First published, May 2009, Craft Revival Trust
The God fearing, somber precincts of Raghurajpur, a palm tree lined heritage village, ten kilometers from Puri in Orissa took me by surprise when, upon my arrival I spotted pint sized hair top knotted dynamites running riot across the village road with their pranks. Normally, such pranks would command instant punishment by the village elders, but here was an exception. These boys are I was told, ‘God’s children’ who perform the Gotipua dance. Hence, everyone puts up with them. These boys are exclusively chosen by the community to please the Gods. They powder their face, paint their eyes and forehead, grow their hair and dress them up like girls. They are presented as the female devotee dancers, consorts of Lord Krishna – the Gotipua dancers.
Gotipua, in Oriya means goti, single and pua, boy. This is a dance tradition that is over 300 years old and origins from when a single boy danced for lord Krishna. It is the mainspring of the now famous classical Odissi dance form. Raghurajpur has given birth to not only the Gotipua tradition, but also legendry dancers like Guru Kellucharan Mahapatra and Guru Maguni Charan Das. The dance continues to be practiced in the village in Guru Maguni Das’s gurukul ashram, Dasabhuja Gotipua Odishi Nrutya Parishad. Here boys are recruited at the age of about six and perform till their voice begins to crack and the first glimpse of facial fuzz appears. The boys live in the ashram and follow a very strictly disciplined day which starts at four a.m. every morning with oil massage, stretching, bending and twisting the limbs, followed with their abhyas. The Ashram takes care of their formal education. Once they leave the Ashram, many of the boys continue as dancers or become musicians.
There are various theories explaining the origin of Gotipua dance. All theories however date this tradition to the 16th century. According to some, when a section of Vaishnav preachers did not approve of maharis (devadasis) women dancing in the temples on the pretext of worship they introduced the practice of dancing by boys dressed up as girls. As narrated by Guru Maguni Das, in the twenty one day long Chandan Yatra of Puri, Swami Chaitanya the great Vaishnav saint wanted to perform the dance in the procession of Lord Jagannath and Lord Shiva. Priests objected to this. Yet as the devadasis were not permitted to dance during their menstrual period, boys of tender age were brought in to perform the devadasi’s dance. It was around this time that Orissa was also under going socio-political turmoil as its last dynasty had collapsed and Mughals and Afghans were trying for a hold on the State. At this time akhadas were made to shelter the gotipua, where boys were groomed as fine dancers as well as fighters to protect the temples of Orissa. Embellished in customary feminine costumes, Gotipua dancers possessed the feminine glow and lucidity as well as the masculine valor and vigor to protect the temples from intruders.
Guru Maguni Charan Das, the 96 years old danseur, exponent of Gotipua Dance. He has been awarded Padamshree in 2004, and various other awards like Tulsi Award in 1996 and felicitation by Odisha Sangeeta Natak Academy in 1991 for his stupendous and pioneering efforts in the revival of Gotipua dance.
Born in Raghurajpur and still living there with his wife, Guru Maguni Das has become a living legend enticing crowds of dance lovers from across the globe.
Did you know, male Devadasi’s still carry on the Gotipua dance tradition in Raghurajpur?
From 17th century onward Gotipua dance spread as a temple culture and was performed regularly in Lord Jagannath temple in Puri. The journey of Gotipuas from the village temples to the metropolitan theatres within India and across the globe has been a long one but successfully spanned. A major credit for this goes to Guru Maguni Charan Das who has dedicated 65 years of his life not only to keep the tradition alive, but also taken it to places. Under his tutelage, this tradition has taken a theatrical form, where from one boy the dance is now performed by a group of boys, and accompanied by musicians who play mirdala, harmonium, cymbals, flute and violin. One can catch a glimpse of these little boys dancing in the ashram, early in the morning.
Gotipua truly is a great dance tradition which celebrates the reunion of man with the Divinity. Such is the beauty and allure of the dance that even Gods are said to revel in it!