. Since then, the Baigas started performing the peacock dance with percussion instruments on special occasions.

Cute, right?

In folk culture, dances are performed during changing seasons, during harvest, to bring good luck to soldiers before they go off to wars, to celebrate victory, to celebrate births and marriages and also to ward off evil spirits. Dances have their special place in many cultures, for tribal communities too.

Source- Madhya Pradesh Tribal museum

Whirling is an important part of tribal dances, as they believe that the constant movement of the body elevates the spirit and the dancer becomes one with the divine.

Surprisingly, Sufis believe the same. Whirling dervishes perform the Sema ritual dance to become one with the divine. Two civilizations, worlds apart, have a similar belief. How fascinating is that!!

As they say, we are all part of the same consciousness.

In tribal culture, when the dancer falls to the ground, and becomes one with the divine, they believe that the Gods talk to them through the dancer. They ask them for solutions to their problems and to predict their futures.

Tribal dances are inspired from nature, from animals and birds, from flowing water and winds. They are simple and full of energy. Tribals perform dances in groups or as couples and anyone who is able to match the energy and keep in sync is welcome to join, except in some religious ceremonies and rituals.

One of the most interesting things about these dances is that they are not formally taught to the children in a dance school under some guru, but the knowledge is passed on from the elders to the children at home. The children start by imitating their parents and grandparents and gradually get the hang of it until they are perfect.

The accessories for these dances like flower-bracelets, necklaces, bangles, earrings, headgear and props are also not expensive and are mostly DIY. The tribal people fashion them at home from bark of trees, dried twigs, leaves, flowers and clothes.

When talking to one of the dancers of the Gond tribe, just about to perform the Saila dance in the Museum of Mankind, I complimented her on her wood-shaving necklace, and she took it off and put it around my neck. It was one of the cutest gestures ever! 😀

These dances are performed to please the duties and to seek their blessings. The Bhivsan Pooja performed by the Gonds to please the Lingal Dev is an important festival of the community. Dandar is performed by Kolma Adivasis of Maharashtra, while the Bhils have two major dances, Dindan performed on Holi and Dandaar on Diwali.

Source- Madhya Pradesh Tribal museum

There are many such dances of the Baiga, Korku, Bhil and Kol communities too that make the culture of the tribal people colourful and diverse.

As a journalist I was lucky enough to witness many of these dances in the Tribal Museum and Museum of Mankind in Bhopal. They are so colourful and joyful and the dancers are just amazing who love to share the stories behind these dances with you.

Another popular tribal dance, a form of the Dandaar dance is performed by the tibals of Maharashtra. This dance stands apart from the others for its emotional expressiveness. This is called Bhavand (from the word Bhawana, meaning feelings). This dance has been documented by many researchers too for its high emotional quotient. There are rock paintings that depict Bhavand. This dance form is more popular among the Varli tribes of Maharashtra.

It has a great significance for the tribals as it is a dance performed to pay respect to their ancestors. The dancers wear masks of deities like Rama, Krishna, etc and of demons like Ravana, and also of other characters form epics like Mahabharat and Ramayana. It is basically a dance-drama performed to express emotions and tell a story.

Earlier families in the Varli community used to make these masks of clay, wood, paper-mache or of hay at home. After the dance performance they used to decorate their homes with the mask and immerse them in a waterbody after a year, when they created a new one. But now, they mostly get the masks on rent from a shop that sells these accessories for dances.

The Varli people perform the dance with such devotion like they are worshipping the Gods. It is close to their hearts and a big part of their beliefs. A devotee makes a vow to perform the Bhavand dance if his or her wish is granted. Once that wish comes true, the devotee organizes the three day long festival of Bhawad wherein many villagers participate. One narrator or sutradhar introduces the characters by their masks as they enter the stage.

On the first two days, the masked characters act according to their designated roles and characters and script. It is on the third day when all the characters come together to perform this dance when the performance reaches its climax. Bhawar concludes with the appearance of a 24-handed Goddess Bhavand, with devotees paying their respects.

Many such beautiful tribal dances and cultures are now on the verge of extinction with only a handful of people left to pass on the tradition.

This was all for today. Hope you had a good time with this little podcast on tribal dances. Keep listing for more such sneak peeks into the beautiful tribal culture of India.

See you next week with a new episode. Till then like and subscribe to @groundtales on Instagram, twitter, Facebook and YouTube. You can also visit www.groundtales.com for more information.

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