At Living Traditions 2024, the folk arts of Jharkhand will illuminate enduring indigenous cultures that preserve the essence of community living.

By Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe

Folk arts in India, replete with distinct vocabularies and flavours, are seldom mere entertainment. The cultural practice of folk performances is of far greater import and constitutes a language of reform and revolution that often acts as a medium for building solidarity among the regional populace. Protecting folk cultures means preserving these centuries-old traditions whose role in the everyday lives of indigenous peoples is as much about marking festive and religious occasions as conserving communal heritage and affinity. The beauty of folk art forms is that the repertoires are constantly evolving, often around contemporary regional issues and practices. These repertoires are also community-specific. At the 2024 edition of Living Traditions, the NCPA will cast its lens on the folk forms of Jharkhand in an endeavour to dive into the sociocultural and political imperatives of the arts thriving in this state.

Living Traditions is curated annually to focus on a specific region and revel in its cultural practices. This month, the NCPA stage will host over 100 artistes from six troupes in Jharkhand for a showcase of the state’s folk traditions encompassing performing arts such as dance, music and theatre. Significant in these presentations is the sheer cultural diversity of this relatively new state, with artistes performing in multiple local languages like Nagpuri and Kudmali to the tune of distinct musical instruments in a folk idiom that narrativises the conundrums faced by those who call Jharkhand home.

Diverse folk legacies Undertaking the mammoth task of curating the line-up of this two-day festival is Rakesh Tiwari, who elaborates that as the state shares its borders with Chhattisgarh and Odisha, its folk cultures brim with a melange of artistic practices. “As the region changes, the culture also differs, and I wanted to bring that to the festival,” he says. This is evident in a presentation that features a musical in Nagpuri—a derivative of Bhojpuri predominantly spoken.

by the ethnolinguistic Sadan community—by the well-known folk artiste Prithviraj Shindeo’s troupe. On the second day, audiences will witness a musical performance in Kudmali, another language of the Chhota Nagpur region. Jharkhand’s folk repository would be incomplete without the inclusion of Kudmali literature whose jhumar geet (songs) are an expression of everyday rural lives.

Such diversity is just as prominent in Jharkhand’s lok nritya or folk dances. For over 35 years, Tiwari has been studying folk forms in Jharkhand’s neighbouring regions and opines that the only way to promote them is to preserve the artistic integrity of these performance styles. The Sangeet Natak Akademi Award-winning folk exponent says, “Making the dance choreographic by arranging dancers and lights to suit the stage means losing the essence of the folk art.” Evidently, he brings Uma Kumari’s troupe dressed in resplendent red and yellow hues to perform Ho nritya, in which artistes sway to the melodies of a bansuri in a classic courtship number, just as it is practised by the Ho Munda tribe back home.

Chhau, a folk dance performed in three eastern Indian regions, is also part of the line-up, showcasing the performance style prevalent in Jharkhand. In keeping with the idea of folk arts depicting local concerns, Dildar Ansari’s Chhau troupe delves into the issue of ecological balance against the backdrop of a story about hunters whose wives dissuade them from killing animals.

These dances are performed to a range of lok sangeet, each strand complete with its own musical instruments and rhythms, notes Tiwari, so no two dance forms are similar. Where cymbals and drums like mandar figure prominently in the rhythms of Chhau, percussion instruments like dama and rutu are used widely by Ho dancers.

In such a culturally enriched region, each art form then explores the legacy of its respective tribe. Subtle changes occur in performance practice too, according to changing seasons and occasions so much so that the Ho nritya performed during the festival of Mage Porob slightly varies from its practice in weddings and during the harvest season.

Sociocultural resonances “Khag jaane khag hi ki bhasha,” remarks Tiwari. A bird recognises only a birdsong. Describing the significance of folk arts for regional tribes, he notes that studying lok kala means realising that this is a language of its own, which resonates profoundly with the locals. For centuries, folk arts have been deployed to reach out to rural communities who in turn have been instrumental in organising rebellions against oppressive regimes. The sociopolitical function of folk arts in Jharkhand is felt in narratives describing the peasant rebellion of the Santhals who fought valiantly against colonising forces.

A lok natya titled Phurgal Dishom Rin Bir Ko depicts the saga of iconic leaders like the Santhal freedom fighter, Tilka Manjhi, who led an uprising against the British Empire in as early as the 18th century. This sparked a revolutionary zeal of such magnitude that thousands of adivasi men and women from the Santhal region united in the fight for freedom. “So, our ancestors have fought in the freedom struggle against the British and when this is told to the tribes in their own language, they understand it better,” says Tiwari.

Yet, along with history and mythology, folk arts are equally important for narrativising the present. In Deepak Lohar’s Gohaeer Jatra, artistes highlight contemporary issues like the peril of young girls caught in human trafficking rackets and the menacing effect of rural poverty which thrusts youngsters into dangerous situations as they venture into towns looking for work.

Tiwari highlights that the nacha or musical theatre depicting these tales is deeply woven into the fabric of the region. These folk arts enable indigenous communities to connect better with their own histories and traditions. The rhythm of a folk tune, he says, is so etched on their minds that even if they are watching a film on TV, they are likely to switch it off and gravitate towards the village chaupaal or square if they hear the musical notes of a performance underway.

This overbearing influence draws village residents instinctively to the “sound, voice, rhythm and soil” of their ancestors. “We call it vachik parampara,” or oral tradition, explains Tiwari and it lies at the core of folk arts, so that despite a limited knowledge of letters, local tribes have been able to keep multiple languages and their artistic symbolism alive simply by passing on age-old histories from one generation to the next.

At the upcoming edition of Living Traditions at the NCPA, artistes from Jharkhand will travel to Mumbai, some for the first time in their lives, to give a glimpse of their everyday lives immersed in the arts to residents of a megapolis who often need to carve out time to engage with music, dance or theatre. This becomes significant at a time when recital durations have plummeted and stage shows are a matter of a quick showcase. Folk artistes hark back to a time when performances would go on for hours. To this day, Tiwari notes, this tradition remains intact in many villages—on many an evening, the strains of a string instrument signal local communities to assemble for a nacha that draws to a close only with the first rays of the rising sun.


This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of the On Stage.