Dance like a boy

Gotipua performers during a rehearsal   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

They are known as Gotipuas (‘goti’ means single and ‘pua’ is boy in Odia), but they have to dance dressed as girls and in groups. Born out of the tradition of devotion, the struggle for survival over the years has reduced them to mere entertainers. A precursor of Odissi, Gotipua is now facing the biggest threat from Odissi itself.

“There was a time when Odissi followed the Gotipua dance style. Now it is the other way round — Gotipuas follow Odissi,” said Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee and well-known Gotipua guru Birabar Sahoo in an interview to this writer a few years ago. .

Ironically, on a recent trip to village Dimirisena, located about 35 km from Puri and known as the cradle of the 400-year-old Gotipua tradition, I attended a dance festival that featured mostly Odissi dancers.

Dancing for gods

Organised by Satyapira Palai, a well-known Gotipua exponent, the annual event was meant to showcase the village’s dance heritage. “It is here that Gotipua is practised as an offering to the divine, and in its most authentic form, without the modern acrobatic movements. We adhered to tradition even with costume, make-up and music. But this meant losing out on performance opportunities outside Dimirisena. Some 30 years ago, for the survival of our troupe, we gave in to the demands of festival organisers and brought about changes in our presentation. Yet, we have not completely lost touch with the tradition of dancing for the gods,” says Satyapira.

If Gotipua dance has survived and is being performed across the globe today, it is due to bandha (complex body postures) and the formation of human pyramids that has become the principal attraction of the dance style, say its exponents, including Satyapira.

“Gone are the days when kings and zamindars patronised Gotipua troupes. We are now entirely governed by market forces. So we have no choice but to cater to changing trends,” says Bhubaneswar-based Bijay Kumar Sahoo, an Odissi dancer, who grew up performing Gotipua at Balunkeswar temple in Dimirisena. He now owns a popular Gotipua troupe, Naxatra Gurukul, that gets several opportunities to perform and earn.

Boys dressed as girls before a performance

Boys dressed as girls before a performance  

However, there is one exception. Gautam Mohapatra, who also used to perform at Balunkeswar temple, has been teaching at Nilakentheswar Gotipua gurukul near Dimirisena for the past 12 years. He still follows the tradition of the boys singing and dancing simultaneously. Gautam’s repertoire has more avinaya (expressional dance) pieces set to songs of medieval Odia literature and the choreography excludes gymnastic poses or human pyramids. In 2011, he surprised everyone with a solo presentation in the true tradition of ‘Gotipua’, at the first-ever Gotipua festival hosted by the State government in Bhubaneswar.

“When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Gaudiya Vaishnavism entered Odisha from Bengal, it influenced a panoply of religious and cultural practices. Its paratopic religiosity generated the Gotipua tradition. Gotipuas were celebrated for their artistic virtuosity and religious devotion,” says Anurima Banerji, associate professor of dance at the University of California-Los Angeles, who researched the Devadasi and Gotipua traditions for her recently published seminal book, Dancing Odissi. Unlike the Maharis, the devadasis of Odisha, whose role was confined to the temples, Gotipuas had the advantage of performing at both sacred and secular spaces, both for gods and for people. As a result, they have been the carriers of Odisha’s dance, music, literature and religious beliefs over centuries. Odissi thus owes more to the Gotipua tradition than the Mahari.

“Although Odissi imbibed a lot from Gotipua and gained global recognition as a classical dance form in a very short span of time, Gotipua was totally marginalised. While the child got recognition, the mother was ignored,” rues septuagenarian Guru Gobinda Pal, an exponent of both Gotipua and Odissi.

Popular pyramid formation in Gotipua

Popular pyramid formation in Gotipua  

Artistes like him have reason to be frustrated, what with the Odisha government hosting and supporting several Odissi dance festivals while largely ignoring Gotipua. Ashok Kumar Tripathy, former Commissioner of Culture, should be credited with conceptualising and launching a Gotipua festival in 2011, bringing some hope to dancers looking for state patronage. Eight troupes were invited to participate in the festival, where 21 exponents were honoured. The government declared that the festival would be a regular feature of the annual cultural calendar, but that has not happened.

What has hit the artistes really hard now is the Odisha Department of Culture’s latest rule that those seeking admission to the state-run Utkal Sangeet Mahavidyalaya for a degree in Odissi, would have to score high marks in their high-school exams. “It is surprising that our expertise and experience are not being taken into account,” says Gurupada Baliarsingh, secretary of the newly-formed Utkal Samskruti Gotipua Sangha, a forum for Gotipua troupes. “Being performers from a young age, we hardly get to focus on academics. We are now demanding reservation of seats in the college for Gotipua dancers.” The winds of change are blowing fast over this old, traditional form, with Gotipua’s earthy elements being refined rapidly to make it appear like Odissi. It’s a process by which much is lost.

“The beauty of Gotipua lies in its inherent rawness. Let the thin line of demarcation remain to save Gotipua from further degeneration,” says Guru Gobinda Pal.

The independent journalist from Odisha writes on cultural affairs.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 7:11:51 AM |

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