This form of dance owes its origin directly to Shiva. It is also a celebration of Shiva dancing. Its participants are exclusively males and females are barred from joining in.
A ritualistic dance, it begins on an auspicious date and day before Chaitra Sankranti. The dance is an integral part of a very popular festival which may go on for 13, 18 or 21 days.
The male participants who perform the dance are very similar to the Karaga bearer of Bangalore Karaga. Just as the Karaga bearer, the participants of this dance avoid meat, fish and alcohol and for the duration of the festival they lead a pious and austere life.
The participants also avoid cohabiting with women and spend most of their time praying to Shiva in whose name they dance. Brahmins, people from lower caste and other sects and class join together to celebrate this unique brand of dance, music, drama and street play.
The dress code is strict and the dance is performed on the streets and the dance is not one but it has many components and each component has its own theme, lyrics and even music.
The festivities begin with the participants initially observing a strict vow of abstinence and this is followed by period where they inflict wounds on themselves.
Today, this histronic art has become an integral part of Orissa and it is called as Danda Nata, Danda Jatra or Danda Nacha. The word Danda means staff or stick and Natha or Nacha means dance.
The participants who wield the stick in this form of dance are called Bhoktas or Danduas (devotees who have taken a vow)and they are supposed to lead an austere and simple life for the duration of the dance period,
This dance form is generally held for three months beginning March in the districts of Ganjam and Kandhamal.
The Danda Nata is a ritualistic festival held from Chaitra and it begins on an auspicious day before the Chaitra Sankranti or Meru Parba with traditional worship and fasting.
The total number of days for the festival is 13, 18 or 21 days. Only males can participate and they avoid eating meat, fish or cohabiting during this period.
There is a beautiful legend about how the dance originated. Shiva was teaching his son Ganesha the nuances of dance, including Tandava Nrithya. Shiva was so absorbed in his dance that he accidentally kicked the wooden stage on which he was dancing. The kick made a sound like “Dan”. A little later, a piece of brass material from the anklet that Shiva worn broke off and it hit a percussion instrument known as Mardala hard and crated a sound “Da.”
This is how the Dan and Da came together and today it is Danda.
This is also how Danda came to be associated with the dance. The dance not only invoked Shiva but a host of other Gods such as Vishnu,
Krishna, Ganesha, Kali and Durga.
The Danduas inflict wounds on themselves to worship Shiva. This is the beginning of Danda. Then comes fasting, having a single meal a day made up of rice and dal, and worshipping Gods before the actual dancing commences.
The ritualistic dance consists of a series of dances which are performed one after another. The participants from the Ghasi community provide music with Dhol and Mahuri. The first repertory of the dance is Parva dance. Then comes the Hara Parvati dance.
Next ensemble is a group dance of Fakir and Fakiriani followed by Savara and Savarani, Chadeya and Chadouni. All these dances are performed one after another. Once the dances end, the group of Danduas perform a “leela” which is generally based on a story from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or any other purana. This is song and dance ritual and the closing performance is called Binakarr.
All these various dances have different themes and each role in each dance is well defined and they sing a different tune. The songs are mainly devotional and they too are mostly based on stories from the Epics. Humorous songs are sometimes sung by the dancers and in some performances, Danduas frame questions in songs and their counterparts answer. The songs are of folk and Odissi style.
The dance is performed in three phases -Dhuli Danda, Pani Danda and Agni Danda.
The Dhuli Danda generally takes place in the afternoon when the Danduas roll barebodied on the ground under a blazing sun. During sunset, they assemble at a nearby pond or water body and perform Pani Danda. The Agni Danda is held in the night.
The Danduas stay near a temple and they perform on the streets and in front of one house each day when they asked to do so by a particular house owner. Groups of 40 to 100 Danduas make one troupe. The head of a group is called Bada Patta Dandua or Bada Patta Bhukta.
Getting onto the group is no easy task. Its members are very carefully selected. There is a strict dress code with the use of only white, yellow or saffron. The deities are carried in a small red box and are fanned by peacock plumes.
The Danduas are supposed to eat only once in a day. They can drink water only during Pani Danda in the evening.
After visiting several villages and after months of dancing, the group members return home the day before “Bisuba” Sankranti. They then perform all the rituals in front of a Kali temple. During this ritual, a person will hang upside down for three minutes before a holy fire.
Danda Nata thus is an ancient form of dance, music and dramatics blended with religion, culture and devotion.