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Herds shrink in Bastar, Maria bison horn dancers adapt

The Dandami Maria now use wood instead of horn for the traditional headdress for their bison horn dance

Dalgo Kashyap practices the Maria horn dance in his courtyard (Deepanwita Gita Niyogi)

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It’s a moonlit night and I can hear the waters of Bastar’s Chitrakote waterfall crashing into the Indravati river below. Suddenly, it’s broken by the beats of the cylindrical mandar drum and the melody of the flute. The beats grow louder as the male and the female dancers move in a neat procession. The men play the mandar, while the women carry a long iron pole, the gujri, with which they strike the ground rhythmically as they move forward.

The visually vibrant gaur or bison horn dance performed by the Dandami Maria tribe of south Bastar has begun at the adventure camp site at Tiratha, which offers a majestic view of Chitrakote. The women are dressed in maroon saris with black borders and wear headbands made of cowrie shells and a red cloth called pattari. The men wear elaborate headgear, kokh, decorated with cowrie shells, gleaming bird feathers and bison horns.

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The bison horn dance is part of the Dandami Maria indigenous community's customs to pay tribute to this magnificent creature—but the irony is that the animal is rarely seen in this region now. Deforestation and habitat change have meant the bison has moved away from Bastar.

Male Maria dancers wear elaborate headgear, kokh, decorated with cowrie shells, bird feathers and bison horns.
Male Maria dancers wear elaborate headgear, kokh, decorated with cowrie shells, bird feathers and bison horns. (Deepanwita Gita Niyogi)

“The horns used for the kokh come from the Indian gaur or bison. We rarely see it here in Bastar now. If we are lucky enough, we’ve spotted it in Bijapur district (about 180km away). Most of the headgear we use for the performances are over a decade old and have been preserved carefully,” says Renuram Kashyap, who leads the dance troupe. He lives in Anjar village, about 24km away from the campsite.

Inside Kashyap’s house in Anjar, a mandar and two sets of the headgears rest against a green wall. Only 10 families in the village still own the male headgear. Manish Panigrahi of Unexplored Bastar, a travel startup, explains that in the past, collectors and tourists purchased the headgear from Maria villages. Without bison horns to make new headgear and a younger generation disinterested in the dance, the art form has fewer practitioners, he says.

Two dancers Dalgo Kashyap and Bijaybai Kashyap are practising for a performance in the courtyard. Dalgo says he learnt the dance, often performed at melas and weddings, when he was a teenager. Bijaybai, who also learnt it as a teen, says she’s taught it to about 15 women in Anjar.

As they move gracefully, they explain that the cowrie shells, anklets, necklaces and flowers that adorn the heads of men and women during the performances are bought from the local markets. The feathers at the top of the headdress belong to the beemar bird or the greater racket-tailed drongo. This bird too is now rarely seen as people would catch it to pluck out the coveted feathers. The feathers of the rooster are now a replacement for the drongo’s tail feathers. Ox or buffalo horns or wood are a replacement for gaur horns on the headdress.

Bijaybai Kashyap and Dalgo Kashyap outside their home in Anjar village in Bastar, Chhattisgarh.
Bijaybai Kashyap and Dalgo Kashyap outside their home in Anjar village in Bastar, Chhattisgarh. (Deepanwita Gita Niyogi)

The dancers, who used to collect the horns from dead animals, say they use other materials as they want to keep the art form alive. Retired anthropologist Ashok Tiwari, who lives in Raipur, points with admiration to the ways the dancers have adapted. “They make new headgear out of wood, besides using horns from ox or buffaloes. Wooden ones are gaining prominence,” he says. Changes to the environment may have led to a reduction in bison numbers but such cultural practices keep alive the memory of what the region was like, he explains.

District Forest Officer Ashok Patel said bison can be spotted in the Indravati Tiger Reserve in Bijapur district. “It is true that the Indian bison is diminishing in number and their habitat is shrinking. The core area of Indravati, however, is undisturbed and has a good number of bisons,” said Patel, adding that bison could be seen on roadsides about a decade ago.

The 2018 Wildlife Institute of India report, Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India, mentions that Indravati was meagrely sampled due to the armed insurgency. Deputy Director of the Indravati tiger reserve Devendra Kumar Mehar said that instances of hunting and poaching in the 1980s reduced bison numbers, “and after that the Maoist issue cropped up”. The grasslands of the Indravati are a suitable habitat for the bison and camera traps have revealed the presence of 70-75 gaurs here and 50-52 wild buffaloes in the core zone, he says.

Budhram Kawasi, a resident of the nearby Madarkonta village, says children haven’t shown much interest in learning the dance. “Many young people have to migrate to cities in search of jobs and get disconnected from their tradition,” he says.

The recreational practices in Adivasi society have also changed in the last few years. People are glued to mobile phones for entertainment. “Children are also busy with school and miss these cultural meetings,” explains Piyush Ranjan Sahoo of the Anthropological Survey of India, sub-regional centre, Chhattisgarh.

Rajeev Ranjan Prasad, an independent researcher who has authored books on Bastar, explains that cultural changes have crept into the tribal society in Bastar and migration has taken place due to the Maoist presence. “A society sings and dances only when it lives peacefully. The tribals have nothing to do with naxalism. Their interference has played havoc with Bastar’s culture,” he says.

Bastar collector Rajat Bansal agrees that many tribal dance forms, including the gaur dance, are disappearing as there was no space to practise and document them. “It’s only when young people have the space to learn that such traditions are passed on to the next generation. That’s where Badal or the Bastar Academy of Dance, Art and Language that the chief minister inaugurated in October comes in,” he says. Situated just outside the district headquarters of Jagdalpur, half of the academy is devoted to dance and has separate facilities for outdoor classes, which is suitable for such art forms, as well as changing rooms and an open-air auditorium. “At Badal, all forms of tribal dances will be documented, and courses and certificate programmes of different duration organised. Outsiders can also come and learn and that is how tribal dances will spread within tribes as well as among outsiders.”

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Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based journalist.

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