The innocuous stone, heavily coated with splatters of vermilion, turns Mother Goddess into bright crimson, shrouding the atmosphere with a deep sense of veneration. Narayan Maharana puts on the mask of the tiger. As he makes way through the crowd, his foray marked by a rhythmic gait of a deadly predator, the tone is set for a scintillating display of the communion between the divine and Nature.
The procession of Maa Thakurani (Mother Goddess) and Maa Byaghra Devi (the tiger Goddess) commences with the thumping of the Changu, a tribal drum. As the ‘tiger’ dances, each of its footsteps speak of lore and oozes the raw vigour.
“It is the dance of the spring, celebrating the divinity of Nature and offering our gratitude to the Goddess. When the deities are out on a procession during the Thakurani Jatra, we become animals and perform this dance in their honour,” says Maharana, the last of the remaining gurus of the animal mask dance of Bhanjanagar.
The unique and exotic dance form is on the verge of extinction and only practised by a handful of artistes. The form, where the cannibal spirit of Nature finds a personification, has its origins in the princely state of Ghumusar in southern Odisha. The dance form was re-calibrated by legendary folk artiste Padmashree late Bhagaban Sahoo. He took this lesser known animal mask dance to the global arena. Being nurtured in the nonchalant environment of village akheda ghara (community centre), this dance form was a part of social and spiritual life of people. It is also a great example of guru-sishya parampara.
“It is a tedious and demanding art form. You need costumes, masquerades and many other items. For a full-fledged performance, one needs months of dedicated preparation, and for poor artistes it is difficult to get the means,” says Bighneswar Sahoo, grandson of Bhagaban Sahoo.
More than the dance, the preparation is an arduous task. The animal masquerade is prepared by the artiste with cane, jute and silk, and blended with appliqué works to give the attire its due regalia. “Imbibing the nuance of a wild beast is not child’s play,” says Maharana who has been playing the tiger for all the years.
Maharana is the key resource person of Upendra Bhanja Loka Nrutya Patisthan, Ganjam, popularising this rare dance form in India and abroad. He has dedicated his life towards the promotion of this art form in various ways. He is simultaneously a dancer, mask maker, artiste and guru trying to keep this form of dance alive.
Pasu Mukha Nrutya is a unique play of colours and undaunted animal expressions, intermixing indigenous steps and gaits. The primal dance has influenced many a sophisticated classical dances with its dynamism.
Many can reminisce with fondness, the thrill of watching colourful dancers playing different animals and ceremonially performing to the ringmaster during marriage celebrations, processions, social or community events. But this is an extremely rare sight now.The artistes are marginalised and hardly received their due credit. One can witness them as a part of ceremonial procession of Independence Day or the Republic Day, but it does not light their hearths or fill their hearts. “Whenever we get an offer to perform, heaviness creeps in. Who will take over and carry forward this tradition after us? The charisma of this dance is dying out as the new generation hardly acknowledges this form of dance,” Narayana Maharana rues.
“To preserve it, government must look for an institute for documentation and preservation of this precious art form”, says Dr Dasarathi Bhuyan, professor and scholar.