Dandi: The Dance of the Wandering Ascetic

Dance with a Wooden stickMoments before going onstage I pick up my dandi (wooden stick) and kamandal (small pot).  Naturally the memories of those I have left behind, to embark on this journey of dance, start coming.  I remember my mother’s face as I cross the emigration gates at the airport, she wonders when she will see me again.  She is happy that I have taken this path, but sad to let me go. My sister, holding her beautiful son who calls me “antie Tonina” looks at me hopefully as small tears roll down her cheeks.  To my father I have said goodbye the night before.  Dancer and all, he accepts me now, he believes in me…”Live your life, do your best” he has said.

As I take the steps for the entry and sit in dharan (basic chhau position), my eyes get watery and then I know that the dance will be real.

Dandi is a solo dance item of the Southern school of Mayurbhanj Chhau.  It is based on the traditional ritual carried out by Brahmins and Kshatriyas to celebrate the development of a boy into manhood and his possibility to become a Brahmacharia (a celibate saint).  This custom is well known as Branatopayan, Upanayanam, or sacred thread ceremony.  Priorly, in the time of the Yajurveda it was conducted for boys (tying the thread) as well as for girls (ear lobe piercing) just before they would leave their homes to begin a process of training or education in a Gurukul.  Later on as the role of women changed in the society, it was only directed to boys between 7 and 14 years of age. Nowadays, if for some reason it can not take place then, it is mandatory to be done before marriage.

Meditation StanceBefore the ritual, the boys take bath, shave their heads, apply turmeric on their bodies, and wear saffron colored loin clothes, the color of ascetism and renunciation.   The thread, also known as janeu is worn underneath the clothes in the company of a group chant of ‘Gayatri’ mantra. It is twisted in an upward direction to make certain that ‘Sattwaguna’ (good quality of truth) prevails.  After tying janeu, the initiate goes around soliciting alms from his relatives, as this is the time when he can decide to leave home, and renounce the world to live the life of a wondering ascetic, carrying only a wooden stick taken from the branch of a holy tree, and a small pot with water.  The Priest whispers three “magic” mantras into his ears.  These, encouraged by the hypnotic sound of the dhol will empower him to cross the three lines drawn outside the house with rice paste and turmeric.  The uncle usually stands here as a protector to make sure that he doesn’t.  The three lines represent our worldly attachments: to our loved ones, to material goods and to our own ego. They can also be associated with triplets such as the three qualities: sattva, rajas and tamas; the three states: wakefulness, dream and deep sleep and the three dimensions of Heaven (swarga), Earth (mrityuloka) and Nether Regions (pataloka).  If he decides to cross them, he can never come back and must dedicate his life to seek for the immortal Supreme Soul.

In the dance we cross the lines

the wandering asceticAs I symbolically draw them with my leg movements and lightly jump above them, I look back to see what I am leaving behind: a secure family life, material luxuries and economic stability.  Still I cross them.  I breath deeply.  Though I know the movements that will follow and the effort required, the journey through the item is always unknown.  The fear and sad departure of the beginning slowly changes into a streak of hope, “will I be able to make it this time?” and a gush of energy that motivates me to continue.  Avartam by avartam (complete dance cycles) I travel through forests, cross rivers, jump over rocks and stumble upon my ego, breathing through my weaknesses and discovering new strengths.  Suddenly the transition of the music comes and as I jump to take the sitting position, I close my eyes and wait for the uplifting music that will carry my body till the end of the item.  The nataki (celebration part) starts: the Brahmachari has discovered the joys of meditating and now he indulges in the ecstasy of being one with the Higher Self.  Sometimes the dance gives me the blessing of experiencing a bit of this feeling.  And as I very slowly exit the stage with a feeling of togetherness, I know my journey continues.

Dandi is one of the items that draws upon traditional Odiya music and it is set to Dhamar taal with 14 beats.  The movements involved, express the softest quality of the Mayurbhanj style called Kalibhanga, thus back bends and deep sitting are utilized.  Guru K.C Naik (a guru brother of Guruji) was said to be the best exponent of this item.  Guruji tells us that his expression was so powerful and real in the beginning of the dance that people used to cry and then they would be amazed at how supple he was and how he could bend touching his head to the ground.



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