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.
Nowadays quite a few contemporary dance groups have incorporated these physical techniques as basic exercises in their training and as tools for their choreographic works. In a country like India where classical styles of dances emphasize and strive more on differences than on common elements, the physical exercises at the base of these martial trainings can offer a common code of body language at a national level.
The Attakalari Centre for Movement Arts from Bangalore opened the festival with a montage of choreographic works incorporating martial elements of Kalarippayattu from Kerala and Capoeira from Brazil with acrobatics and contemporary dance. The artists displayed excellent coordination and precision in the execution although the impact remained quite technical all through seldom transcending the pure execution of skill.
The transition from this refined rendition to the more raw and earthy display of combat and acrobatics by the Paik group of the Maa Anlei Paika Akhada from Khordha was at first quite shocking but slowly the young artists of the Orissa martial art conquered the hearts of the spectators with their rudimentary attempts at choreography and the well designed and executed acrobatic formations. Although the Paiks have been existing in almost all the ex-feudatory States of Orissa, Khordha is famous for the valour and heroism of its warriors and these young descendants of the valorous Paiks are all determined to carry forward the skill of their forefathers and to be considered and accepted as full fledged performing artists at par with other forms of Orissa performing arts.
The group which followed was from the Chatasal Bhundelkhand Akhada established in 1964 at Sagar in Madhya Pradesh by Guru Bhagwan Das Raikwar. Like the Orissa Paika, these artists also display their skill with swords and sticks and various acrobatics. One of their speciality consisted in ending any kind of combat by tying the weapons of the adversary in a sort of lock without the help of any rope, as it is usually done by other martial artists.
It was interesting to see the Manipuri artists of the Thang Ta troupe sitting in the public and commenting between them at each of the features executed by their colleagues from Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. It is rare for these artists to meet and be exposed to each other's work and the Kalinga Mahotsav is certainly one of the rare festivals completely dedicated to them.
On the second day of the festival, the Manipuri artists from Hula Sindamsang of Imphal showed how difficult it is sometimes to define where martial art ends and choreographed patterns of dance start. Their elegant movements even in the combat sequences, excellent coordination and precision in the execution of each number both in the "decorative display" and in the "actual fighting category" were absolutely breathtaking. Particularly outstanding was the ritualistic dance of the two warriors holding spears and shields (Ta-Khousaba) for its choreographic impact, the solo Stick dance for the dexterity displayed by the player and the number of the blindfolded artist who performed difficult feats guided only by the sheer sense of space directions.
The numbers which followed referred to two important stages in the evolution of the Chhau dances. The Phari Khanda item performed by Mahendranath and Ghashiram Kandankel from Jamda of Rairangpur district in Orissa is one of the few specimens left, if not the only one, of this art form which represents an important link between the crude dance form of the Paik and the more sophisticated Chhau dance. Imported to Jamdia from Seraikhella by two oustads soon after Independence, this dance of defence (phari) and attack (khanda) is an interesting blending of basic Seraikhella Chhau steps and choreographed patterns of combat. Only one guru is left now who still teaches this form in this village while in Seraikhella it has completed disappeared.
items, the War Dance performed by 16 artists of the Bhamangaty Chhau Nrutya
Prathistan of Rairangpur is equally an important landmark in the transition;
it was in fact the first choreographed item performed by the Paiks in front
of Emperor George V in 1912 at Kolkata and it was choreographed by the
then ruler of Mayurbhanji, Ram Chandra Bhanji Deo, a great patron of this
art. The fact that this item, although with a less number of artists,
is still performed in the repertoire of Mayurbhanji Chhau dance, goes a
long way in establishing the continuity between the martial arts and the
martial dances which derived from it.
Ileana Citaristi is a performer/teacher of Odissi and Chhau and the director of Art Vision, Bhubaneswar.