Colorful Rangabati Festival
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat

June 23, 2013

Odisha Tourism has consistently made efforts to not only promote the classical arts of Odisha but also its folk and tribal traditions through colorful festivals, wide publicity and scintillating performers. A super turnout for all festivals has been a positive outcome.

The three day Rangabati Festival, a festival of dance and music of western Odisha, was organized by Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, Dept of Culture, Govt of Odisha from June 19 to 21 at Kala Vikas Kendra in Cuttack. Western Odisha has an enormous wealth of folk art forms manifesting human feelings in beautiful, rhythmic expression. Last year, the festival was held at Bhubaneswar to an overflowing Rabindra Mandap teeming with rasikas but concentrating all cultural programs in Bhubaneswar does not serve the purpose of creating awareness of the arts among the public, so the venue this year was Cuttack. The main objective of this festival is to project, promote, popularize and encourage the wide range of performing arts of western Odisha and its artistes.

It takes about 45 minutes from Bhubaneswar to reach the venue at Cuttack where the drive along the Kathajodi river (half dry at this time), an arm of the Mahanadi River, is pleasant and we wished we could spend some time walking along the tiny promenade where the locals enjoy chatting with friends and elders are seen playing cards! The venue itself had a colorful portal and the whole street was decorated with strings of light across the street and lit applique lanterns all along the sides, adding to the festive atmosphere. The modest foyer had a huge receptacle filled with floating flowers in front of a portrait of Babulal Doshi, the founder of Kala Vikas Kendra.

Slide show of day 1

Folk dance and music are spontaneous and tell of everyday joys and sorrows of life, rites and rituals, nature, tales of epics and romances. The highly colorful stage totally covered with paintings of folk dancers and instruments in a profusion of colors set the pulse for a colorful folk dance and music extravaganza where high decibel levels of percussion permeated the atmosphere. What would be termed as rather loud décor (Suchitra Creations) somehow seemed to suit the purpose here, complemented by colorful lighting by Jayadev Das. The festival featured solo/duet vocal, group instrumental music (Badya Bichitra) and group dance recitals. The first evening took off with singer Sarbeshwar Bhoi from Bhawanipatna, a recipient of national scholarship on music of Kalahandi. Curly hair cascading down his shoulders, he presented 4 numbers accompanied by singer Ruby Mohanty and a team of 5 energetic musicians – 4 seated percussionists and a flautist.  The devotional song in praise of Lord Jagannath had Ruby in high pitched devotion. They ended their recital with a lilting tribal love song where the boy welcomes the girl after marriage, asking her for promises when she becomes a part of his family.

Dulduli Kalaparishad (established in 2000) headed by Vasudev Sa from Balangir imparts training in music and dance of western Odisha. The 12 member troupe clad in red and yellow with a touch of green and blue had only the vocalist Sa in normal attire. Their scintillating display of percussion in Badya Bichitra had the audience cheering them along.  A scantily clad central character, his face covered in war paint and wearing thick anklets, entertained with his saucy moves, while playing the pot like guduki instrument alternating with a khanjani (like a smaller kanjira).

Group dance took off with Nupur (established in 2003) from Bargah led by Paramananda Swain. The group is recognized for its training and performs widely. Starting with 6 drummers and a boy wielding cymbals, the skillful percussion section was followed by the entry of 7 girls and together they scorched the stage with their high energy dance and playful interaction. With a beautiful blend of traditional instruments, this Sambalpuri music and dance item was performed with spontaneous delight much to the joy of the foot tapping audience.

Badya Bichitra featured Jeeban Bhorasagar’s troupe Maa Samaleswari Dulduli from Sambalpur in a riveting display of wild percussion with a little bit of acrobatics thrown in at the end where the performers do somersaults, jump over the drums and even form a pyramid. Drums used by each group were different and in this item, the drums had a colorful stick sticking out on either side. The high level of energy from the team of 9 drummers, 1 with cymbals and 1 on mahuri was infectious, with the team leader Bhorasagar’s virtuosity being the focal point around which the beats emerged. This music ensemble has been making waves for the past 3 decades under the guidance of Jeeban Bhorasagar. 

Led by Chintu Prasad Naik, Prativa (established in 2000) from Bhawanipatna, Kalahandi, is engaged in research, workshop and training on tribal dances and music of Kalahandi district. Their item on Singari of Kalahandi was a super finale of high voltage dancing and interaction between pairs with the men sporting painted decorations on their loin cloth clad bodies, wearing bead necklaces and nose rings, their hair blowing wild with their frenetic movements while the dainty girls were in bright yellow costumes. The drums used in this item had two bunches of peacock feathers adorning them. It was such an action packed evening that one almost forgot that the air condition was switched off for whatever reason at the start of the evening’s program and the hall was humid and rather oppressive at the end of a rather hot day!

Slide show of day 2

As in the previous evening, the hall was filled with the smoke of frankincense that serves a dual purpose - to spread fragrance as well as keep away mosquitoes. We were told this is a trademark of all Odisha Tourism sponsored programs. The heavy downpour fortunately stopped at the right time to ensure an enthusiastic turnout. Day two started with a melodious solo vocal recital of folk songs by Sasmita Sahu from Sundargarh. She presented 4 songs – a devotional song in praise of lord Krishna, a swinging Sambalpuri folk song Rasakeli, perky Maila Jada for which one could almost visualize dance movements, and ended with Sajani, a soulful romantic song.

Instruments used for folk songs are identical but the rhythm and tempo are unique and different. The melding of the dhol, tasa, nisan, timki and mardal that are essential to Sambalpuri music and dance bring about a magical sound in rhythm, and we saw ample proof of it in the instrumental and dance recitals of the evening, starting with Bharni presenting Badya Bichitra. The ensemble featured 10 drummers and 1 singer, vigorous percussion accompanied by subtle body movements. Led by Bhagaban Sahu from Balangir, Bharni strives to preserve and promote the traditional value of folk dance and music of western Odisha.

Apart from training and performance, Paenri (established in 2002) in Sonepur also conducts research work on choreography, rhythm and instruments of folk culture. Its director is Chaudhuri Bibhar. The 3 member orchestra welcomed the 8 drummers on stage for a brief percussion interlude before 4 girls entered the stage in a haze of smoke to perform a cheerful Jamu Dali, a traditional Sambalpuri song in which young boys and girls exchange their thoughts about love and happiness. The swirling smoke and disco like lighting by Jayadev made this a jazzy number ending in a crescendo of rhythm.

Established in 1994, music ensemble Kahar from Sambalpur led by Krushna Chandra Bag has performed widely in and outside Odisha. An ensemble of 9 drummers presented Badya Bichitra, accompanied by 3 seated musicians (2 vocal and a mahuri). This musical delight performed with full vigour had the mardala, dhol, tasa, nisan and timki played with unique rhythmic patterns.

Headed by Bipinhari Das, Sambalpur Kala Kendra established in 1978, is one of the leading cultural institutions for imparting teaching and training in Sambalpuri dance and music. They presented Dalkhai dance that is performed during all celebrations of life be it wedding or other festivities. The 6 member seated orchestra commenced with some hectic drumming and once the 6 girls entered the stage, the energy transferred to them as they wove in and out of formations and circles with intricate footwork and nimble movements, waving their scarves high and low. The audience was full of appreciation for the intricate and enchanting choreography by Pushpanjali Behera (who is also the general Secretary of SKK) and everyone wanted to know the name of the vocalist (Kedar Gaura) whose exceptional singing earned deep appreciation from the crowd. Hailed as the most authentic presentation in true Sambalpuri technique and tradition, the exuberant performance by SKK was surely the highlight of the evening with the audience oohing and aahing in delight long after the evening was over as we waited for the rain to abate.

Slide show of day 3

The final evening of the festival commenced with an enchanting solo vocal by Bibhuti Bhushan Pattnaik from Sambalpur, who apart from being a singer, has composed music for many dance dramas and musical plays and done playback singing for films too. Accompanied by 5 musicians, his strong voice reverberated in the auditorium to nostalgic enjoyment by the audience as he presented typical Sambalpuri songs, a devotional number describing the tribhangi of lord Jagannath followed by a song describing a wedding ceremony. Next one described the beauty of a woman adorned with flowers and the final was a romantic number from the 1945 film Astaraga directed by Prafulla Kar. This recital was special for another reason. Pattnaik was accompanied on the harmonium by Prabhudatta Pradhan, the composer of the Rangabati song after which this festival got its name!

Under the leadership of Debesh Kumar Singh, Maa Manikeswari Melody Group from Bhawanipatna, Kalahandi has been organizing musical shows from 2005. Their rendition of Badya Bichitra included the beautiful rhythm of Dalkhai, Rasakeli and Rangabati through Panchavadya, the traditional musical instruments of western Odisha. The group featured 8 percussionists who drummed out a deafening sequence punctuated by a high pitched mahuri. All the instrumental recitals have displayed only super speed rhythms while it can be more appealing if interspersed with softer rhythms, commented my neighbor.  

Led by Menakhi Bhitiria, Mayuree from Sundargarh (established in 2006) presented Dalkhai dance that is generally performed on happy occasions. The female dancers entered holding brass pots with lighted lamps on their heads and accompanied by 6 enthusiastic drummers and a person playing the cymbals, they went on to weave intricate patterns without any lag in energy, ending in a pyramid formation.

Bargarh Sambalpuri Folk Akademi at Buromunda was established in 2003 and besides performance and training, is also involved in research and new choreography on the music and dance of western Odisha. Its director Rabi Ratan Sahu presented his group in a captivating mix of music sequences and demo of the various instruments used – the brahma veena, sarangi, sanchara mridangam, kirtan mridangam, mandal, tasa, dhol, nisan and khanjani. The vocalists who played the cymbals continuously started from low tempo gradually gathering speed and kept the rhythm together. It was a most enjoyable performance of spellbinding music.

Located at Balangir, Natraj Kala Parishad headed by Ram Prasad Das presented a number based on Nua Khai festival where the cowsheds and all farming equipment are worshipped and then they dance. The men wore armbands with peacock feathers. Aptly, the drums were in the shape of a bull’s head and the adrenalin packed performance had the hall reverberating to the deafening drum beats. We could actually feel the vibrations in the second row! The movements of the female dancers were softer in contrast. There were some acrobatics and pyramid formations that could have turned out a bit cumbersome with the big bull heads if not for the expertise of the performers.

The festival concluded with a group dance by Bajania, a leading cultural institution of Sambalpur under the guidance of Sashank Sekhar Dubey. The drums had long horns sticking out on either side and when they did somersaults, one did worry that the performers should not get poked by those horns since they were quite close to each other when doing those tumbles!

The 3 evenings were marked with power packed performances with the artistes just going all out and having fun on stage. The programs on all evenings were compered ably by Manabhanjan Mishra in Odiya and Sibangi Mohapatra in English. Chittaranjan Mallia, the secretary of Odisha SNA, and his team did a commendable job taking care of all the festival details and the nearly 60 performers of each evening. 

Bhubaneswar is a city of festivals with govt and non-govt organizations vying with each other to organize cultural programs. Where do the funds come from? We were told that the Dept of Culture not only spends lavishly to mount interesting festivals of Odissi, Chhau, Gotipua and Contemporary to name a few, it also supports non-govt set-ups with culture grant.

What are the challenges of doing a festival like this? “The spirit of music and dance go hand in hand. Dance is a part of society, but these forms are on the verge of extinction. Without wide performance opportunities, these forms will be restricted only to their own regions. Their music and dance have distinct characteristics, the textiles used, jewellery are distinct, the language is so sweet and melodious. There is abundance in their dancing that developed out of spontaneity, a symbol of free spirit. It is so infectious and one sees the audience going along and swaying to the beats. To keep these arts alive, we want to take it to other districts. When classical music and dance were being restructured, these ethnic forms helped. When the great gurus were developing and restructuring classical Odissi dance, they incorporated the rhythmic variations from these allied art forms to enrich Odissi. Every time Odisha sends a troupe to perform outside Odisha or India, the favorite choice is western Odisha folk dance. This year is the second edition of Rangabati Festival. Last year, the first edition took place in Bhubaneswar. We plan to take the festival to other places in Odisha to create awareness of our rich culture,” says Aruna Mohanty, Vice President of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Going by the number of troupes that participated this year and the enthusiasm and joy with which they performed, it looks like the folk dance and music of western Odisha are flourishing with willing students, the sincere efforts of dedicated gurus and the cultural grant, encouragement and support from the Odisha govt.
Lalitha Venkat is the content editor of