Danda Nata of Orissa is a tribal way of welcoming the New Year
which begins with the month of Vaishakh. It is a festival of
ritualised performances believed to fulfil the desires of partic-
It took shape as performing art with ritual overtones during
9th-10th century in the tribal belts and in course of time it has
embraced non-tribals, even brahmines, into its fold. Verbal and
non-verbal symbolic enactments in Danda Nata performances have
inspired a few playwrights to adopt its style in modern plays.
In the districts of Sambalpur, Bolangir and Boudh-Phulbani tribal
groups participate; in Gadajata (a former princely state) areas
of Ganjam, Dhenkanal and Puri artisans and other socially and
economically backward classes participate. In Nayagarh and
Odagaon areas of Puri district, Kayasthas and Brahmins join in
this festival. Danda Nata has elements of both Desi and Margi
Styles (little tradition and great tradition). The theme of
Danda Nata is at times taken from Sanskrit literature, the style
of performance has a tribal and folk accent.
Danda Nata is celebrated during the month of Chaitra marking the
end of one agricultural cycle and the beginning of another. Lord
Shiva and Goddess Kali are worshipped. Some say that the period
from Chaitra Purnima to Vishuva-Sankranti is the proper time for
Shiva and Shakti worship. The festival is celebrated for a
eight/12/18/21 days as per their convenience, but it ends on
The spring festival is similar to Chaitra Parva of the tribals,
Meghnad festival of the Gonda (Madhya Pradesh), Chadak Puja of
Bengal, Manda festival of Chhotanagpur, Jhamu Jatra/Patua Jatra
of other parts of Orissa. Some elements of Mayurbhanj Chhau
dance, like Uflis, can be seen here.
The participants meet at the Kamana ghar (house of wishes) on the
first day with their wishes say, for a child, and they are initi-
ated with a sacred threat. All caste and class distinctions
disappear. They now belong to one class worshippers of Shiva,
called Danduas or Bhoktas. A minimum of thirteen people consti-
tute one Danda Nata unit. There can be as many as 100 bhoktas in
Danda means pole or stick and also punishment. Nata means per-
formance. Shiva is represented with a Danda of thirteen knots,
Parvati with a cane called Gouri Betra. A stick also stands for
Bina, a musical instrument. Prava is the emblem of the team. A
Danda could have meant a totem in the early phases of tribal
Danda Nata. Dhol is the main percussion instrument used on all
occasions. The Bhoktas exhibit self-restraint through strict
vows keeping a Danda as the objecdt or worship.
Danda Nata has two aspects -- one is performed during the day,
the other at night. Daytime activities include acrobatics and
rituals, night performances are crowd pullers. There are five
units of performance -- Bhmuni Danda, Pani Danda, Bana Danda,
Agni Danda and Danda Suanga. The first three units are performed
during the daytime, the other two after dusk. The Suanga or
Jatra is performed during the night to keep the participants
awake. This Suanga has all the ingredients of a Jatra, melodrama
and abstract theatre.
Dhooli Danda is sheer acrobatics on land, Pani Danda is a water
sport. Bana Danda is a noisy procession. In Agni Danda, the
Bhoktas walk on burning charcoal and thorns. These four Dandas
and Jatra are performed each day of the festival and with pag-
eantry and improvisations on the last day, called Meru Sankranti.
In Danda Suanga or Jatra, tribal and folk themes and episodes
from the Ramayana (having tribal links, like Sita Haran) are
enacted through rituals, dances, songs and comic actions. It
begins with Ganesh Vandana, Hara Parvati dance, Prabha Nritya,
Chadheya (bird hunter) Nritya, Patra Saura Nritya, Radha Krishna
Nritya and subsequently takes on other themes.
There are few fixed items (Ganesh Vandana, Hara Parbati Dance,
Prabha Nritya, Chadheya Nritya, Binakar Nritya) universal to all
the Danda Nata teams. Besides this each team chooses its theme
of Jatra -- it can be a single story running through the entire
duration of the Jatra or several bits of dance-drama all directly
or indirectly linked.
For example -- the Chadheya and Chadheyani (his wife) dance
sequence can be linked to the next presentation of Kela (snake
charmer) and the Keluni (his wife) dance. The Chadheya is bitten
by a snake while hunting birds. The villge doctor cannot cure
him. Chadheya dies and younger brother offers to marry the
widow. Finally the Kela arrives, sucks the poison out of Chad-
heya and he comes back to life.
Most of the characters in Danda Jatra are aborigines. In recent
years, Muslim fakirs, havildars even judges are seen on stage as
characters. The characters normally appear as a husband-wife
couple, gorgeously dressed. The play theme is secular; acting is
comicaland satirical. The traditional musical instruments like
dhola, mahuri, hadibaja, jodinagara are played along with the
harmonium and these days a casio organ by teams nearer to urban
The Danduas (performers) transform themselves into different
objects, situations, characters. Ten Danduas form a field, two
become oxen, the other (normally the Pata Bhokta or leader) acts
as a farmer. Twelve Danduas join hands and legs to form a stone
slab, the other acts as a grinder, rolling over them. A team has
a minimum of 13 Danduas. Teams having more than 40 participants
can enact most of the tribal and rural activities symbolically
during Bhoomi Danda (daytime show).
In the plains and coastal areas, the Patuas perform a few acro-
batics and magical rites similar to Danda Nata: walking on live
coals, rolling on thorns, standing on swords with arrows pierced
in their body.
The mode of performance in Danda Nata has influenced some of the
theatre personalities. Experiments made to assimilate the Danda
style into theatre by Ramesh Panigrahi and Gopal Rath have been
well received at the regional and national levels. Panigrahi's
play `Jaha Sabu Bujha Pade Nahin" (things not understood), the
story of which is based on the infamous Kalahandi drought got the
best script and production awards at regional level short play
competition in 1990.
The play opens with ploughing and sowing in Bhoomi Danda style
and continues to use other Danda performances accompanied to the
beatings of the Dhol. It ends with a Binakar song.
Panigrahi's other play "Rasta Sabu Bund" (all roads closed) used
Binakar as sutradhar, and Chadeya appears as a character. Bina-
kar introduces the theme and the characters are dressed in Danda
style. This play was adjudged the best at the National Festival
of Drama in Delhi in February 1990. "Nimitta Matram", a play
written by Gopal Rath depicts the story of Danda Nata festival in
detail. There are a few more playwrights who are experimenting
with the Danda Nata theme and style. Danda Nata, originating
from hills and mountains has flown to the plains in course of
time and in the process it acquired new dimensions and rhythm.