An explosion of movements under Buddha’s benign gaze 
by Ileana Citaristi, Bhubaneswar 
February 27, 2004   

The second festival exclusively dedicated to martial dances has been conducted on the 13th and 14th of February at the footstep of the Dhauli stupa, the Japanese Buddhist Temple situated on a hill at the outskirts of modern Bhubaneswar. This is the place where Emperor Ashoka is believed to have fought the last battle of the great Kalinga war before surrendering the sword and embracing Buddhism.  

The festival is jointly organised by Orissa Tourism, Art Vision and Eastern Zonal Cultural Center and sponsored by Nalco. The calm and solemn statue of Buddha overlooking the entire stage from the top of the stupa provides a peaceful background to the outburst of movements and sounds, which accompanies the performance of the martial artists. The aim of the organisers is to ‘harmonise the vigour of martial tradition with the sublimity of peace through the artistic medium of dance’. 

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. Because of this the martial disciplines are linked with a fixed set up of ritualistic procedures and are often performed within a monastic and rigid code of conduct.  

The 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.  

Ileana Citaristi
Phari khanda
This year’s festival included the Shiva Tandava item in Mayurbhanji Chhau performed by Ileana Citaristi, an innovative choreography based on martial dance ‘Sound of silence’ performed by the Samudra group from Trivandrum, and a display of  the glorious martial art tradition from Punjab performed by  Haravinder Singh Panjit Akhara from Patiala. On the second day C V N Kalari from Calicut performed kalaripayattu and the Acharya Chhau Nrutya Bichitra troupe from Jharkand  displayed the ancient martial art form of phari khanda, the attack and defence technique of the royal dynasty of Seraikhella.  

Keeping in tune with the intentions of the organisers to present every year one contemporary interpretation of a particular dance tradition along with traditional troupes of martial artists, the Samudra group led by the talented duo Madhu Gopinath and Vakkom Sajeev, presented  its own original choreography ‘Sound of silence’. The work evolves through different stages creating a sort of visual collage, which through an impeccable technique borrowed from martial and traditional art forms of Kerala, seeks to create a dialogue between movement and sound, tradition and modernity. Particularly impressive was the descent from the rope at the beginning of the play and the climb at the end; with the white stupa in the background and the vast expanse of stars on the top, the impression was that of a flying angel coming from and returning to the sky. 

There are several myths to explain the origin of kalarippayattu, the martial art form of Kerala, believed to have originated in early 4th cent. A.D. According to some it was instituted by Lord Parasurama in order to defend the land of Kerala which he himself had reclaimed from the Arabian sea. According to others, it was invented by goddess Parvati when she went to assist god Shiva during his tapas in the jungle. It seems that while waiting for her husband to wake up, she studied the movements of the fighting animals and wrote them down on the lotus leaves. At the end of his tapas, Shiva saw the notes and became so impressed that he decided to teach the technique to the devas for their fight against the asuras.  

The CVN Kalari was established in Calicut in the year 1945 by late Sri Narayanan Gurukkal who, along with his counterpart Sri Govindan Kutty of Trivandrum, was responsible for bringing the art of Kalarippayattu to limelight and to propagate it all over the world through stage presentations and lecture demonstrations.  At the Kalinga Mahotsav the group, lead by Sri Narayanan’s son Sunil Kumar, presented items belonging to the three phases of training, the ‘meythari’, a set of body exercises to attain control, balance and stamina, the ‘kolthari’, which includes fighting exercises with various types of wooden sticks and ‘ankathari’, which concentrate on attacks and defence using metal weapons like dagger, sword and spear.  The entire team demonstrated to be extremely competent in all the different sets of exercises; speed, precision, agility and an acute sense of concentration marked each stage of their performance . 

If kalarippayattu contributed largely to the development of more known art forms of Kerala such as Theyyam and Kathakali, the phari khanda technique of attack and defence developed in the district of Singhbum (now in Jharkand, once upon a time in Orissa) was determinant for the formation of what later on became known as Seraikhella and Mayurbhanji Chhau dances. The area where phari khanda developed was originally a dense forest inhabited by various tribal communities mostly dedicated to hunting activities. Once recruited by the royal dynasty as soldiers for the defence of the kingdom, these tribals carried with them the habit to cover their faces for protection while fighting or killing. Along the years with the development of the form of dances, the masks also underwent many changes until they were totally discarded in the Mayurbhanji style whereas they were brought to extreme refinement in the Seraikhella one.  

The Acharya Chhau Nrutya Bichitra, founded by late guru Lingaraj Acharya and directed at present by his younger son Sukanta Kumar, presented during the festival various items based on the phari khanda technique. Although the themes of the items suggest martial attitude, the movements of the dancers were slow and repetitive; due to the obstruction created by the masks, the dancer’s ability to see and breathe was quite limited. One would have liked to see some demonstrations of the attack-defence technique in its crude form as it is practised in this area without the use of the masks. It was in any case a good example of how a dance form evolves out of a crude martial exercise; of how music and choreography intervene in the process of transformation and how real swords and weapons give space to fake ones once the fight is shifted from the akhada to the stage. 

What perhaps literally stole the hearts of the spectators was the display of vigour and vitality by the ‘ghatka’ artists belonging to the Saheed Baba Deep Singh Akhada from Patiala directed by  Gurpreet Singh Khalsa . The literal meaning of  ‘ghatka’ which is ‘a joyful display of feats of swordsmanship during peace’, came through fully in the dynamic performance of the Punjabi martial dancers. There is a conscious effort from the part of these artists to keep alive this art, which was created and encouraged by their religious gurus in order to defend themselves and their religion from the Mughals. Without compromising with the types of weapons used, which are real swords, sticks, daggers and lances, they have succeeded in transforming a dangerous act into an enjoyable performance.  

Ileana Citaristi is the artistic director of Art Vision. She organises the annual Kalinga Mahotsav exclusively dedicated to martial dances. She is a regular contributor to