Brimming with life and wonder, the eastern state of Bengal, is undoubtedly one of the most popular states of India. Mostly famous for its architecture and sweets (Oh, who wouldn’t love the mouth-watering Rasagullas and Sondesh!), the fact that Bengal also has a staggering plethora of various folk dances is yet undiscovered. Each folk dance of Bengal is prevalent in its respective region and is celebrated with extreme zeal and enthusiasm. The graceful hand movements and garments are a bonus for the spectator and any person who gets to witness these dances must count themselves fortunate. Most folk dances have their special meaning which can be difficult to decipher, therefore, here is a list of popular Bengali folk dances to understand them a little better:
1. Chhau Dance
One of the most famous folk dances of India (was presented as a theme for Bengal in the 1995 Republic Day parade), Chhau is a unique folk dance that is performed during the Sun Festival. The main theme or idea revolving around this dance to spread the tales from Hindu classics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. The dancers are usually male. An integral part of Chhau masks. The masks reflect the character that the person is playing and are made with plenty of colors to make them attractive. The ‘masked dance’ is exciting to watch due to the immense show of martial arts, athletics, and heroics which leaves its spectators in awe. This dance acts as a bonding factor amidst the social and economic barriers created by man as any person irrespective of his caste and creed is welcome to perform.
2. Kirtan Dance
Introduced about 500 years ago, this ancient form of dance narrates the playfulness of Lord Krishna (or Vishnu). It is also a powerful bhakti-yoga that contains several elements of music, drama, suspense, etc. The dance is beautiful to watch with its participants moving in a circle, their hands raised, and singing hymns synchronized with the beat of drums. The practice of wandering from village to village in the wee hours of the day, to wake up the Sun God is common here. Although this dance form is slowly dying, many artists are struggling to revive the ray of hope that keeps it alive.
3. Gambhira Dance
The Gambhira dance form celebrates the festivities, splendor, and vitality of Bengal. Initially done for agriculture, this Bengali folk dance soon took a devotional turn when it came to be performed by the worshippers of Goddess Shakti. The dance is done on the Gambhira song where there are two main performers – nana (grandfather) and nati (granddaughter). Accompanied by the chorus, the nana and nati begin a conversation about the everyday problems, challenges, social and economic situation, etc. These dialogues engage the audience due to their poetic verses. Therefore, the dance seems more of a documentary or a drama.
4. Kushan Dance
Since the Hindu classic Ramayana plays such a crucial role in every individual’s lives, it is no mystery that several people pay tribute to it in their way. The Kushan dance narrates the tale of Ramayana. The dance gets its name from ‘Kush’, the son of Sita. Here, the main artist who narrates the story is termed as mool. The performance is packed with commentaries, jokes, and references to keep the audience engrossed and well entertained. Since there are no women in this dance, men usually dress up as women and enact their part as well. The origins of this magical theatre dance can be traced back to the 15th century. The Koch dynasty ruled over West Bengal when this dance form came into existence. Using numerous instruments to create a musical sound, the narration is done in Bengali.
5. Brita Dance
Also known as Vitra dance, it is one of the most important dances performed in Bengal. This folk dance is either done by women trying to appease the Goddess to grant them a child, or by survivors of a dangerous illness. Hence, it is performed within the walls of a temple. Most prevalent in the rural areas of Bengal, it conveys thankfulness or gratitude from a devotee towards the deity once their wish is granted. The wide range of colors and beautiful costumes make the dance visually pleasing and breathtaking.
6. Tusa Dance
The reverberation of festive culture and rich art, Tusu folk dance marks the arrival of the season of Pausa. This dance form is celebrated as girls dance at the riverside every evening. On the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti, they worship the idol of Goddess Tusu. The beautiful dance is accompanied by chanting and offering rice to Goddess Tusu as the girls ask for a good groom. An aura of joy and happiness is created. Every person relishes in the duels and competitions which fill the air of festivities. Moreover, since the festival is also done to celebrate a good harvest, speculations suggest that ‘Tusu’ comes from the word ‘tush’ meaning rice bran in Bengali.
7. Baul Dance
Bauls are spiritual minstrels residing in West Bengal and the Baul dance is a part of their religious culture. Popular in Burdwan and Birbhum in West Bengal, this dance comprises of an individual or groups of individuals twirling and singing Baul songs. The Iktara plays a significant role as they hold it in their right hand. These dances indicate the spirituality and mysticism practiced by the Bauls. Any person who witnesses the Baul dance is mesmerized by their alluring rituals and rites.
8. Dhali Dance
India has had its history of strong warriors and men of extraordinary physical prowess, and when this prowess was showcased in a dance form, the folk dance of Dhali emerged. The dance is in the form of a battle or a duel, where two men using bamboo sticks as swords and cane as shields, fight each other. The musical beats and dynamic display of power provide a thrill to the audience as they cheer on the fighters. The performers are well built with impressive martial art skills.
The immense joy of witnessing one of the folk dances of West Bengal knows no bounds. The rich culture of Bengal, well known for its variety and color makes us wonder how many more such fascinating traditions there are in the Indian culture that we are yet unaware of. These unexplored charms of India deserve to be recognized and acknowledged by us. After all, being a part of such elaborate beauty is something we all must be proud of, no?