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All the town is a stage

A town is transformed into an open air theatre as all its residents enact the life of Lord Krishna. BIBHUTI MISHRA takes a look at the Dhanuyatra in Orissa.

The durbar of Kansa.

IT is undoubtedly the world's largest open-air theatre, for it is held — not on a stage or a stadium — but in a town spread over 30 sq. km. Held every year in the month of Pausa (usually January) "Dhanuyatra" — as this 11-day long play is known — culminates in the killing of Kansa by Lord Krishna. This year it was held from December 28 to January 7.

The town where this festival is held is Bargarh, (about 350 km from Bhubaneswar). This is an important industrial town in western Orissa, with a population of about 1,00,000. It is situated on the left bank of the Jira. Come January and the entire town is transformed into Mathurapuri.

Everybody is an artiste and, for 11 days, the atmosphere takes on the flavour of the Mahabharata and various parts of the town take on names of yore!

Ambapali is Gopapura and Baragarh is Mathura. A stage is prepared where Kansa holds his durbar. This is set in Hatapada in the middle of the town and is lavishly decorated. Everyday Kansa holds court.

The gopis of "Mathura"

The king also goes on nagara parikrama (Going round the city) every day. If anybody crosses his path, he is fined. Some years back, the then Chief Minister, Biju Patnaik, was fined. Through these 11 days all the important people, the District Collector or the Superintendent of Police, pay obeisance to the king.

The final confrontation between Kansa and Krishna guarantees a pulsating finish.

Says Gopala Sahu, a police sub-inspector who played the role of Kansa for 15 years, "The atmosphere is heady and infectious. It feels as if one were really the king."

He feels that, though it is a lifetime achievement to get such a role, the annual fiesta helps the younger generation imbibe our cultural tradition — which teaches that evil however mighty, would be vanquished by Good. After the "Dhanuyatra" is over the actor goes to the temple and repents for abusing Krishna while essaying the role of Kansa!

The origin of the tradition of "Dhanuyatra" is lost in antiquity but it has been organised almost every year since December 1947. But the first "Dhanuyatra" in Bargarh, though on a much smaller scale, was held in 1915.


Krishna takes his bearings

Initially it was for 16 days. But in 1962 because of the Indo-China war, it was curtailed to 12. Two years later the duration was further reduced by a day because of the students' agitation; since then "Dhanuyatra" is held for 11 days.

Incidentally, the geography of Bargarh region conforms to the locales of the Puranic descriptions and the scenes are enacted at different places instead of at one place. The city is treated as "Mathura". On the outskirts of Bargarh is the Jira, to take the place of the Yamuna; on the other bank of which is small village Ambapali to become Gopapura. There is also a mango grove there to serve as Vrindaban and a pond for the lake Kalindi. A gorgeously decorated high-rise stage in the heart of Bargarh serves as the Durbar of Kansa. A live elephant is engaged for the royal transport.

The entire topography of Bargarh within a radius of five kilometres turns into the zone of play, making in the largest open air theatre where the scenes are enacted at their appropriate locations, simultaneously on the appointed days. In Bargarh a whole town is turned into the acting arena.

It has also an element of modern technique, which calls for the spectators' participation. There is hardly any play elsewhere where all spectators are involved in the presentation as they are in the Dhanuyatra.

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