How a 30-year-old zoology professor set out to save dying folk art in Odisha | Latest India News


Bhubaneswar: When Kalahandi was a princely state before its merger with Odisha province in 1948, it was known for a group of drummers who used a folk instrument called ‘Ghumura’, a drum that produced a unique and deep sound. Considered to boost the morale of soldiers, the drum was a favorite of Kalahandi generals during battle, and a dance based on the drums was also often used for religious festivals. But with princely states and their rituals now non-existent, and the official patronage that dance forms like Ghumura had long enjoyed, Odiya folk culture was well on its way to oblivion. Seventy years later, a 30-year-old zoology professor from Nuapada district in western Odisha has taken it upon himself to keep the popular art form alive, traveling across the state for two days per week to document the state’s unique folk practices and popularize them through a dedicated YouTube channel.


Growing up in the small village of Rajkomna in Nuapada District, Rajat Kumar Panigrahi grew up watching the ‘Bael Jatra’ at every Dussehra where local artists performed folk song and dance forms known as Paala, Dand and Rahans. Then there was a Bijaygarh Chhatar Jatra where people dressed up as traditional Kandha tribal warriors and went out in procession. But over the years, Panigrahi watched those rituals begin to fade before his eyes.

Since 2017, Panigrahi, now a professor of zoology at Yuvodaya College in Bolangir, has been hopping on his motorbike two days a week and traveling to remote villages in Odisha armed with a trusty Sony camera and two other men, his cousin Satya Panigrahi and friend Ganesh Pradhan. Over the past few months, if one day they have been documenting the folk art of the primitive Chakutia Bhunjia tribe in Nuapada, they have spent other days in Bolangir documenting the Debguru folk tradition.


“These art forms can only be preserved if they are documented through research. At a time when video is considered the best way to understand something, I have opted for a YouTube channel called Matir Kala (Soil Art) so that more and more people can watch the videos and see for themselves our glorious traditions. Artists live in villages so remote that many are out of cell phone coverage and the only way to contact them is to visit them,” Panigrahi said.

Typically, while Panigrahi does the research and finds ways to contact artists in a remote village, Satya does the videography and Ganesh edits the videos. So far, the trio have put up over 50 videos on their YouTube page, as well as a Facebook page, featuring both the art forms and the interviews. Over time, they also found that many artists had abandoned their traditional crafts, unable to cope with the lack of any commercial prospects. Those who remained could not afford to maintain or buy original instruments and had started using plastic.


“In Western Odisha there are various folk forms and instruments like Sankirtan, Paala, Ganabaja, Dulduli, Danda, Ghumura, Sarmangla, Dhol, Nisan, Tasa, Mahuri, Jhan and the Jhunjuni. Most of them are string or drum instruments and are traditionally made of cowhide, wood or bamboo. Each tribal community has its own tradition, dance and music. I realized that although these folk arts have survived for centuries, having been passed down to younger generations, they have not been documented.We collected various traditional instruments such as Nuapada bamboo handicrafts, old carvings on Kalahandi wood and other terracotta handicrafts and arts.Other folk arts we have documented are the Chini folk dance performed by the primitive tribal group of Chakotia Bhunjia who live in the shrine Sunabeda of Nuapada district. We also found that many of these artists gave up on these art forms because they couldn’t get anything out of them,” said Panigrahi, who has so far traveled over 50,000 km with Satya and Ganesh in over 1,000 villages of Sonepur, Kalahandi, Nuapara, Bargarh, Sambalpur and Bolangir.


But if these art forms were already dying out, Panigrahi said the Covid-19 pandemic had only exacerbated an already critical situation. “Thousands of families depend on these folk arts to survive. For example, during weddings, Ganabaja is performed by Dalit performers in which five native instruments are played. As the wedding celebrations were canceled due to the pandemic, these artists suffered a lot”

Panigrahi took to buying traditional instruments with his own money to help performers in times of financial hardship. “So far I have had to spend 3 lakh to help the artists by buying the original instruments and another 4 lakh on the handycam and other video accessories. I don’t know if it would be financially viable, but I intend to keep going for as long as possible,” he said.


Panigrahi says he is often faced with questions about his work from family and colleagues. “They often tell me that I’m crazy to spend so much money on what they consider a fruitless exercise. I tell them that if YouTube videos encourage artists to pursue their craft and prevent them from disappearing, I will be happy Then I want to create a museum in my village that will house traditional instruments, ornaments and tribal jewelry,” he said.

Odisha Odia Culture and Language Department Secretary Madhu Sudan Padhi said that since 2018 the state government pays a monthly pension of 1200 to indigent artists under the Mukhyamantri Kalakar Sahayata Yojana. “We send them to different festivals that are held in the state so that they can earn more. We are also developing a web application where the details of all these artists would be available for people to see and support. private and government assistance is needed if we are to save what is a dying culture,” Padhi said.


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