A knee-length loincloth tied loosely around their waist and an array of ethnic jewellery pieces wee all covered the bodies of the men as they jested with the women. The women responded to the overtures in tune with the tapping music and the mellow lighting in the background complemented the mood. Draped in saris and decked heavily with ornaments, the women also reciprocated through subtle smiles and flushed cheeks. In a world driven almost entirely by transient social media content on apps like Twitter and WhatsApp, the vision seemed almost surreal. What was unfolding before me, however, was just another representation of everyday life and celebration among tribals.
The dance performance was part of the second edition of the National Tribal Dance Festival that recently concluded at Raipur the capital city of Chhattisgarh which saw participation from 45 tribal communities. Known as the Dhap dance, it is popular among the tribes of the Sambalpur district in Odisha.
The several hundred participants together through their performances showcased the diverse traditions and myriad cultures of the erstwhile forest dwellers.
This in turn translated to a unique opportunity for urban masses and tourists to acquaint themselves with these traditions that are essentially rooted in pagan customs and nature.
The tribal communities spanning the length and breadth of the country - from Andaman & Nicobar to Kashmir and from North-Eastern states to the far west in Gujarat - presented a visual treat to the audiences, replete with remarkable traditional costumes and ornaments. Through their performances, the dancers tried to reiterate the similarities and differences in their ways of living and life choices.
MAny of the performances had themes based on traditional customs like wedding ceremonies and harvest rituals. A group from Assam, for instance, presented the Karbi Tiwa dance while a tribal group from Gujarat presented the endearing Mewasi dance. Both these dances are typically part of marriage ceremonies.
Equally captivating were the tribes from Andaman & Nicobar Islands who Nicobari dance that delved deep into their relationship with religion and agriculture.
The nomadic Gujjar tribes from Jammu and Kashmir, who reside in planes in winters but move to high altitude areas of Kashmir, left the audience spellbound with their Gojari dance which they normally do marriage functions and other social celebrations.
Members of the dance troops felt elated to be part of the event.
Kailash Sisodia, 40, who headed a group of 16 dancers of Bheel tribes from Madhya Pradesh, took pride in staging the Bheel Bhagoriya dance with his team members.
Dressed in a yellow turban, blue shirt and white dhoti, these tribes were armed with bows and arrows and swayed to the drum beats followed by women in traditional golden sarees.
“The dance performed during Holi in local markets where young boys and girls take part to brighten their marriage prospects. We really feel blessed to be here and showcase our culture before such a huge audience,” Sisodia, who is a local BJP leader besides being a farmer, said.
Another team leader, 30-year-old Sumit Kumar Pradhan, led a 22-member tribal group from Sambalpur in Odisha to perform the Dhap dance.
“During marriage functions, friends of groom and bridegroom tease each other the rules of matrimony and that’s what this dance is all about,” Pradhan, who had only wrapped a piece of cloth around his waist up to knees, said. The troop was decked in local pieces of jewellery and heavy make-up.
A member of the Oraon tribe from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, whose group performed the tribal dance called Bandi Oraon, said that he was delighted to see the encouraging response from the audience.
“This is a dance which is performed on all occasions whether it is marriage or birth ceremony or even death ceremony. Only our dress, dance steps, and music change according to the occasion,” he said adding that the journey from his village in Ranchi to Raipur is like a dream come true.
The groups competed for a reward of rupees five lakhs, three lakhs, and two lakhs respectively, a press release issued by the administration engaged in the event management said.
“The dance forms in the wedding ceremony category featured Gour Sing from Chhattisgarh, Karma from Madhya Pradesh, Dhimsa from Andhra Pradesh, Gojari from Jammu & Kashmir, Kadsa from Jharkhand, Guryaballu from Andhra Pradesh among others,” it said.
“The dance forms in the category of traditional festivals and rituals featured Karma from Chhattisgarh, Gussadi Dhimsa from Telangana, Urav from Jharkhand, Sidi Goma from Gujarat,” it added.
Besides 45 tribal groups from 33 states and union territories, seven tribal dance teams from countries such as Nigeria, Palestine, Kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland), Uzbekistan, Mali, Sri Lanka, and Uganda brought an international flavor to the whole event.
Thousands of visitors feasted their eyes to watch Indian tribes and tourists shaking their legs to the tune of Ugandan folk song Bakisimba.
Robert Musiikuua, 30, who was the leader of the group informed that Bakisimba is a royal dance or Uganda which is originally performed before the king.
The troop also staged another popular dance, La Raka Raka, which young men and women in northern Uganda love to perform together.
“We are happy that we are here to showcase Uganda’s cultural diversity and heritage. We will promote tourism back in our country. This festival has bought us together as one nation and one culture,” Musiikuua said.
“Culture can be used as a tool to create unity, peace, and fight against environmental degradation. When performing together, we learn something from each other and take that learning back home," he added.
Thempekile, a team head of the dance group of Kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland), echoed similar expressions as she also felt that performing in the National Tribal Dance Festival is culturally a significant achievement for her.
The eight-member team including two officials staged the Sibhaca dance which is a vigorous warrior dance very popular in Swaziland. “It is performed on all occasions but mainly during occasions of competition etc,” Thempekile, 28, said.
“It is memorable to be here in India and share our culture with others. Everyone has appreciated our culture and it was a wonderful feeling,” she added.
Mohan Dass from the Sri Lankan team of Tamil tribal said that being in India was like a home to his team and he was delighted to get an opportunity to present some of the best folk dances of his community.
“We are Sri Lankan Tamils and performing in India is always a matter of great pride for us,” Dass said.
Officials from the state administration feel that the 2nd edition of the tribal dance event shows its popularity and success as the participation was much more than the 1st edition that was held in 2019.
“In the first edition, there were only 24 states and 6 countries. But the 2nd one, which is the first event of its kind in the Post-Covid era, witnessed 33 states and union territories and seven countries,” Chhattisgarh tourism secretary, Anbalagan P, said.
He added, “Those states and UTs, which don’t have any tribal population like Delhi and Chandigarh, couldn’t participate. Else, this time we had a pan-India response which has been quite encouraging.” Anbalagan is of the view that such events will promote foreign tourism in the state.
Talking about the event, Bhupesh Baghel, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, said that such festivals act as a bridge between us and the tribal community and this platform shows that the tribes across the world have something common among them.
“The purpose is to let them realise that they are not away from us. They are part of our culture and tradition. They are as important for us as other societies. That’s why I hold it in the state capital,” Baghel said.
He added, “Tribal population of a particular area feels that they are as much as their own geographical limits which are not true. But these kinds of events let them realise that tribes are there across the world and there is some similarity in their lifestyle.”