When the grounds of Science College, Raipur were fully converted into canvas pavilions for the third National Tribal Dance Festival earlier this month, around 50,000 people thronged the gate from 7pm. The whole city, it seems, finally came to a halt, drawn to the colorful 10-foot-tall banners scattered around the city (featuring Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel alongside dancers from the Maria tribe with a buffalo horn headgear), and ready to treat yourself to an evening of dancing, music and food.
On November 1, the first night the music blared from the loudspeakers at the entrance, it was suddenly interrupted by Baghel’s Chhattisgarhi speech, shocking the crowd present. “This year’s festival begins on the day our state was founded,” said a government official, as we entered the grounds on a mass of red carpets. The street leading to the main site was lit with blue and yellow fairy lights on both sides, interspersed with festival banners and advertisements. Finally, we entered through a glittering archway and saw a handful of tents come out and swallow huge crowds. The largest marquee hosted more than 1,500 tribal artists, who came from all over India and the world, including Mozambique, Mongolia, Tongo, Russia, Indonesia, Maldives, Serbia, New Zealand and Egypt.
At a time when folk farms lost much patronage and public interest, performers came seeking to enjoy their folk dances. “The tribes still want all of humanity to have equal rights over nature, and that everyone does their part to protect nature. Preserving primitive cultures is the goal of the National Tribal Dance Festival,” Baghel said from the stage which was packed with anchors, dancers and officials including Governor Anusuiya Uikey, Interior Minister Tamradhwaj Sahu and the Minister of Culture Amarjeet Bhagat. He added that modern notions about development have harmed tribal rights and impacted nature.
“Here we have brought performances which are fusion dances and dances that we do in our village after harvest,” said Sunil Kaushik, an artist from Haryana. Most of the members of his troupe are students or young professionals, and balance training sessions with their studies or work.
Reshmaradi Das from Odisha explained the meaning of one of the dances his troupe performed – Gurkha. It is a celebratory dance that continues throughout the year once the crops are harvested until the following season. “Children, adults, pets, noisy utensils, everything and everyone, three or four generations at a time, participate in this and everyone lives nomadic for six months,” Das said. She is from the Saburam adivasi community and is a part-time dance teacher, like most of her team. She laments that her community’s folk dance has lost public interest in recent years and has often been “corrupted, commercialized and sexualized”, but is now returning to its raw form in the state.
Bunty Rana, however, from Uttar Pradesh, has a different take on modernized versions of the traditional dance: “We can change things up a bit to make these dances more appealing to young people, because otherwise the form itself will turn off. You can not do anything [like keeping it traditional or reinventing it] if he dies. He notes that in his village, it was difficult to convince parents to let their children go out for such events as it often involves interstate travel, 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 being thrown over the dancers’ heads. A team from Togo performed a “cocktail of traditional and modern dances”, while that from Mongolia celebrated nature in their performances. The Mozambique troupe were encouraged to exclaim “Chhattisgarh is the best!” in Chhattisgarhi by natives, and told us that they found India pleasantly similar to their home country because of our “love of brotherhood, religion and, of course, shopping”.