Club Sticks and Acrobatics in Folk Dance of Bundelkhand
Dewari Pai Danda is an age-old traditional folk dance of Bundelkhand that traces its origin, traditionally, to the times of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
On the outskirts of Banda, there’s a Hanuman Temple on a lake’s banks. The temple also houses a ground known as akhada, for practising and performing Diwari Pai Danda, a traditional martial arts-based folk dance native to the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. Danda refers to club sticks that serve as the ‘weapon’ for the martial arts practice the dance centres around. Performers indulge in stick-fighting, rhythmic dancing and gymnastics; all choreographed to percussion music produced by Dhol and Nagada. It could be considered a more aggressive variant of the more popular Dandia dance.
Leading the group of performers is a jovial, loquacious leader, addressed by the other members as guruji, Ramesh Pal. Belonging to the Pal Gadariya community, he is from a family that has practised and performed Diwari Pai Danda for 4-5 generations. He is well-versed in the history of the art and readily shares the story with willing listeners. Diwari is a diminutive of Diwali, the festival with which the dance is traditionally associated. On the second day following Diwali, people would decorate and worship cows. They’d spend the entire day in silence and fasting and honouring cows. On this day, Diwari Pai Danda’s performances would begin, and they continued till Makar Sankranti in January of the following year. Ramesh Pal was involved in these celebrations from a young age and took a keen interest in Pai Danda. Elders in his family would all practice the art and have taken the tradition forward for many generations.
Ramesh began learning from his father but later trained in gymnastics from his guru, Hari Pal. He explains that consistent training and practice are essential to mastering the art. Performers train in strength training as well. Practice begins at 5 in the morning every day of the year, without any exceptions except for the death of a villager, in which case mourning is organised instead. Members of his group come from all walks of life, with children as young as 6 to men in their middle age. Ramesh started training at about seven and is now a full-time performer and instructor of Pai Danda.
Also present was Prof. Tripathi, who researched this art form and even published a book on it. He explained that traditional accounts narrate that the art form originates in the times of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Diwali is celebrated to observe the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. Hence, the introductory verses to the dance, known as Diwari, usually involve the recitation of couplets (dohas) about the Ramayana. Pai Danda, which refers to the dance that follows, originates from the story of Lord Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain to protect the villagers from the fury of Lord Indra. The villagers performed Pai Danda to entertain themselves and celebrate the victory of their Lord. The dance also fostered equality and brotherhood among the villagers, who had to share the small space under the mountain for many days.
Continuing the same tradition today, the dancers consider their group an extended family. Ramesh Pal explains that Pai Danda is a form of yoga. The principles of Yoga – both the physical asanas and the spiritual aspect of self-perfection – are found in practice. The performers not only aim to keep themselves physically fit and practice their form to rigorous perfection, but they also practice discipline in their everyday lives. They also learn to treat each other as brothers and strive to become ideal members of society. Ramesh recounts how he worked to eradicate untouchability from his village by educating everyone about the common underlying essence of all human beings. The dance also celebrates the same essence; hence, he was keen on involving the outcasts and the untouchables in his group. He also adds that through discipline and leading a highly moral life, the boys have bettered their own lives and that of their families. Through the group, Ramesh has been able to touch and impact the lives of all the villagers on the whole.
Ramesh Pal is one of the few people from his village who graduated from college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Arts from Kanpur University. He realises and stresses the importance of studying, encouraging all the performers to study and educate themselves, as he believes that the only way culture survives is through education. Only educated individuals can understand the essence and goals of long-surviving traditions and represent their art well on the national and global stage. He credits his success with other artists and influential people like politicians to his education. It has helped him communicate and increase the visibility of this art form while also aiming big for his group. The group has performed in 28 states around India, and each member earns about 10-15 thousand a month by this. Ramesh recounted his most memorable experience in Gujarat when they performed in the presence of Narendra Modi, the state’s chief minister.
Diwari Pai Danda is an energetic display of gymnastics and martial arts, which leaves the spectators in awe with expertly choreographed movements that are complex and in perfect coordination. The first thoughts that come to our minds upon witnessing a performance are the dedication, consistent practice and discipline that is required to pull it off. The dance serves as a reminder about the importance of these qualities not just in art, but in all walks of life, as the key to perfection is not in-born talent but a relentless determination to achieve it no matter what it takes.