When Raipur’s Science College grounds were converted completely to canvas pavilions for the third edition of the National Tribal Dance Festival earlier this month, about 50,000 thronged the entrance from 7 pm onwards. The entire city, it seemed, was finally off from work, enticed by the colourful 10-feet-high banners scattered around the city (featuring Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel next to dancers from the Maria tribe with Bison-horned headgear), and ready to indulge in an evening of dance, music, and food.
On November 1, the first evening when the music boomed from the speakers at the entrance, it was suddenly interrupted by Baghel’s Chhattisgarhi speech, upsetting the crowd present. “This year’s festival is beginning on our state’s foundation day,” a government official said, as we entered the grounds on a mass of red carpets. The street leading up to the main venue was lit up with blue and yellow fairy lights on both sides, interspersed with more banners and advertisements of the festival. Finally, we entered through a twinkling arch and saw a smattering of tents issuing and swallowing huge crowds. The biggest marquee held more than 1500 tribal artistes, who’d arrived from around India and the world — including Mozambique, Mongolia, Tongo, Russia, Indonesia, Maldives, Serbia, New Zealand, and Egypt.
At a time when folk farms have lost much of the patronage and public interest, the artistes came looking for appreciation of their folk dances. “Tribes always wish that all humanity should have equal rights in nature, and everyone should do their part in protecting nature. Preserving primitive cultures is the goal of the National Tribal Dance Festival,” said Baghel from the stage that was streaming with anchors, dancers, and officials including Governor Anusuiya Uikey, Home Minister Tamradhwaj Sahu, and Culture Minister Amarjeet Bhagat. He added that modern notions about development have harmed tribal rights and impacted nature.
“Here, we have brought performances that are fusion dances and dances that we do in our village after harvest,” said Sunil Kaushik, a performer from Haryana. Most people in his troupe are college-going or young professionals, and balance practice sessions with their studies or work.
Reshmaradi Das, from Odisha, explained the significance of one of the dances her troupe was performing – Gurkha. It is a celebration dance that is carried on all through the year once crops are harvested until the next season. “Children, adults, pets, loud utensils, everything and everyone, three-four generations at a time, participate in this and everyone lives nomadically for six months,” said Das. She is from the Saburam adivasi community and is a part-time dance teacher, like most of her team. She laments how her community’s folk dance lost interest with the public in recent years and was often “corrupted, commercialised and sexualised”, but it is now returning to its raw form in the state.
Bunty Rana, though, from Uttar Pradesh, has a different view of modernised versions of traditional dance: “We can change things a bit to make these dances more appealing to youngsters because otherwise, the form itself will die out. You can’t do anything [like keeping it traditional or reinventing it] if it dies.” He notes that in his village, it was difficult to convince parents to let their children out to go for such events because it often involves interstate travelling, but with more recognition, acceptability has improved.
As for the international troupes, the Russian group hailed from St Petersburg and performed a dance celebrating Russian history and culture, and also involved many sharp tools tossed over the dancers’ heads. A team from Togo performed a “cocktail of traditional and modern dances”, whereas the one from Mongolia celebrated nature in its performances. The troupe from Mozambique was encouraged to exclaim “Chhattisgarh is the best!” in Chhattisgarhi by natives, and told us that they pleasantly found India similar to their home country because of our “love for brotherhood, religion, and of course, shopping.”