By Utpal Borpujari in Chuhra village (Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh)
In this parched land of Bundelkhand, life is hard. The farmers here, from various castes and communities, toil to raise their crops as the rain god rarely showers benevolence on them. But that does not deter them from being culturally vibrant, with their own forms of Bundelkhandi dance and art keeping their community spirit alive. But then, like many other cultural forms across the world, here too the communities are realising that the threat of seeing their cultures slowly vanishing in the face of various modern-day challenges, including television soap operas and films.
But Umesh Vaidya was not one to silently watch this happening to his own community’s culture. So, the first graduate of his village – the fact that this man in his 40s is the first one to be a graduate in Chuhra, which is less than 50 km from district headquarters Sagar speaks volumes about the backwardness of the region – did what he could do best. And that was to form an organisation to keep alive the very unique dance forms of the Bundelkhand, called the Mauniya.
Now, several years after Vaidya, a B.Sc degree holder in Agricultural sciences, formed what is known as the Vasundhara Lok Kala Sansthan, villagers gather every Saturday afternoon below the village banyan tree to practice and perform the dance, accompanied by local musical instruments. There is no incentive from anyone for the villagers to do so. Instead, the participants spend from their pockets to keep it going. As Vaidya says, “After we found that it is even difficult for poor villagers to spare Rs ten a month for the running of the organisation, we decided that all of us associated with the Sansthan would donate five kg of crop every harvesting season to meet its expenses. Of course, it is virtually nothing in these days of high costs, but we are doing it not for money, but for the love of our culture.”
The incentive to the performers come in the shape of public appreciation when they perform in various places, though the fact is that their colourful and energetic dance form is still confined mostly to within Madhya Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh, unknown to the rest of the world. “We perform wherever we are invited, and we have done so at many places in our state and UP, but our dance is not yet known in places where there are lot of cultural activities, say, Delhi,” says Vaidya, who formed the institute after finding during his college days that their dance form was much different from other commonly-known Bundelkhandi dance forms like Badhai, Baredi and Dimaryai. Incidentally, for most of the performances, the institute’s dancers get paid in grains, and not money, which has led to the idea of setting up a grain bank to help meet its running costs.
The institute, which now attracts youngsters from nearby areas too, has several acts in its kitty for public performances, including silent skits called “Mauni Tamasha”, probably inspired from Mauniya itself. This has earned Vaidya the sobriquet of “Bundelkhand’s Charlie Chaplin”, but the institute’s core task is to preserve, practice and promote Mauniya. “It is a dance form that is performed to celebrate Govardhan Puja during Deepawali, the festival of light. The performer early in the morning passes underneath a calf, vowing to remain silent till he visits 12 villages, returns to his village in the evening to again pass underneath the calf before sunset and then dances in gay abandon in praise of Lord Krishna,” explains Vaidya, who seems to command enough respect in the area for his commitment towards the cause of protecting its culture.
What has also added to the lustre of the institute that it has been able to break, to some extent, the caste barriers in this very much caste-conscious region, with people from various castes performing together to keep their culture alive. “We believe that this dance form was practised by Lord Krishna himself, and is a way for mortal human beings to connect with him,” says Vaidya, who explains that the dance is accompanied by performances of instruments like Nagadia, Khajri, Dholkar, Algoza, Taar, Lota and Ramtula. “It reflects the agrarian way of life while bringing alive the mankind’s relationship with nature in a positive way,” he says.
The institute is trying to attract youngsters towards this dying art form by informing them both about the dance form and the silent skits, which, as Vaidya points out, “has been developed as mime elsewhere”. The institute’s troupe picks up relevant social themes and present them in a satirical way in their “Mauni Tamasha” acts alongside Mauniya performances to create social awareness about various issues. The small institute in the remote village is trying its best to keep the local culture alive, but what probably it needs is proper exposure and enough patronage making the lives of participant farmers easier, instead of them having to think both about their fields and their culture at the same moment.