Tunes of Odisha

Music of a people

Photograph of original palm leaf manuscript of the Gita Govinda of Jayadeba, by Subhashish Panigrahi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
କେହି ସରିକି, ପ୍ରଭୁପଣେ ନୀଳାଦ୍ରି କେଶରୀକି? (Baladeba Ratha)

Can anyone match that lion of the blue-hill?

Thus starts everything in Odisha- from song to dance, art to literature- each corner of the culture is obsessed with this black lion of the blue-hill. The Temple of Lord Jagannatha at Puri lies on an elevated platform, believed to be a hill, called the ‘blue-hill’, and the lion is none other than Jagannatha himself. How lion, you ask? Ah, what adjective has not been employed for him- lion, snake, bear, elephant- for Jagannatha is much more than a wooden deity in Odia culture. Children in Odisha grow up with Jagannatha as a friend; mothers find in him a son. This smiling God who revels in myriad festivals has been the stuff of a people for centuries.

Inside the dark sanctum of the Jagannatha Temple sit the smiling Gods. When you gaze around, your senses are bombarded by multiple flavours- the smell of camphor & chandan blending with the aroma of the Mahaprasada, the dazzle of gold combined with the finesse of the Sambalpuri saree, the ecstatic cries of devotees with generous quantities of seriously impressive literature.

Unsurprisingly, many poets have been born out of this sensory overload. Thousands of books have been written over centuries. And what’s special is that almost all of this literature is musical. The tunes are of the ancient Udra-Magadhi branch of classical music, now called Odissi Classical Music. [Well, the ‘classical’ tag has not been granted by the government, but I use the term only to highlight that it is based on shastras, and is well-defined with ragas and talas.] These ancient poets, themselves accomplished musicians, have indicated the appropriate Raga and Tala for the songs they composed on the original manuscripts themselves. Leaving apart the seriousness of ‘classical music’, the same music has been flowing over centuries in pristine villages, where elders of the village sing songs with no professional training, out of love for the emotion rather than a distracting seriousness about music. And thus, the songs have survived till today. The Odissi dance employs songs from the traditional repertoire of this stream of music. Throughout this series of articles, I’ll include short audio clips of the lines I quote and examples I use, as far as possible. Yes, the word and tune are so strongly interwoven with emotion that each is incomplete without the order. And I’d like you to scroll back to the top to listen to that tune. You will, won’t you?

We’re going to delve into the poetry of the epic poets of Odisha- and no, they don’t just talk about Lord Jagannatha. Radha and Krishna’s love is a major topic. Rama’s exploits are no less popular. Imaginary tales of a prince and a princess are equally common. There’s esoteric stuff too, with strange meanings. In short, there’s everything from shringara, love to vibhatsa, disgust and from champu to chitrakavya. But we need to know some more of the technical details, so here’s a handy chart to quickly introduce you to the various types of Odia literature.

Enough with the details. Let’s get to some examples.

The witty poet Jadumani Mahapatra takes a dig at Lord Jagannatha’s unconventional appearance in this song-

ପ୍ରାଣସଜନୀ ରେ, ଦେଖିଲେ ରହୁଛି ଲାଖି
ଭାଲୁଣୀ ପରାୟେ କାଳିଆ ମୁଖକୁ ଚାଲୁଣୀ ପରାୟେ ଆଖି । (Jadumani)

My beloved, look, how attractive!

With a face like a she-bear,

And eyes like a sieve.

Poor Jagannatha! Even his devotees don’t spare him.

Let’s look at another sample by the 18th century poet Kabisurya Baladeba Ratha, who also is the author of the stanza at the beginning of this article. This peculiar song compares Jagannatha to a snake. The poet makes a pun by the use of the word ‘Kalia’, which is a nickname given to Jagannatha due to his black colour.

ଯେବେ ଭୁଜଙ୍ଗ ନୁହ, କାଳୀୟ ଠାରେ ଦ୍ରୋହ କଲ କାହିଁକି ଏଡ଼େ କରି ।
ତାହାରି ନାମେ ତୁମ୍ଭ ନାମ, ଅଦ୍ୟାପି ହୋଇଛି ଜନମ । (Baladeba Ratha)

Wasn’t it out of enmity that you killed Kaliya?

You even seized his name, ‘Kalia’, Great Lord !

Now, what does the poet want to say? That Krishna killed Kaliya the snake out of enmity that persists within a clan. The message that Jagannatha is a snake, and metaphorically, as sly as one, has been put across with much subtlety. And how ironic is the end! Make fun of him till the end and at the end, call him Mahaprabhu, great Lord!

We’re not done yet. Let’s end with this quote by a poet whose calls were ignored by Jagannatha, Gana Kabi Baishnaba Pani-

ଗଣ୍ଡା ଗଣ୍ଡା ହଣ୍ଡା ହଣ୍ଡା କାକରା ଆରିସା ମଣ୍ଡା
ଥୟ ହେଲା ଯହୁଁ ଭୋକ, କିମ୍ପା ଶୁଣିବ କା ଡାକ । (Baishnaba Pani)

Potfuls of sweets you’ve eaten

Now that your hunger has been satiated

Why listen to anyone’s call!

Why, this is plain abuse! If only there were laws around at that time, Lord Jagannatha could’ve taught him a lesson!

But a question remains- why did no one control such literature against a God who was adored by millions? Why allow people to disgrace the authority of a God? Why encourage such audacity?

Because Jagannatha loves his devotees. He allows them to talk to him, love him, scold him. He embraces them with an inviting smile and incomplete arms.

And the people of Odisha sure do return that lovely gesture. 😉