There is little national awareness about the Panthi dance of Chhattisgarh, rues Milap Das Banjare, who performed at the recently-concluded Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival.

Sirpur, a little more than an hour’s drive from Raipur, is now beginning to be known for its Buddhist excavations. Buddhist viharas have been discovered, as has been a market, arguably the biggest in the world at that time. Nagarjuna is said to have meditated here too. While all the focus has been on the Buddhist discoveries, the little known township threw another surprise at the second edition of the Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival. Big names like the Wadali Brothers and Shubha Mudgal helped attract the multitudes; but the star of the show was undoubtedly a troupe of Chhattisgarh’s very own Panthi dancers. Headed by Milap Das Banjare, the group paid homage to their guru with an energetic presentation that blended the physical with the spiritual.

The troupe of 15 men, in the age group of 28 to 55, performed Panthi geet. The songs, sung robustly by Milap himself with limited accompaniment of instrumental music, talked not just of their guru but also the value of truth and how, if everybody followed the path of truth, there would be no malice, no suffering. Universal peace through the path of truth. Then there was the message of the human being’s mere mortal status. “Man is made of clay. He is mortal. Why not then dedicate this life to one formless God,” went Milap’s song. It could not have been more appropriate for a place seeking to revive the message of Gautam Buddha.

Panthi dance is performed by the Satnami community; the panth itself was founded by Guru Ghasidas who believed in one formless God or Satnam and expressed his devotion through songs.

Such was the brilliance of Milap’s group in their exclusive performance that when they turned up for a smaller part in the “Atulya Bharat” rendition, the focus was largely on them. They departed to a standing ovation from the crowd, surprising many who had reservations about a local dance form finding acceptance at a festival labelled national.

However, for all the 15 minutes of fame, the life of Panthi dancers is far from comfortable. They cannot even manage to eke out a living from their challenging art; many of the group members have blue collar jobs, others are agricultural labourers. Some do have jobs in the services sector but even they are not well paid as they are usually semi-skilled or unskilled. All this hunt for a living deprives the group of precious time for riyaaz. “We hardly get to practice as a group. Yes, all of us do something in smaller groups of 3-4 but it is difficult to bring the team together on a regular basis for rehearsal as everybody has to earn a living through some job or the other. One does not get leave easily for rehearsal,” says Milap, adding, “I learnt the dance from my guru when I was very small, not more than five or seven years old. Initially, my guru Dukalu Ram, now 80, did not permit me to perform in public. Then when I came of age, he gave me my janeo and dhoti. Now I have been performing for 24 years. Our is the biggest troupe in Chhattisgarh.”

Milap and his companions have been performing across the State for many years, and indeed in other parts of the country. “In big places people do not know about our art. They dismiss it as only folk song. Our dance is based on song but it has its own rhythm. It has its own rich history. Can you have a dance form without tradition? Still, people are not so aware of Panthi dance. And when there is little awareness there is little money. As a group leader, the last time I went abroad was more than 25 years ago to Russia. Since then we have been neglected. Delhi wants us only on Republic Day as if we are performers from some other place.”

He rues that the priorities of the patrons are misplaced. “An individual classical dancer can make lakhs through a single performance but we are paid a paltry sum. From here, we are going to Kharagpur but we only travel by train. Even for the group to gather for any outstation assignment, some guys come on bicycles, some do have (motor) bikes. Many hitch rides. Some walk down for a few kilometres. We do so simply because we love the art and want it to continue after us as well.”

To take the art form further, Milap teaches kids between 10 and 12 years of age. “We cannot take the art with us to the grave. We have to teach others. That is the only way, art is perpetuated. Unfortunately, while children show a lot of enthusiasm when they are small, they take to other vocations to earn a living when they grow up. The Panthi dance is not sufficient to sustain oneself. Everybody wants to grow.”

Even as his group members look on admiringly — many hail from the same family and village near Bhilai — Milap asks me to sing with him. I hesitate, then join in. He is clearly in love with his art.