How we learnt our puranas

Hari anant hari katha ananta, kahahi sunahi bahu bidhi sadhu santa – thus goes a stanza in Ramacharita Manasa of Tulsidas. Hari is endless, so are his stories. The saint listens and speaks of it in so many ways.

Mahabharata, the biggest epic of the world runs into hundred thousand slokas. Then there is Ramayana and the eighteen puranas. Each of these have their local versions and variations. On one hand we have endless mythological literature. On the other hand, for centuries, majority of our population could hardly read or write.

The remote villages and small towns, where I spent most of my childhood days, provided healthy doses of entertainment in the form of dramas, puppetry and other folk performances conducted in open theatres.  Most of the performances would be based on stories from various epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavat Purana etc. At such places, by the time a boy/girl was into his/ her teens, whether he was educated or illiterate, he/she knew all the major stories from the epics, along with their moral and ethical implications.  

There are two such theatrical performances unique to my native district Ganjam. One is a popular musical dance drama with resemblance to Kerala’s Kathakali dance format. It is known as Prahlad Nataka or Raja Nacha. Another is Duari Nacha or Bharata Leela. There are two easily affordable folk performances popular all over Odisha known as Pala and Dashakathia. In this article I will discuss briefly about each of these.

Prahllada Nataka

Taken from Vishnu Purana and Nrusingha Purana, Prahlad Nataka is about the ordeal of Prahallada who was time and again attempted to be punished or killed by his own father for being a devotee of Lord Vishnu. His father Hiranyakashyapu had become the sworn enemy of Lord Vishnu because the Lord had killed his brother Hiranyakhya in his Varaha Avatar. The ordeal of Prahallada ends when Lord Vishu takes Nrusingha avatar and kills Hiranyakashyapu.

The musical dance drama would start in the morning and continue till late night or the morning next day. Before the battle finale, the actors playing Nrusingha and Hiranyakashyapu would be bound in iron chains with two groups of strong men in control of each actor. The elders would explain that if it is not done, the actors may kill each other. Towards the end, the actors identify themselves with the characters so much they forget that they are acting out the roles. As I remember, after the killing episode of Hiranyakashyapu, the actor playing Nrusingha would reach a trance like state. The actors, playing the roles of Hiranyakashyapu and Nrusingha, have to be not only highly skilled in acting, but also disciplined enough to  follow prescribed rituals strictly a few days before the enactment of the play till its end.

Duari Nacha or Subhadra Parinaya or Bharata Leela

Duari Nacha is also a musical dance drama. The main characters are Arjuna, Sri Krishna’s wife Satyabhama and sister Subhadra. The central character is Arjuna’s gatekeeper (duari) who is also the narrator or the sutradhara. It is the story of Subhadra’s pursuit of Arjuna leading to her ultimate marriage with him. In this pursuit Satyabhama is an accomplice. It is a kind of reverse seduction in the sense that it is usually the man who is not subtle in his seduction. Then anything is possible in Mahabharata where a woman can have five husbands. But you would find neither such story as that of duari nacha nor the character of duari in Mahabharata. Spin offs of Indian epics are nothing new.

It is not a monotonous story development in such performances. There are frequent interruptions to regale the audience with comedy gigs and dance numbers. Now a days even they have added item songs. However it is not easy to play the duari character. Only acting skill is not enough for this. As sutradhara, he has to be solid in the knowledge of medieval odia literature. As the story progresses he brings in different perspectives of different poets by singing them and explaining them. It is a demanding job too for all the artists as the performance can go on sometimes up to twelve hours and it is not a large group of actors and musicians to enable them to take frequent breaks.

Pālā Nācha

Ours being a small village and not having many rich families I don’t remember big theater parties frequently coming to our village. Duari nacha was affordable to some extent. But one performance that was frequently hosted was Pala Nacha. A pala group consists of five or six members all of whom triple up as singers, performers and percussionists. In each group there is a chief singer and the other members are known as palias.

The performance consists of narrating an episode from the epics in songs. They don’t play different fixed characters like the duari nacha. Mridangam and cymbals are the main musical instruments used here. Sometimes they perform continuously for sixteen days and each day they would have a different central story. Generally the lead singer sings the first line and the palias complete it or they sing the repeat line at the end of each stanza. The chief singer of a pala has to be a better expert of Sanskrit and odia medieval literature than the sutradhara of a duari nacha.

Quite often a self styled village intellectual would come up with a tricky question and the chief singer has to give a satisfactory answer to preserve his honour. I still wonder how these people are able to become walking talking encyclopedias of Sanskrit and Odia literature and remember thousand of stanzas of famous poets.

Pala tradition started as a part of the attempts during Mughal period to bring in communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Even though for musical performance the chief singer takes up a central topic from Hindu scriptures and makes cross references to other mythological stories from Hindu scriptures, at the beginning they worship Satyapir and narrate a story whereby a Hindu is rescued from distress by a Muslim Pir. Satyapir is a combination of Satyanrayaya from Hindu tradition and Pir from Muslim tradition.

Dāsakāthia

This word has nothing to do with my name. It is a more affordable performance than even the pala nacha because for Dasakathia two is a company. One is the chief singer and the other one is palia. The name Dasakathia comes from the name of the peculiar musical instrument consisting of a pair of small wooden pieces. You can find similar instruments being used by Rajastahni folk singers and also by by the mythological character Narada Muni. The format of story telling through songs is similar to that of pala and the central stories are chosen from one of the epics.

When they arrived unannounced

As I have mentioned earlier, out of many types of folk performances available, our village was a frequent host to Pala Nacha. After the harvest season in September /October, the pala groups used to visit from village to village as per their bookings. Sometimes even without booking a pala group would arrive in our village. They were never turned away on such occasions. Voluntary donations in cash or kind were arranged immediately and they were given food and accommodation. Messengers were sent to the nearby villages to invite them for the show.

Your native locality must be having traditional types of group performers like Pala and Dasakathia. Have you ever watched their performance? What are they know as? Please share about them in the comments.

PS : This is P alphabet post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.

All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.

22 thoughts on “How we learnt our puranas

  1. There is so much to know. Such an interesting way to learn.
    You have shared great information. Do hope these ancient arts and methods of teaching and learning are preserved for and by the future generations…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are a Prolific writer. The hectic performance is perhaps required of the format you have chosen to adhere to. What is remarkable with you is, unlike many others, you do not compromise with the content and style of your writing.

    Again, you have churned up a spellbinding account of traditional natakas of Orissa, played by the country folks over the ages. I trust those performances were at par, if not better than the high octane but hollow entertainment offered by the popular cinemas today.

    Thanks for enriching my rather small awareness of the cultural nuances of an important part of our country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those performers were not just dumb actors playing out to the script. They had to be adept in singing and experts in understanding and memorizing thousands of stanzas. Many of them did not have much formal education, but by their own efforts mastered a difficult language like Sanskrit. The performances that continued for hours needed great stamina. Whatever they got in return was just enough to sustain their livelihoods and many of them were dependent on other sources of income.

      Thanks for your encouraging feedback. It is my own way of expressing my gratitude to mera gaon mera desh.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an absolutely enriching read. Such a pleasure to read about the traditional folk plays of Orissa. Your series is a wonderful tribute to your state. Our culture is full of richness of various art forms. But western trends have caused them to fade into oblivion.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing…our heritage is so rich.. I only remember seeing Ram leela during Dusshera..unfortunately in cities we don`t get to see such performances..My mom would tell us stories of Prahlada and how his father Hriyankashyap put him in Holika`s lap so that he would burn in the fire…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Quite a comprehensive article. There’s great depth of knowledge in India’s culture and puranas.
    Fascinated by these lines from the article, “I still wonder how these people are able to become walking talking encyclopedias of Sanskrit and Odia literature and remember thousand of stanzas of famous poets.”

    Liked by 1 person

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