Gotipua dancers of Konark Natya Mandap set the stage on fire at Thripunithura.

What makes Orissa's indigenous dance form Gotipua so special is that it still retains an element of rawness, distinguishing it from the more sophisticated Odissi. This traditional dance form, believed to be the precursor of Odissi, is free from refinement and restrictions of a ‘classical' structure, thus remaining vibrant and full of energy. Eight boys of the famed Konark Natya Mandap set the stage on fire with a robust performance of Gotipua at Thripunithura.

History has it that Gotipua originated sometime during the end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th century. The ‘Devadasi' or ‘Mahari' tradition was in a state of decline and there was the need to keep the dance tradition alive. So boys were trained for this.

Gotipua in Oriya means ‘single boy.' But, ironically, the ‘goti puas' always perform in pairs or groups. The structure of the dance is such that the boys – dressed as girls – move together in perfect sync. This happens not just in the movements but even in the expressional and acrobatic phases of the performance.

The dancers reach this stage of perfection through years of rigorous training. “Boys, mostly from very poor families, are recruited to different dance schools in Orissa. They are usually between the age of six and 13. After this they either turn teachers or move into Odissi. They are trained for around two years, during which they learn the techniques of dance and abhinaya, and attain the flexibility that is so important,” says B.C. Biswal, manager of the troupe.

A typical Gotipua performance begins with ‘Bhumi Pranam,' an invocation to the Lord or a salutation to Mother Earth. This is followed by ‘Nritya,' where the dancers exhibit their subtle movements and some mudras still extant.

One part of the performance is set apart for ‘abhinaya,' which offers scope for the dancers to present their skill in narrating a story through expressions or the ‘navarasas.' In abhinaya, writings of medieval Oriya poets such as Gopalkrushna, Banamali, Goura Charan and others are used. Various situations, especially based on the Radha-Krishna concept, are depicted. Perhaps, the most exacting and exciting aspect of Gotipua is ‘Bandha Nritya' or acrobatics. The dancers amaze with their intricate poses that are termed ‘chaki,' ‘shagadi,' ‘mayura' and ‘chira mayura.'

Simple aharya

The ‘aharya' of the dancers is simple. They closely resemble that of the more popular Odissi style or that of the Devadasis of an earlier period. They wear jewellery made of beads; necklaces, armbands and ear ornaments. Their heavy ankle bells add to the pulsating rhythm. The dancers use thick make-up and even have flowers in their hair, which is bound in a top knot.

The dancers are supported by musicians, who play the mardal, a percussion instrument akin to the pakhawaj, the gini (cymbals), the harmonium, the violin and the bansuri. The dancers sing when they perform and are backed by an additional vocalist.

It is often said that one must see a Gotipua performance before you can appreciate Odissi. And watching Gotipua is a must for aspiring Odissi dancers. That the modern, classical Odissi has been distilled from Gotipua becomes evident in the nritya, abhinaya, costume and even make-up of the dancers.

The only and major point of difference is in the acrobatic movements that are prevalent in Gotipua. These movements seem to have been derived from yoga, tribal and folk forms. The beauty of the acrobatic movements is that it gels well with the dance.

Unlike most of our classical dance forms that have been influenced by the National movement and class associations, Gotipua remains a dance of the downtrodden. So too are its practitioners. Hence, Gotipua still retains an earthy vibrancy and powerful energy. And this is what makes it special.

However, of late, there appears to be a dilution in this dance form. It appears to have been influenced by theatre and even cinema. The tableau-like poses the dancers strike, waiting for the usually loud applause, somehow do not seem original.

These young boys may not be able to explain the nuances of their dance or music; they know only to recreate only what they have imbibed in all the years of training. It is their spontaneity, vitality, unabashed dancing and raw energy that hold audiences the world-over spellbound. And Thripunithura was no exception.

The performance was held under the aegis of Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPICMACAY) and Sree Poornathrayeesa Sangeetha Sabha.