Dhanu Jatra

Only a few are aware  that world's biggest open air theatre (festival) held in a small town of BARGARH in the Western part of Orissa, (a region known more for poverty, starvation deaths and sale of children). As the millennium's first open-air festival, it is being celebrated with greater gusto than last year

The town, which has a population of about a lac spread over a few square miles, turned into the unique epic town of Mathura for ten-day festival known locally as 'Dhanu Jatra'.

"By organising this festival on such a large scale we want to send the message that generations may have passed but the definition of good and evil remains unchanged," said one of the organiser.

Come the month of Pusha (winter, the first half of January), the sleepy town turns festive, the whole town becomes - stage where people depicts mythology into a realism.  The uniqueness of the festival lies in the fact that all the episodes of 'Kansa Vadh' (the killing of Kansa) takes place in different part of the town - making it the largest open-air theatre in the world..

Interestingly, the people on the streets as well as inside their houses become artistes,  the satellite settlements nearby, villages, rivers and buildings takes on classical names -- as they were known in the age of Mahabharat. A visitor at this time maybe pardoned for thinking that he has, by mistake, got into a time machine which has transported him backwards.

During the festival Bargarh awakes to the vibrations of drums, bugles and shehnais. "For ten days we forget today's world," said Kanhu Patnaik, a school teacher in Bargarh who is happy that bewildered truck drivers on the national highway near the town still ask whether Kansa rules in this part of the world.

Bargarh becomes Mathurapuri as it was called some 5,000 years ago, the neighbouring Amapalli village becomes Gopapur, the place Krishna immortalised with his Bala Lila. The Jira, which flows between Bargarh and Amapali becomes Jamuna for the time being.

The mood takes over thousands from nearby villages who throng the streets of Bargarh to enjoy and participate in the cultural drama. The main attraction is Kansa, whose characterisations dominates the festival despite people viewing him as a demon.

"Begging the role of Kansa is no mean task, for it means royal living for 10 days and passing orders like a king," says Gopal Sahu who played the role for 15 years before being denied the role last year.

Interestingly, the festival not only re-enacts mythology but also provides amusement to the people. As Kansa goes around the city everyday, the people - regardless of who they are -- bow before him. The Distinct Collector and Magistrate, Superintendent of Police  and other administrative officials who visit Kansa's durbar are treated as the king's employees and local MLAs, MPs and ministers projected as his representatives.

The last  year the festival began on January 11 and over the next for 10 days, Kansa's story is told in all its glory. The entire Municipal area of Bargadh, sprawling over 30 sq km, provides the setting for the enactment of epic scenes, which begins with the grand wedding of Devaki and Vasudev, then traces the birth of Krishna and climaxes with Kansa's death.

The unique extravaganza boasts of a cast that involves virtually everyone in Bargarh. However, in a major deviation from practice, last year the lead character of Kansa was selected after through screening. Assistant sub-inspector of police Gopal Sahu, who had been playing the king for 15 years, had to make way for Bubhaneswar Pande. The role's attraction can be seen from the fact that more than 16 candidates had participated in the screen test.

Given this, the organisers have now decided to introduce a fresh face every year. However,  it is the sets that take the cake. The panchayat motel turns into the royal palace of Kansa and his durbar is a pandal erected at Hatpada of Bargarh. The local Radha Krishna temple serves as the prison house of Vasudeva and Devaki. The most remarkable feature of the Jatra, which hopes to find a place in the Guinness Book of World Records is that there are no spectators, rather all are participants in the epic play.

Kansa, astride a decorated elephant, goes on a Nagar Parikrama every morning. During the tour, he imposes fines on businessmen as well as government departments for violation of rules. He also holds a durbar to listen to the grievances of his subjects and reprimands or awards officials, including the collector and the superintendent of police, who become his court officials during the festival.

In short, anyone who dares to cross his path gets the royal rap, no one is spared, this dictatorial power enlivening the whole drama. Anyone can be hauled up by the king, from Chief Minister of the State down to the poor and landless laborers. In 1994, for instance, the then Chief Minister Sri Biju Patnaik, who attended the Jatra was summoned to Kansa's durbar. Patnaik not only obliged but even deposited a fine for a punishment served on him.

According to scholars, the origin of 'Dhanu Jatra is obscure. Some say it was very popular in the 18th century, while others argue that it started in the 16th century. Although the festival celebrated its golden jubilee last year, there is evidence to believe that the Jatra was restarted during the British regime.   Unfortunately, despite the annual festival, Bargarh has not become a major tourist attraction on the map.

Article and Photographs Courtly: Shyam Dash