The conclusion of an international arts festival was a raucous celebration of folk music

Thirty minutes before it was due to start, the grand finale of the Bengaluru International Arts Festival (BIAF) 2012 looked set to be alarmingly low-key, with nothing but a banner on stage at the Freedom Park amphitheatre. A community religious function also happening nearby on the premises seemed much-better organised, with large-scale seating and a powerful sound system.

Then, all at once, our fears proved unfounded: without warning, a handful of men bearing dhols made a dramatic entrance.

The raucous, almost party-like atmosphere created by the artists, who were from Odisha’s Sambalpuri tradition, could enliven the most deadened of listeners. All peripheral sound was drowned out; suddenly, the size of the audience had swelled – just one of the many advantages of an open, public venue.

The Sambalpuri dancers from Odisha alternated with a troupe from Manipur, which began by presenting a Dhol Cholam, performed by four male dancers who dance and simultaneously play their dhols, which hang from their necks. At times, the drums dimmed to a whisper, only to bubble up with sudden flamboyance, after which the main dancer performed airborne twirls that left the audience gasping, and whistling. Another performance was a stylised version of the Krishna Leela.

A folk group from Andhra Pradesh was next; here, an all-male cast slipped into female roles for a retelling of the Kichaka Vadha episode from the Mahabharatha – the slaying of Kichaka, who misbehaved with Draupadi. Even if the language wasn’t understandable, the storytelling was visual and dramatic enough that anyone could figure out what was going on. And besides, following the story seemed less important than pure enjoyment. For instance, the central actor, who played Kichaka, drove the audience to splits with his exquisitely crafted evil laugh.

Overall, the setting was perfect; a pleasant evening spent outdoors at Freedom Park was in itself a treat, and the lingering fireflies added their charm. One couldn’t help but feel that perhaps this was the way folk art was meant to be experienced: short of joining in the festivities, the audience was perfectly at ease to laugh, cheer, and interact with performers. The bits of introductions done by organisers were unintrusive, and, laudably, in both Kannada and English. And most importantly, there was a steady flow of music and dance, sans unnecessary pauses between items.

The Sambalpuri dancers were back, with a dance performed traditionally at Dasara time. This group certainly knows how to keep its audience on its toes: a surprise entrance from one side of the stage caught everyone off-guard. Clearly, seen in the right context, there’s much enjoyment in the celebratory, wild abandon of these dances.

Halfway through, a handful of women entered the stage – holding trays with burning flames. Needless to say, this struck a dramatic picture under the night sky; a battalion of photographers, who had assembled up front, seemed to have a busy time trying to capture the scene. The women didn’t just stand around: they danced expressively and with remarkable skill, balancing the fire-trays on their heads. At some point, the wind snuffed out the flame on some of the trays, but it didn’t matter.