Dancing for the Demon King

What most unusual way of ending the year than dancing for the demon king, Kamsa Raja, the supreme enemy of God? Kamsa Raja who heard a divine voice from the sky announcing his death at the hands of Lord Krishna. Kamsa Raja who imprisoned the divine parents Devaki and Vasudeva, after killing six of their sons, to prohibit the birth of his final executioner. Kamsa Raja who sent the ogress Putana to feed with poised breast the little Krishna in the house of his adoptive mother Yasoda.

What most unusual thing to know that in Odisha, the land of Jagannatha and one of the main centres of development of Vaishnavism, Kamsa Raja is celebrated and the name of Vishnu is strictly forbidden during the famous festival Dhanu Yatra? What most unusual thing to perform Odissi, a dance that praises Hindu Gods and denigrates the anti-gods, just for Kamsa Raja's delight?

Curious to know and see more about this singular tradition, I accepted Sujata’s invitation to perform with her and other students in front of the supreme asura Kamsa Raja in Darbar, where he meets his guests on the New Year Eve. The only deal was that the name of Lord Vishnu and all his forms would not be mentioned, not even by mistake.

We left Bhubaneswar at 6.30am on the 31st of December. The journey was long and the train was buzzing with our voices. We spent half of the time discussing what item would have been appropriate to perform. This was not easy to chose considering that most Odissi items mention Vishnu in some of his forms, whether as Krishna, or Rama or Jagannatha. We opted for items dedicated to Ganesha and Shiva and a few pallavi. Sitting in small groups we did mental rehearsal listening to the music on our ipods and following it with our hands, feeling the rest of the movement in our bodies.

It is quite incredible how dancers have to train their mind alongside their bodies and how much work they can still do in order to excel in their art just by sitting and purposefully thinking and methodically concentrating on it! I would actually say that the best way to know if you are totally in control of a piece of choreography is to be able to go through it with absolute precision in your mind and by feeling it in the body. If you have a gap in your memory you will immediately realise and know you are not ready yet to perform that item.

That said, we reached Bargah Road at around 2pm. Our hosts met us at the station and brought us to their house where we had lunch and full rehearsal with our musicians, Ekalabya and Pradeep. Although we had less than an hour left to our performance and a dim and dull light to make up, we ended up looking absolutely gorgeous in our blue costumes and silver jewellery.

We performed on two stages, one for the main Minister of the King and the other for the Great Kamsa Raja himself, with his huge nose and resonating laugh. The most exciting thing was that the king could walk among us while we were dancing. Kamsa Raja was surrounded by his court, which comprised various ministers and a couple of girls fanning his majesty. Both him and his ministers asked us questions, which I did not understand, but in one of this Sujata by mistake mentioned the name of Jagannatha to the immediate reaction of the King who cried loud against the name of the Lord.

By looking at these funny characters on stage I thought about the most kitsch Indian TV serials but also about the way we portray demons in our Odissi repertoire, with long and greasy moustache, loud voice, big red eyes, a wrestler body and a harsh attitude. I also thought about previous local forms of rule, which were then incorporated into mythological tales and represented as demonic by the incoming political power.

For me the most exciting aspect of all this experience was to dance for someone we normally portray as the supreme enemy of Lord Krishna but also to have the honour to share the stage with my guru Sujata and hearing from her the story of how the evil Kamsa Raja repeatedly attempted, with no effect, to go against his destiny of being killed at the hands of God.