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The Daring Devotional Dance of Durga Puja!

The Daring Devotional Dance of Durga Puja!

The all-time favourite dance during Durga Puja, dhunuchi naach, with burning charcoal and incense in earthen challises, has lost its trained priest-dancers and often becomes dangerous

Born and brought up in one of the northeastern states of India, I was privileged to study in a school head mastered by a Reverend from Mizoram, who remains my lifelong reverence.

Especially because I am about to embark on my literary masterpiece (ahem!) on a subject that entices most people: dancing.

Cheraw is Mizoram’s most popular folk dance, and I saw plenty of it during our school annual day functions.

I was mighty thrilled to witness its charm once again during our school’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations very recently.

Without going into a detailed diatribe on this, let me say that I am sure most Indians know it by its common name: “Bamboo Dance”.

It is one of the most intriguingly beautiful community dances anywhere.

Super long, well-formed bamboo staves striking hard against each other to emit that hollow sound, and the girls dancing with their unguarded bare feet rhythmically escaping the touch of the bamboo staves.

It is truly mesmeric. But let us also look at the associated danger quotient.

One miscalculated beat or an off-beat step would turn the show into an orthopaedic nightmare.

Yet, I have never seen any paramedics on the standby during such performances.

More than dance, it truly is a ‘Who Dares, Wins’ reality show. No wonder it is never copied even by our dying-for-new-ideas film industries across the country.

Even in school, I had never seen anyone disrespect or act funny with the bamboos or attempt a ‘let me show you how’ act. Awe is all we had, and it still remains so.

Now the, Durga Puja comes with its own dance, too.

Durga Puja is round the corner, but this time there would be more than a few unwelcome exceptions.

The gap of nearly a month between Mahalaya and Sashthi (the sixth day of Devi Paksha and the first day of Durga puja in eastern India) is the certain first of such exceptions.

The word virtual, now a ‘new common’ in our work life, would spread its tentacles into Puja celebrations for certain. And that will be the second, and most painful exception.

Under a normal scenario, Durga Puja brings forth the next form of dance, ‘dhunuchi naach’.

Unlike the bamboo dance, this is not a folk dance, and certainly not a classical one. It is practiced widely, with common devotees and revelers nowadays performing it. But there is a much older history.

This originated as part of the elaborate rituals of worshipping the deity, and the dance would be performed by the priest himself, who was trained into this form.

Eventually, the dance ritual got delegated to others who helped the priest, and then went further downstream, and in the process, the ‘fun’ part got added and the strict religious dos and don’ts were relaxed.

For those who are not sure what it is all about, here is a two-line description.

Dhunuchi is an earthen chalice, with burning charcoal ‑topped with slices of dried coconut shells as a cover. The burning charcoal is liberally sprinkled with guggul, an organic incense, which lets off a fragrant smoke.

two women doing a dhunuchi naach

The chalice is carried high by the dancers while they showoff their moves.

Beating of drums by the fast vanishing dhakis (Bengal’s rural drum players) with the billowing of perfumed smoke and the gyrating dancers create an exhilarating effect.

Experimentation with chalice movements start, and fast dives into uncontrollable twists and turns, throwing out burning charcoal into undesired places like someone’s sari or dhoti. The point of no return happens when the dancer spots a pretty face in the crowd

This is aesthetically much richer than our discotheque dances, for which one pays tons of money to smell the toxic fumes of alcohol and tobacco, dancing to eardrum-blasting, bass-centric songs which are mostly not understood.

So what is the danger associated with this originally innocuous form of dance performed before the deity?

As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said in the movie ‘Spiderman’: “with great power comes great responsibility”, but at times in dhunuchi naach, the responsibility bit is forgotten, and that’s when this dhunuchi dance starts to flirt with danger.

Unlike gaming, where players are put in multiple brackets defining their expertise – novice, beginner, intermediate and expert‑ the performers of dhunuchi naach can be broadly put under two groups.

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These are ‘Novice’ and ‘Expert’, where the latter is extremely hard to come by and the divide between them is hugely prominent and pronounced.

An expert would strike a ‘Nataraj’ pose carrying two chalices in two hands, while balancing the third on his or her forehead, or even the chin, while giving a Govinda expression.

But such jaw dropping, high-applause aesthetic performances are hard to come by these days.

A novice, on the other hand, would try hard to balance the hot chalice in one hand and keep it still, while trying his best to move his body, resulting in a performance which seldom deserves even a look, forget a second one.

People dancing to the tune of the Dhaakis

The intention is to climb up the level of showing off, and this is exactly when the dance gets fiery and dangerous.

Experimentation with chalice movements start, and fast dives into uncontrollable jhatkas and matkas(suggestive twists and turns), throwing out burning charcoal into undesired places like someone’s sari or dhoti.

The point of no return happens when the dancer spots a pretty face in the crowd, and all hell breaks loose by his desperate efforts to kindle a fire in the heart of the young lass, and often this causes a real fire and some bad burns.

But in this COVID-19 year, it would be all safe, for there will be no gatherings, no dhunuchi naach, amorous young men playing with fire to fire up a lass’ heart!

This happens often, so much so, that now one finds three or four Puja-organising volunteers standing around with buckets of water, to douse the spraying out burning charcoal embers.

And our masked selves will stay indoors and watch on TV a clip from the past dhunichi naach performance and listen to the dhaki’s drum beats.

Dhunuchi Naach!

Enjoy the season of festivities, be safe and act responsibly!


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