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Rās Traditions of Gujarat

Rās narrates tales of Lord Krishna

Introduction

Rās, popularly known as dandiya rās is one of the most popular folk dances of Gujarat. Associated with agricultural activities, it can be termed as occupational dancing of farmers.  Dandiya rās takes its name from dandiya, a pair of wooden sticks, used to mark time. It is performed during Navratri, Satam-atham (Janm Ashtami) fairs, and weddings in Kathiawar and Saurāshtra region of Gujarat. Originally a dance tradition common for all communities of Saurāshtra, it became popular in Gujarat after merger of Saurāshtra with the state of Gujarat in1960. Over time, it has gained a global appeal because of Gujaratis who have migrated across the globe. And, they celebrate these events with all fanfare wherever they are. Although origin of rās is traced back to legends connected with the life of Lord Krishna, as recorded in Puranas, it is essentially associated with sowing and harvesting of agricultural crops.

Harivamsa Purana, refers to rās (group dance) as Hallisaka and mentions specific styles of dancing like Tal Rāska and Dand Rāska. Many forms of rās throughout India can trace their origin to the Hallisaka and the Rās. This has been extensively   mentioned in scriptures viz. Vishnu Purana, Bhagvad Purana and Harivamasha Purana.   Beginning as a form of Sanskrit drama, eventually it became a popular sport and dance. Rajshekhar’s Karpur Manjari refers to a dance in which dancers, standing in two rows dance with wooden sticks to different rhythmic patterns. From Puranas, we learn that the Yadavas arrived in Gujarat somewhere around BC 1500 and left their imprint in mythologies and also in several traditions of performance. Dandiya rās, linked with various tales of Lord Krishna is one of them.

Traditionally rās is performed only by males. A typical rās mandali (troupe) comprises of sixteen to twenty dancers and musicians. Men, holding dandiya (wooden sticks), weave complex choreographic formations in a circle, and dance to songs that are accompanied by several musical instruments viz. harmonium, dhol (a kind of drum), naragha (Tabla), zanz, pavo, shernai. Songs are characteristic of Saurāshtra region and those which are sung in the praise of Lord Krishna follow a proper protocol. Of late, the performing troupes have also picked up ballad songs and songs with social themes.

Rās begins on a slow pace and gradually develops into a fast rhythm with dancers weaving complex choreographic patterns in a manner that when a dancer performs solo he dances simultaneously with both his partners on either side. There is great deal of freedom in the way movements are organized. It is performed by diverse communities across Saurāshtra from various walks of life. It is interesting to observe the way activities related to a particular profession and geographical conditions of the habitat play a decisive role in influencing folk dance traditions. Though the common nomenclature is rās, body movements, postures, choreography, music and costumes of each community are noticeably different. Based on occupational backgrounds of the communities, it can be broadly classified as:

  •  Rās  of the Agrarian Community  - Kanabi rās
  •  Rās of the Warrior Community  -  Maher rās
  •  Rās of  the Seafaring Communities or Fishermen - Padhar rās
  •  Rās of the Pastoral Community( specially the Shepherds) -  Hudo rās
  •  Rās of the Muslim Maldhari  community (cattle herding nomadic tribe ) of Kutch - (Jat rās)
  • Mishra  or Gop rās -  performed by men and women  (not based on criteria of  caste or profession) 

Structure of Performance

Despite variations in techniques and patterns of various performances, all rās follow a common order or general pattern of performance. Rās begins with a ‘meter less’ doha, followed by chhand sung in chalati (double speed rhythm). Dancers enter the arena of performance with the chhand striking their dandiya. This is followed by rās geet (song) during which dancers weave different choreographic patterns. Song is followed by a chhand again in chalati, leading to finale, with swift movements. At times some variations are introduced as a part of experimentation or innovations. However, by and large, pattern of the performance remains similar.

Costumes

The dancers wear kediyu, a frilled frock like garment that covers torso, choyani the lower garment that is loose up to knees and tight from calf allowing free movements of legs, paghadi (turban) or embroidered cap covers the head. Besides these, the dancers tie bhet, a two meter piece of cloth tied around waist which flows up to knees.

Music
Musical instruments like harmonium, dhol, tabla or naragha, pavo, zanz, shehnai, etc., accompany rās geet. Some troupes expand orchestra with manjira, ravan-hattha, ghughara (metal bells) etc. Each community chooses their musical instruments according to its availability and their aesthetic preferences. 

Present Situation

Though it is one of the most popular dance forms of rural and urban Gujarat one rarely comes across pure form of rās. It is performed during Navaratri by hundreds of men and women for pure entertainment which follows no choreographic patterns. However, the organized rās mandalis of Saurāshtra distinctly continues to follow the traditional choreography and wear costumes representing their caste, profession or region. But with changing times, barriers of caste and region are also getting blurred. Intermingling of traditions with modernity, which we call hybridization of rās, is result of globalization. We will examine four traditions of rās from the above mentioned six traditions of performance.

 

 Kanabi Rās

Kanabi rās takes its name from the community that performs it, the farming community. Performed by farmers of Jamnagar and Rajkot district, this mimes various significant actions of agriculture related activities in the dance form. Farmers toiling in harsh weather for long hours, round the year are sturdy and tough with high level of endurance and this energy level gets amply reflected in their rās, demonstrating untiring spirit and strength of Kanabi dancers. Kanabi rās is distinctly different from other rās forms with its characteristic choreography that carries an imprint of farming activities. A farmer has to use his lung power to scare away birds and drive bullocks. This habit has transcended to loud, full throated singing in Kanabi rās. Their inherent high energy levels are amply exhibited in their quick movements with consistently energetic performance throughout the dance. Sitting on knees, hopping from one place to another and lifting foot when wading through fields are prerequisite of farming and comes naturally to a farmer. One obviously witnesses the same kind of movements with quick foot-work, body postures and unrestricted flow of dancers. Most Kanabis are Vaishnavites, and their rās geet sing praises of Lord Krishna. Kanabi rās is performed by men, using dandiya (wooden sticks) during fairs and festivals like Satam-atham (Janm-Ashtami), social and religious functions and weddings.

Origin

It is believed that the princely states of Saurāshtra invited Kanabis from Gujarat and gave them land for farming. After imbibing the local culture and ethos, Kanabis adopted the rās tradition of Saurāshtra and created their unique style of dancing with a clear imprint of farming life. Various Kanabi groups who settled in different parts of Saurāshtra have developed their own distinct choreographic patterns and music tradition. For example, the Kanabis of Latipur village, Jamnagar district (former Navanagar State) have developed two different types of rās and have been performing these for four generations: Kanabi rās and Talwar (sword) rās. Talwar rās was created to commemorate Rajput war heroes who died in the historical war of Bhuchar Mori (July 18th, 1591).

Performance Structure 

Kanabi rās portrays various body movements and postures of farmers. Raising feet, sitting on toes, jumping and lifting knees is very typical to this form. Most rās forms have variations of speed designed to give rest to dancers but Kanabi rās maintains a very fast pace. The movements are named as dodhi (one and half times speed), chirav (zigzag), bhensa dadiyo (buffalo jump), ānti (crisscross), besani (sitting on toes bending knees), chabakhi (whip), double chalati etc. The Kanabi dancers create diverse choreographic patterns like circle, zigzag, clock-anti-clock, swastika, square, trishul, naman etc. with these movements. Continuously one after the other choreographic pattern unfolds in hinch and chalatital pattern of rhythm.

Music
The orchestra comprises of dhol, harmonium, dokad (tabla), zanj, and pavo (a variety of flute) that accompanies a male singer. The lead singer is joined by the dancers in chorus, creating an atmosphere of perfect harmony between dancers and musicians. Rās geet, narrating early childhood of Krishna is sung during Kanabi rās. The dhal-talwar rās has Shivaji nu halaradu (lullaby of Shivaji) to ignite heroic emotions.

Costume
the costume consists of embroidered kediya, choyani, colourful bhet on waist and a matching paghadi. Dancers wear ghaghara to enhance their tempos. In the dhal-talwar rās, they wear black turban and cover half the face with black cloth. Artificial moustache, a sword and shield in hand remind the audience of armed warriors of Bhuchar Mori.

 

                                                                                                

 

Maniāro Rās

Maniaro rās, performed by Maher community of Saurashtra takes its name from the unique tal of eleven matra (meters) known as maniaro. An all-male performing tradition, it can  be classified as Shaurya  rās or martial dance of Rajputs of Ghed and Barda region (Porbandar and Junagadh districts),with virāsn postures and masculine movements  to celebrate victory over enemies or to  express joy during festivals of Holi or weddings. Maniaro Rās is a stylized Hallisak rās evoking the characteristic Kshatriya link of the Maher Rajput. Dance of tall and handsome Maher men dressed in pure white kediya and choyani, white paghadi (turban) and a red belt across shoulder, dancing to the unique maniaro beats in accompaniment of sharp shenai and high notes present a   very arresting picture.

Origin

Anthropological sources trace the origin of Mahers in Medes or Meds from Medea in south-eastern Europe and also link their ancestors to the later Median Empire in ancient Persia. According to Dr. Trivedi, Mahers came from the north-west passes (Khyber) into Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Others maintain that they came from Sind, fleeing the invasion of Mohamed-Bin-Kasim in the early eighth century A.D. Trivedi links them with the Mihirs, that is, the Maitrakas of northern Saurāshtra who lived in the first millennia A.D. who formed a relationship with the Jethawa Rajputs and with Jethawas moved to Ghumali in the foothills of Barda hill near Porbandar, sometime after 800 AD.

The Mahers are an agricultural community living in Porbandar and Junagadh, both for Maher princely states, in the western end of the Saurāshtra peninsula. Traditionally a warrior community that turned settled agriculturist, Maher, in past danced to celebrate holi, celebrate victory over cattle raiders or opponents in war. Warrior like movement and display of masculine prowess, therefore is a distinctive feature of Maher rās.

Maher rās preserved as an oral tradition for many generations has no written accounts to support its antiquity. Though festive dancing was a common practice among Mahers, the first organized troupe, Chhaya Maher Rās Mandali was formed in 1967.This forty eight year old troupe has third generation of professional dancers.  Ranabhai Shida ,the troupe leader, gives credit to Natwarsinhji, the King of Porbandar state (1901-1977)  who during his visits to villages encouraged and rewarded good dancers when  Maher community as Ryot, presented rās to entertain royalty. A remarkable feature of Maher Rās Mandali is the continuity of same choreography for more than five generations.

Performance Structure 

Maniaro rās opens with a meter-less doha. The moment doha ends, the percussionist strikes his dhol and the shehnai joins in. Dancers with speed and gusto enter the performance area, holding parona and forms a circle to hinch tal. Once circle is formed, maniaro tal is played on dhol and rās geet begins. Mahers use parona, a pair of thick and long sticks of solid bamboo whereas all other communities of Saurāshtra use dandiya, a pair of wooden sticks. After rās geet is complete, chhand in chalati (double speed) follows when dancers move doubling their speed as if in a frenzy and then exit creating climax. The choreography in Maher is simple but the difficult postures of virāsn are repeatedly performed very gracefully and with great ease. The Maher rās is a smooth yet rare synchronization of graceful movements in vilambit tal with fast movements in chalati that builds up a climax. The most unique feature of this rās is the tal of eleven matra - maniaro tal. No other community of Gujarat uses this tal in rās. If the speed of maniaro is increased it becomes hinch tal according to Ranabhai Shida, a noted exponent and troupe leader of the oldest Maher Rās Mandali. The dancers perform very vigorous as well as slow movements, stylized gestures resembling sword fight in both fast hinch and slow maniaro rhythm. Maher rās is a unique example of smooth integration of lasya with masculine movements.  Striking parona with pair resembles attacking the opponent with a sword. A very peculiar movement of this rās is chabakhi - a swift whirl, jump bending knees and landing on toes, to stand up again with in a fraction of second and jump again to a height of three to four feet bending knees. Entire group of dancers for few second stays suspended in air creating a mesmerizing scene. The forceful swift swirl chabakhi translates as whip verbally expressing speed and impact of forceful swift swirl movement.

Costumes
Mahers’ costumes are stark white with a red belt worn across shoulders. Angani, without any embroidery is a frock like garment that covers the torso. The lower body is covered by choyano, tight on calf and loose above knees, a garment similar to horse riding breeches. This design allows free movement of legs. The head is covered in a white turban. Maher style of tying turban is very different from other communities of Saurāshtra. Bhet, a white cloth with a knot on one side covers lower abdomen. A red cloth belt bhalpato from right shoulder to waist adds to the elegance of a Maher dress. The Rajput dancers look gracious with gold earrings and a necklace of golden beads.

                                                                                            

 

 

Padhar Rās

Padhar Rās is performed by Padhars, a category of scheduled tribe who are one of the five adivasis inhabiting Gujarat. They are spread in twelve villages around the natural lake, Nal Sarovar in Surendranagar district (formerly princely state of Limdi) and Ahmedabad district. Padhars claim to have migrated from Sindh and are followers of Hinglaj Mata (Baluchistan). The earlier topography of Nal Sarovar region, the lifestyle, culture and rās tradition of Padhars suggest they must have been a seafaring group living in the coastal area. Nal Sarovar is an extension of Gulf of Cambay and it is believed that river Sindhu merged with the sea here. Padhars, at present are not land owners but work as agricultural labourers. They earn a meager living as boat men during winter, entertaining tourists in Nal Sarovar.

Padhar Rās is performed only by men, who use manjira to mark time. In the entire Saurāshtra region, Padhar are the only one who do not use dandiya. The structure is identical to other rās forms. The characteristic features that distinguish this rās are:

  1. The entire rās is performed in speed and gusto but they do not lift leg or slide like other rās dancers. While in motion, they continuously play Manjira and maintains the rhythm.
  2. They sit in a circle playing Manjira, bending their upper torso forward and swiftly pulling back creating the visual image of boatmen rowing their boats in water. It is like coming of waves, falling apart and once again rising to subside. This visual depiction of sea is so real that one can visualize a boat swinging in waves and a bunch of boatmen rowing vigorously.
  3. Dancers lie down on the floor in a circle and playing manjira swiftly move their hands in unison from one side to the other. They sit and sway their bodies from left to right, bend torso from waist, touch knees with head and once again return to the original sitting position. Gradually rising, they run in a circle like the rushing ebb.
  4. Dancers create a striking visual image of waves gradually rising, falling apart and once again rising.

Music

Manjira, zanz and tabla are three instruments used in this rās.  Padhars have a peculiar voice quality that is very different from the masculine, full throated voice quality of other Kathiawadi singers. This unique singing, coupled with a distinct choreography of sea farers is the most outstanding feature of this rās. Both doha and rās geet express the devotion for Krishna.
 

Costumes

The costume consists of choyani (bhati or surval), shining full sleeve shirt with jacket (kalacho or pehran) and a colourful cloth (fento or mel) to cover head. Padhars do not use fine embroideries or embellishments and their costume reflects total lack of fineries.

 Emergence of Padhar Rās Mandali

The story of Padhar Rās Mandali of Ranagadh is told by Rambhai Padhar (present troupe leader) and Fuljibhai Padhar (singer). It narrates the journey of unorganized Padhar dancers who have attained the status of a nationality through Padhar rās Mandali. Rambhai belongs to the third generation of Padhar dancers, implying seventy years of Mandali’s existence.

Before independence the Limdi Durbar that of a feudal lord, often camped in Nal Sarovar area for hunting boars. In the evenings, Padhars were called to entertain the Durbar where they sang bhajania (devotional song) in their dialect and danced to it. Ragha Māstar, a teacher in Limdi primary school and a favourite of Durbar, always accompanied Mahatma Gandhi (Bapu) on these trips. A cultural enthusiast, he encouraged the Padhar  to form a group, choreographed their  movements and selected a  Padhar folk song narrating the hunting expeditions of Limdi Durbar and this pleased the Durbar. In nineteen forties when the freedom movement gained momentum and songs celebrating Gandhi were sung in every nook and corner of Gujarat, Ragha Māstar inspired Padhars to write a song narrating Gandhi’s activities. Which became very popular and with the establishment of Gujarat in 1960, Padhar Rās Mandali got several opportunities to perform in government functions. It was during one of these programmes someone suggested them to include in their repertoire poetry of medieval saint Narsinh Mehta:  “Vā Vāyā né vādal umatyā, Gokul man tahukya mor,ramavā āvo sunder var shāmaliyā”, and the unassuming Padhar complied with the suggestion. This song still continues to be rās geet of Padhar Rās Mandali as origin of many cultural traditions is the result of continued dialogue between various levels of society. It is highly influenced and shaped by local environment, profession of performers and the patrons of the art. The Padhar Rās Mandal travels to state festivals and presents their performance but unfortunately the next generation of Padhars with different aspirations are not keen to continue this tradition. It is likely that in next few decades this may become another dying art form of Gujarat.

                                                                                         

 

Mishra Rās/Gop Rās

Mishra rās also known as Gop[1]rās, as the name suggests, is performed by both men and women though this form has remained an ‘all-male’ performance, in Saurāshtra. It has its roots in folklores and legends associated with rās of Krishna with his consorts. Anecdotes suggest that this form emerged in response to the newly formed Government of Gujarat’s[2] desire to promote Gujarati culture on the occasion of Republic Day, in 1961. Bhavnagar University was requested by the Government to form a cultural dance troupe of students (boys and girls) to perform in Delhi. The Mishra rās performance was highly appreciated in Delhi and eventually became very popular especially among urban youths in Gujarat. Gradually as stage performances gained prominence, rural troupes took to a mixed ensemble so that they could perform longer. It is interesting to note that what we recognize as ‘tradition’ today was a very recent creation under Government patronage and sponsorship. It indicates that once created and systematically nurtured, such experiments could mature as new forms of cultural identity. Possibly the youngest traditional dance form of Gujarat, Mishra rās is a landmark in the cultural history of the state.

Performance Structure

As a newly evolved form it is barely two generations old. While there is continuity in the basic structure of this dandiya rās, it has far more flexibility in performance technique and presentation. It opens with doha; and followed by rās geet and ends with a chhand. The Mishra rās troupes of Gujarat, both rural and urban are not bound by any rigid tradition, have created their own exclusive choreography. Since Mishra rās is not a dance tradition of any specific community, there is a lot of flexibility in costumes and music. Women wear chaniyo, kapadu (backless blouse) or blouse and odhani or jimy (long skirt). Men wear choyani, embroidered kediyu, bhet and paghadi, depending upon their choice.

Musical Instruments

Musical instruments to provide background music and accompaniments for songs are dhol, zanz, pav, flute and harmonium. Sometimes violin and ravanhathho are also used as accompaniments. The songs could be devotional praising Mother Goddess or Krishna and also newly written songs (more often based on film songs).

                                                                                      

 

Conclusion
 

Rās is a popular folk form of Gujarat performed to celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna, good harvest and victory over an enemy. In spite of variations in techniques of performance among sub-regional groups, one observes an underlying similarity in all rās dances. The variations in rās are directly conditioned by occupations, the occasions of performance, the nature of human relationships and the levels of social and economic organization among different groups.

Performance of dandiya rās is linked with agricultural activities and is performed to rejoice but now it has lost its associations with farming and has spread across the globe as a performative form. Needless to mention that several elements have undergone changes in the process and has reformulated the form. What once was an impromptu dance of village men is now the all-time favourite of men and women in rural and urban environs. The journey from dance of Yadavas to Mishra rās of 20th century has witnessed many additions and subtractions: from village square it has entered auditoriums and performance arenas during the Navratri. Changes in costumes, music, footwork, choreography, songs are directly linked to the societal transformations in each century. Today it has merged with garaba, another folk dance form of Gujarat performed by women during Navratri. Now Rās-Garaba is a unified cultural identity of Gujarat, though both possess individual character of their own.

 

 

 

[1] The word Gop is derived from ‘Gau Palak’ those who graze cows. Lord Krishna was considered to be their leader.

[2] It may be mentioned that the State of Gujarat was formed on 1st May, 1960.