Out of the Dark

Written by Ravi Sagar
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It is not just Jharkhand’s dance and music,but its identity that Mukund Nayak has taken to the world stage

The dhols beat synchronously, the nagaras take up the loud chant; the shehnai interrupts rapturously taking up the notes higher, as the thekoda, ber, narsingha, kara, nakara, jhanj and kartal join the symphony. As the music builds the rhythm, the feet take it up in rhythmic taps and glistening bodies attired in colourful saris sway to the building crescendo—Welcome to Nagpuri dance of Jharkhand. Called tribal classical folk rock by many a fan, the music builds the same hysteria in the listeners as does great classical English rock.

Our guest this month is Mukund Nayak, one of the prominent exponents of Nagpuri folk dance and music who has travelled the world in his mission to propagate it. “I am proud to be born in a community which is known for making soul stirring music and great indigenous traditional musical instruments,” says, the internationally acclaimed artiste.

Nayak was born in Bokba village of Simdega district in Jharkhand in 1949. “A child born in the tribal belt of Jharkhand cannot but be a dancer and a musician,” he says. It is a way of life here. The dance of Nagpuri or Jharkhand tribals is a celebration of life itself—an unabashed love for life, living in community and the joy of sharing. Nayak believes that his love for music was instilled in him by his parents and the ambience of his village. He credits his roots for where he stands today; it certainly is a symbiotic relationship between the artiste and his muse.

Young Nayak, who belongs to the Ghasi tribe, would invariably sing in school functions the traditional songs that he had learnt at his parents’ knees. “The Ghasi tribe is majorly into farming but music and dance are also an indispensable part of our life. Music is something that can inspire anyone and at any point of time,” Nayak states the simple truth. The tribal music was a hit in his school and thus began his tryst with destiny.

The artiste was an observant child. “I watched the activities of the villagers. After dusk, the village looked like a fair where everyone celebrated life with music, drums, dhol and folk songs till late night. Yet, early next morning everybody was back in the fields.” The hard working yet equally fun loving culture of his tribe inspired Nayak to not only get connected with the grassroots music, but also find ways to promote and preserve it. As he grew older, the ritual of evenings spent at the village dance and music fair translated into a lifelong mission for getting it a place under the sun. “Though people in the village were reluctant initially, wanting me to focus on my studies, I convinced them with my vision for the development of the culture of Chhotanagpur and the entire Jharkhand region,” says Nayak.

To club all of Jharkhand under one head of folk dance would be a grave injustice to the indigenous people of the region. The dances are peculiar to distinct tribes and even occasions and reasons. Paika is performed by the Munda community and is war dance—a stylised representation of rituals connected with war. It is symbolic of the tribe’s great war against the British and is performed with shields and sword. Hunta dance is the hunting dance of the Santhals and is a presentation of the pre hunting preparation with bows and arrows to the culmination with the final kill. Mundari of the eponymous community is a wedding dance, while the Barao dance of the Oraon tribals is remarkable for its music and richness. The Jhumur by far is the most famous and is performed by men and women separately known as Mardani and Jenana Jhumur, respectively. Mainly a harvest and cultivation ritual, it is so joyous in its expression that it is performed on all happy occasions. There are others like Jitika, Danga, Lahasuya, Domkach, etc., that have distinctive identities. While Nagpuri is the official language of Jharkhand, the dances are unique in the variety and richness of their raga and tala.

Coming back to his vocation, Nayak says, “The revival and preservation of our rich folk culture was vital.” The BSc student would have ideally liked to become a teacher but somewhere the thirst for music and dance overpowered and brought him back to the land of forests. It was the time when people like Bharat Nayak, Bhavya Nayak, Praful Kumar Rai, Lal Ranbir Nath Sahdeo and Kshitij Kumar were working actively to preserve the dance and music of the region.

Nayak returned to Ranchi from his village not for a better life, but now with the sole aim of reviving tribal folk dance and music culture. During this time, the state was also going through an identity crisis as part of Bihar. Inspired by the cultural activists working for the revival of Jharkhand’s identity, he joined the league. Nayak began with writing songs on contemporary problems of the time and soon put together a troupe. They started performing the songs at public places. His efforts were widely appreciated and Mukund recalls, “My journey as a performer began way back in 1974 with my introduction at Akashwani. But my first performance on a larger open platform was at Jaggannathpur Mela in Ranchi.” Later the large, open stage ambience became such a major part of the folk activist’s life that he says, “Now at times, without the stage I feel incomplete.”

In 1980, when Regional Tribal Language was recognised, Nayak became associated with Ranchi University and his passion for music became part of the textbook of the university. “In 1981, I came in contact with Dr Carol Merry Baby who was conducting research on Karam Music of South Bihar and I got a chance to work with her.”

However, it was still a few years later in 1988 when Nayak and his troupe stepped out on the international platform and performed at the third Hong Kong International Dance festival of The Hong Kong Academy for the Promotion of Chinese Culture. The landmark moment has some bittersweet memories attached: “It was my first visit abroad and performance too. I remember when I shared this with the people at my village they laughed at the thought of their dance being performed in a foreign land.”

Nayak’s path from the remote interiors of dense forests to international acclaim was one of personal struggles and sacrifices. A chance meeting with college friend Jagdish Charan Lehri, a poet working with Akashwani, opened the door of opportunity for him. An audition at Akashwani ensured a regular job for Nayak and in 1985, the veteran folk artiste took his efforts to another level by establishing Kunjban. “I think Kunjban was my first organised effort to promote Nagpuri culture.” He calls it a joint effort of his family, friends and relatives.

Some people to whom the artiste remains indebted are Praful Kumar Rai and Jagat Mani Mahto for their support and Mahavir Nayak, Bharart Nayak, Kshitij Kumar and Lal Ranbir Nath Sahdeo for the inspiration, in Nayak’s own words.

The vision and mission of Kunjban, his organisation devoted to promotion of Nagpuri cultural, is “preservation, development and nourishment of tribal folk dance and music, which is not just an art form of state of Jharkhand, but its identity across the globe,” says Nayak. Kunjban is the Training Centre for Chhotanagpur Folk Music and Dance, but its focus is Nagpuri Jhumar. Nayak explains, “In both dance and music forms, I have expertise in Nagpuri Jhumar and teach it to students in India and across the globe.”

Nayak has resident foreign students staying with him from time to time. Currently, Jimi Lou Steambarge, a US resident, is staying at his home pursuing training in mandar and dhol. Steambarge who met Nayak “12 years ago during a festival”, at the time she was working as a PR marketing professional, has been visiting Jharkhand for projects since that first meeting. “The major reason for this association is my love for the music and culture of Jharkhand, its pure tribal form, and it feels good to be connected to Mukund, who has given his entire life to preserve and develop it,” she says of her perseverance. Steambarge who is learning the drum expands, “And in a broader stroke, I am looking forward to doing some recordings and documentary with Mukund.”

Remember the bit about a woman being behind every successful man? In Nayak’s case it is his wife Draupadi whom he calls “a true and loyal life partner.” She has not only nurtured the children but also his passion as the first member of his troupe. A natural musician and a dancer just like Nayak, unlike him though Draupadi was, since childhood, totally devoted to devotional music. “When Mukund was forming his troupe and I realised that nothing was working out, I decided to diversify my genre and along with a maternal aunt started singing for him. This was the beginning of our association.”

Recognitions have come the artiste’s way— Jharkhand Ratna and Jharkhand Vibhuti. But that is not what he pines for. He would rather have the government make some concerted efforts for preserving India’s dying indigenous culture—like adapting the education system to make traditional and folk music and dance part of the curriculum. “Then only will the youths take it seriously and carry forward our legacy,” says Nayak. For now, he is content to work for platforms like Tai Pai Tribal Festival where he got the chance to mentor 20 illiterate artistes from his village and bring them international appreciation. For the guru, “My true recognition is to see my disciples like Manpuran Nayak, Devdas Vishwakarma, Ignesh, Nandlal Nayak and Parduman (latter two his sons) carry the flag of the ‘Soul of Jharkhand’ forward.

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