Village Voices: Remembering the lost charm of folk dance

Folk dances at Sangeet Natak Akademi’s music and culture festival remind of the joy of raw storytelling. The programme is on till today, September 28. 

Moths and other insects danced under the yellow stage lights around a host of golden-clad percussionists. The stage was (literally) abuzz with excitement. This was the opening scene of the second day of the Shrestha Bharat Sanskriti Samagam, a 4-day interdisciplinary discourse and demonstration of folk and classical art and music organised by the well-known institution Sangeet Natak Akademi of Delhi. The Akademi has been consistently bringing these Sanskriti Samagams to various cities in India.

Gujaratis love people who speak Gujarati, so it was a real treat to have an eminent classical vocalist, Aruna Sairam, who is from Chennai, inaugurate the evening’s events in perfect Gujarati.


The Rai dancers of Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh proceeded to play an S-shaped bugle-like instrument that extended about 3 feet above the player’s head. The entire accompaniment featured about 10 male percussionists, half of whom played a type of manjira, while the other half played variously-sized pakhawaj-like instruments. These maintained a constant rhythm for the four female dancers on stage. The Rai dancers are so named because of their characteristic jumping movement, which resembles that of rai (mustard seeds) when they are tempered. At first, the dancers were visible only as a blur comprising of their flared fire-coloured skirts, gravity-defying ‘thhumkas’, jingling ghungroos and hip ornaments.


The next troupe performed a type of folk dance called Siddhi Dhamaal. The origins of this dance form can be traced to the immigration of Africans to the shores of Gujarat. Because of this cultural exchange, the form has a unique mix of styles. The Hindi song“kabootar aaya, kya khabar laaya?” (what news does the alighting pigeon bring?is directly followed by a Swahili song featuring many iterations of the greeting, “Jambo.” The costumes, choreography and music suggested a theme of living peacefully and symbiotically among animals. Much of the choreography involved a very basic side-to-side ‘step-touch’, and the three percussionists also did not depart from their four-beat rhythm for the most part. The extraordinary part about this dance performance mostly lay in the dancers’ facial expressions and gait. The body language of the dancers was very birdlike and animated, with their rear ends jutting out, shoulders open, elbows out and arched backs. A vivid image of a forest was created as the choreography was combined with animal noises made by the performers. They really didn’t hesitate to interact with the audience, even unintentionally scaring a few young girls who did not expect to be faced up close with their stark white dotted faces, beaded shell jewellery and feathered headgear! In the finale, they once again stepped in front of the audience, this time throwing a coconut up in the air and breaking it on its descent with their heads! Coconut shell and water exploded unexpectedly into the crowd like joyous lightning.


Both these folk dances did not involve any kind of drone or tanpura to serve as their melodic focus. All of the melodies were accessible and structured such as to be based on call and response, with a single singer leading the rest of the performers. In our current music environment, we are used to hearing mellifluous, elegant, pitch-correct voices. This was a much-needed reminder of our roots; of the joy, there is in raw, unpolished storytelling that involves such visceral experiences as being sprayed with the juice of tender coconut and feeling the ground move with a dancer’s resounding steps.


These folk dances were only a short slice of the Shreshtha Bharat Sanskriti Samagam programme, which also featured the Maharashtran lavani and Gujarati sugam sangeet and bhajans. The Sanksriti Samagam is on till Friday, September 28, at Gujarat University, and is open for all. It will have a seminar in the day and performances in the evening. Notable artists likeDrAshwini Bhide Deshpande, Vidushi Manju Mehta, Vidushi Begum Parveen Sultana, Shri T.N. Krishnan and Dr. N. Rajamare part of the programme. Read the full schedule here.

Photos by: Marmik Shah

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