The Rejuvenation of Odisha’s Cultural Foundations: Pala, Ravana Chhaya and the Lakhmi Purana
Satya Mohanty and Lalu Mansinha
Pala is a valuable cultural tradition of Odisha, combining theatre, Odissi music, highly refined Odia and Sanskrit poetry, wit, humor, and social satire. Ravanna Chhaya (shadow puppetry) may well have originated in our part of the world millennia ago, and then spread through South and Southeast Asia. Both of these art forms may be facing extinction under the relentless pressures of modern entertainment media. In 2008, SEEDS (Sustainable Education and Economic Development Society) initiated a project to help sustain and enrich both the art forms. The project has several facets: (a) popularisation; (b) training; (c) scholarship; (d) publication; and a (e) plan for self-sustainability after a few years. There have been sponsored workshops, seminars and performances. The overall goal of the project is to work with Odisha-based groups, artistes, and scholars to strengthen what may be called the “cultural infrastructure” of Odia society, deepening the links between the villages and the urban areas and creating channels of communication about progressive, democratic social values and ideals.
In this, the second full year of the project, we are happy to report a measure of success and excitement beyond our most optimistic expectations. Full credit for the progress of the projects goes to two dedicated scholars in Odisha, Shri Prasana Dash (for Pala) and Dr. Gouranga Charana Dash (for Puppetry). Shri Prasana Dash is the founder of Prafulla, an organisation dedicated to village libraries, and publication of quality books on Odisha. Dr. Gouranga Dash, an Odiya writer and literary critic, a renowned national expert on puppetry traditions as well as an official advisor to the national Sangeet Natak Akademy, is the founder of Kandhei Ghara, an ashram and museum on puppetry in Angul district.
In 2009 four shows/ workshops/ seminars have been held in the larger rural centers: Keonjhar, Anugul, Katak, Jagatsinghpur. We have been pleasantly surprised by the high level of interest in the rural population in not just audience numbers (which at points reached 2000), but also in the number of pala troupes in Odisha. The love for pala and ravanna chhaya in the rural population in these days of Bollywood and tv is astonishing. There are stories of people walking 20 kilometres to attend the Badi Pala competitions at our events. Even more astonishing is our discovery of the number of troupes eager to participate and present their art. Traditionally pala has been all male. There are now several all-female pala troupes.
We have learned many things over the course of this project, and would like to highlight two points:
- a) These traditional popular cultural forms are an invaluable cultural resource, since they are an integral part of village life. These forms make village life attractive to village residents, as well as to many who work in the city. Thus financial support for their growth and sustenance can support and help improve the basic infrastructure of rural Odisha society.
- b) Given their organic connection to village culture, traditional cultural forms are able to convey powerful messages about democratic social values more effectively than can television or the cinema. One can draw on the rich repertoire of traditional narratives in Odia literature that contain progressive social values. The recently-concluded pala workshop in Bhubaneswar developed a pala script based on the 500 year old Lakhmi Purana by Balaram Das, one that can be the basis for improvisation and adaptation by different pala gayakas. A similar script, based on the LP, was developed in late 2009 by Dr. Gouranga Dash for ravana chhaya. Plans are underway to create discussion questions on social issues (gender and caste egalitarianism) that can be used by the pala and puppetry practitioners after every performance, especially in rural school and colleges. (Note: Sub-projects on daskathia and Odissi music are also in their early stages. The goal is to link the various performing arts and other cultural traditions together to provide support for comprehensive social development of Odisha’s towns and villages.)
These forms are not museum-pieces, relics of the past, but rather central features of a dynamic rural social life. With intellectual partnership and some financial support, the practitioners of these forms in Odisha will be able to provide a model for how the “culture” of ordinary people, especially in the villages, can contribute to the nation and the world.
Donors from the Odia community in North America have made this project possible, and matching funds continue to be generated locally by the village audiences and their local organizations.