The sakya-paiya naach (a song and dance genre, N. naach=E. dance) are performed during the fall festival of Dashai (last year which fell in October), which, while celebrated all over Nepal, looks very different in Tharu communities. While these dances are performed only at Dashai, many people have chosen to talk about them over the course of my research. As a researcher, you want to study something that your interlocutors are into as well, as it makes for a more rewarding experience all around. The following is a composite from several observations of sakya-paiya performances in Sukhrwar and Dobar Gau villages—where I live while conducting research in Dang district, mid-western Nepal—and comments from conversations and interviews on these dances that I have conducted over the course of my research. This blog post is my initial attempt to work with some of the data I’ve collected.
“Where are you going?” Grandpa was scowling at me as I prepared to leave the house.
“I’m going to see the sakya naach,” I told him.
“I’m going to see the sakya naach,” I told him.
“No! Go upstairs and go to bed!” he ordered in a loud voice, mixing his Tharu and Nepali languages.
I assured him that I would be with Sabita—his daughter-in-law—and would not be alone.
“Go to sleep!” he re-iterated, this time in Tharu.
It took me a minute to realize that he was drunk. With Grandma distilling raksi (N. home-brewed alcohol) every other day, there was a plentiful supply in the house. Sabita soon appeared, with her two sons in tow and holding a flashlight, and we set off for the matawa’s (T. village leader) house in the dark.
The sakya-paiya naach (N. naach=dance) is the first co-ed dance of the Tharu music season. After the Harya Gurai ritual—performed in the months of Badau or Asoj (Aug/Sept) to ensure the fertility of the growing rice crop—the music season officially starts. All drum and dance music has been banned the previous three months as the sound of the madal [N. a double-headed folk drum used all over Nepal] could not be heard while people were planting and cultivating the growing rice, for fear that it would bring disease or disaster. But after the guruwa [T. Tharu traditional healer or shaman] blesses the madals, proclaiming goodness wherever the madal sound is heard, the madal can be played and thus dances can begin. Each village decides when they will begin their sakya-paiya naach. Generally, the morhinya [T. song leader] and guru aama [N. mother teacher] will decide after the Harya Gurai ritual has been performed, and they will inform the matawa [T. village leader] who informs the aghawa [T. village council leader], who then disseminates the information about the village. Dil Kumari Chaudhary, who teaches the song in Dobar Gau, said that there can be one or two days of advice going back and forth between the morhinya, guru aama, and matawa before a date is decided on.
On the first night of the dance, the matawa will recite all the names of the Bwiyatan [T. corpus of village deities], as well as his own deity, the morhinya’s, pachginhya’s [T. secondary song leader] and agwa mandaria’s [T. lead madal player] household deities, and offer drink offerings of cow’s milk and raksi [N. home-distilled alcohol] to the deities. These three youth then perform the same offerings to their household deities. It is believed that this samroti [T. opening prayer] keeps harm off of the dancers. Chandra Prasad Tharu, the matawa of the village of Jalaura, told me that in Sukhrwar, one year the morhinya offered nothing to her house deities and so died. Thus in Sukhrwar they leave off dancing for one night. Similarly, Ashok Tharu related the sakya-paiya had been performed at the international folk festival in Gorahi before the Harya Gurai ritual. For this, one guruwa’s wife chastised the organizers. She basically said they would bring disaster. Which, surprisingly for Ashok, after that folk festival people in the village did get sick—lots of people got sick! Children in the village came down with fevers after the program, and the villagers blamed it on the fact that the madal had been played before the Harya Gurai ritual.
When we arrived, we found the women already dancing. In the light of the small light bulb that cast some light on the yard, I could see two groups of women in semi-circles, facing each other. Their white gonyas (T. wrapped skirts) illuminated the dark, and their necklaces—made from multiple strands of glass beads—and stacks of glass bangles on their wrists glinted and gleamed in the dim light. They were slowly walking counter-clockwise, swinging their majiras (N. and T. small brass hand cymbals) in sync, clinking them softly in front of them. The sound was like that of wind chimes, combined with the rhythmic shuffle of their feet and shifting of their skirts. It was still early, and so the crowd was small—mainly women and their young children. Sabita and I found a seat on a straw mat in front of the matawa’s door, about a foot behind the dancers.
Participants in Dobar Gau, on the afternoon of Raja Tikka
Copyright Tori Dalzell
On the first night of the dance, the girls will dance with bouquets of sage leaves in their hands. After that, they will dance with chauri [T. jut fronds] swinging them back and forth in unison. On Ghatasthaphana—better known as the first day of Dashai or jamara rakne din—when the deutas’ [N. deities] names are recited again, they will begin dancing with the majira. On the night of Dhikiri Puja (day eight of Dashai) they dance all night. On Raja Tika (day nine of Dashai) and Dashami (day ten of Dashai), the will dance not at night, but in the afternoons. This is when crowds swell.
As the women sang, I began writing down my observations in my notebook, balanced on my knee. One of the men standing near us saw my activity and asked me if I was writing down the words to their song? I said that I did not speak Tharu, so I did not understand the song. He was confused as to how I could enjoy the performance if I did not understand the story they were telling. And if I wasn’t writing down the lyrics, what was I writing down anyway?
The story told in this epic is the life of Kanha (Tharu for Krishna). According to Ashok Tharu—a local scholar and cultural activist—it has seven parts: (1) A song about creation, (2) Kanha’s birth, (3) Kuelarya Muvaina, or the murder of Kuelarya and consequent resurrection by Kanha, (4) Bari fulwar jaena, or where Kanha goes to get knowledge from the Rishi’s in the Mahabharat range, which borders Dang district, (5) Phula lorna, (6) Kanha Muvaina, or where Kanha is murdered by his uncle Kansa, and (7) Kansa Muvaina, where a resurrected Kahna kills his uncle Kansa. In addition to these parts, there is an introduction (T. Danhachaaiberik) and an ending (T. Syaakaberik) that is also sung, book-ending the portion to be sung that night.
According to Sangita Chaudhary, a singer of some note in Banke district, some of the language in the sakya may be a little archaic, but it is still understandable to a listening audience—as long as the girls singing enunciate well and sing clearly! With between 20 to 25 couplets sung each night, I estimate that this epic is close to 600 couplets in length. Each couplet is sung twice—once by the morhinya’s group (the primary song leader) and repeated by the pachginhya’s group (the secondary song leader).
Before the dance sessions, the morhinya and pachginhya will go to a knowledgeable woman’s house and learn the song orally from her. The other girls learn the song in the act of performance, following and repeating after their leaders. Now that girls go to school, many morhinyas and pachginhyas will write down the lyrics as they learn them. For example, in the village of Amrai, there is a notebook that the morhinya and pachginhya will add to as they learn the song; there is just one copy. In Sukhrwar, there is no longer a woman to teach the song, but the village has a transcribed copy of their version of the song, written while the guru aama was still living. This copy has been duplicated and is also found in the neighboring village of Karmatiya—where, coincidently, many of the women who married into that village are originally from Sukhrwar. Some people see this new trend of writing down the epic as a good thing—a way to preserve culture—while at the same time, many of the older women I talked to complained that the girls nowadays couldn’t memorize as well, and in general didn’t know what the heck they were singing!
In my experience, melody, tempo and key seem to differ slightly from village to village in Dang. In Dobar Gau, the girl’s movements were slow and relaxed, and their song ebbed and flowed in volume and shape like a wave going in and receding from the shore. They sang in a lower range. In Sukhrwar, the girl’s movements were more angular and hurried, the pitch was higher and more nasalized, the tempo faster. In Dewa Kumari, Khopi’s sister’s opinion—she was the morhinya for several years in Sukhrwar—because there is no longer a guru aama in the village, the girls may get the lyrics right, but their “laya bigrinchha” (N. melody breaks).
While we watched the dance, I asked Sabita if there was a stigma against married guys playing the madal, seeing as that it is only unmarried girls who dance. She replied that, married or unmarried, men could play the madal. As if to prove her point, her husband Khopi and younger brother Shyam—whose wife had just had a baby—entered the circle of dancers, each playing a madal. Shyam unfortunately lost his balance between playing the drum and jumping around, and stumbled headlong into the row of dancing girls. The girls were gracious about it; laughing, they helped him up—he was, after all, their relative, and he wasn’t drunk.
I commented to Sabita on how few madal players were participating in the Sukrawar naach; in the neighboring village there were often eight madals playing at a time. Plus, the guys who played the madals were very energetic, dancing between the groups of girls rather than merely walking from one side of the circle to the other. Sabita just said that they didn’t have that many madal players in Sukrawar. I also asked if it was ok for the girls to dance without a madal? She said yes, but, it was more pleasant when there was a madal.
From the many participants I have thus talked to, there seems to be specific gender roles within this dance—girls sing and dance and the boys play the drum. In addition to the morhinya and pachginhya who lead the singing groups, the agwa mandaria, who leads the men on the madals, also has worship rituals to perform in connection to this dance. While these specific gender roles might be ideal, they are not always followed. For example, according to Ashok Tharu, in his own village, the young men sit in front of his house smoking and chatting, while at the back of his house the girls sing and dance the sakya—and are obliged to play their own madal because the boys won’t! In the village of Lalpur one young girl who is about fourteen plays the madal regularly for her local children’s club’s dance team, and commented to me that, when the boys don’t play, she plays the madal for her village’s sakya dance as well. She also commented that all her older sisters—now married—also played the madal. In talking to various women’s community groups—whose women range from ages twenty-five years and upward—many of the members are good madal players themselves, and some claim that they have played the madal for the sakya dances.
Dil Kumari insisted that, if a married woman danced, the deities would get angry. But Chandra Prasad Tharu, said that the tradition really differs from village to village. One older woman in the village of Paddha Gau said she began dancing after she got married—after her older sister died, she married her widowed brother-in-law at age 15 or 16, and danced the sakya in his village, where she was the morhinya for four years. She now teaches this song in that village. Some of the members of the women’s community group in the village of Nawalpur—all married women, and some grandmothers—claimed that they sometimes join in the dance just for fun.
Soon after, a bunch of guys from Dobar Gau showed up. Unfortunately, they were either inebriated or had eaten jaar [T. home-brewed rice beer] so they did not perform well—their rhythms barely kept up with the girl’s feet, they just stood and played in front of the singing group, instead of jumping around, and when the other group responded, they just walked across the circle instead of running in rhythm. I was so disappointed; they were one of the reasons why the neighboring village’s dance had been so fun to watch. Sabita had been impressed with my impression that the Dobar Gau naach was good, so I was disappointed that these guys could not perform up to par. And especially because the crowd was slowly swelling.
Young men and women of Dobar Gau participate in the sakya naach.
Copyright Tori Dalzell
Many instances have been related to me concerning men from other villages coming to participate or observe the village sakya dance. Sometimes, this results in jagara [N. verbal arguments] and ladai [N. fist fights]. These ruin the dance experience for observers and participants alike. The village of Kopadadevi, for example, left off their dance four years ago because a fight broke out after a boy from another village teased one of the girls dancing. The girls I talked to in Lalpur said that one night, visitors were making so much noise that the responding group couldn’t hear what the leading group had sung, and got mad at the offending observers. Yet these instances don’t necessarily come from complete strangers.
In Dobar Gau one night, I was sitting with my friend Bishna, and a young man, obviously drunk, sat down next to her. He elbowed her ribs, tugged her hair, as he commented that he hadn’t seen her for a while—she worked elsewhere and only returned to her natal home during holidays. Bishna and I had been at the dance for sometime, contemplating whether to leave or stay, and this was incentive for Bishna to push for us to leave for the night. The matawa’s yard was small—the crowd sat on the ledges by the matawa’s house and neighboring house, with the girls dancing and singing not six inches in front of them. This young man proceeded to tug on the passing dancer’s hair, or slap them between the shoulder blades. At one point, he grabbed a girl’s arm, completely interrupting the flow of the dance. The girls rebuffed and whacked back in defense, but this only encouraged the young man more. It was this instance that came to mind when I recently talked to the Dobar Gau matawa, where he commented that they weren’t sure if they were going to have the sakya dance this year or not—too many fights and teasing broke out during the dance the previous year. When I talked to Dil Kumari Chaudhary, the Dobar Gau guru aama, I asked her if such fights broke out when she danced the sakya-paiya? She said no—her uncle, or mother’s brother, was the matawa, and even if audience members came from neighboring villages, they respected that they had come to his turf—literally, to his yard—and did not tease the girls of his village, many of which were related to him in some way. Who was going to tease them in that kind of kinship network?
Unexpectedly, many of the girls began to move out of their lines and go sit down, while some of the members continued to sing. Once they were done with the couplet, the madal rhythm changed, and the girls began a different dance. Audience members, clearly delighted, called out “paiya lagaat!” The girls’ majira playing became in-sync with the madal. They formed a tight circle, sweeping inward then outward while moving counter-clockwise. The madal rhythm changed again, and they formed a line. The madal players moved backwards while the girls advanced on them, then suddenly the madal players advanced towards the dancers, and the dancers retreated, bending and bowing at their waists as they moved backwards. After a few minutes of this dance, the two groups were reformed and the sakya song was resumed.
The sakya dance is rather repetitive—slow movement counter-clockwise in a circle with two groups facing each other, taking turns singing a couplet back and forth. According to Sangita Chaudhary, while the story told in the sakya captivates the older audience members, the younger audience members come to see the paiya dances. Upon learning that the Dobar Gau girls would be dancing the sakya all night, Khopi called out “paiya lagaat!” and the young men playing the madal immediately shifted to playing a paiya rhythm. The girls protested—“why are you playing paiya? We’re still dancing sakya!”—but the audience members clearly wanted it.
Young women from Manpur perform the ragetwa paiya in after a community awareness program aimed at discussing the declining practice of the sakya-paiya in the Manpur VDC, where reportedly, only three of the villages in that VDC continue to perform the sakya-paiya.
Copyright Tori Dalzell
According to Ashok Tharu and Sushil Chaudhary, there are twenty-two paiya rhythms, each with a different dance attached to it. All but a few people have been able to tell me their names—they know which paiya to dance when they hear the madal rhythm, but as to what it’s name is? That they don’t know. Much more stimulating to watch, there are three categories of paiya—those danced in a circle, those danced in two lines, and one danced in a triangle. The names of these dances are rather descriptive, such as the ragetwa paiya (“to drive away”) where there is a seeming push and pull between the dancers and the madal players), ghumaira ragetwa paiya (again, where there is a seeming push and pull between the dancers and madal players, but in concentric circles instead of lines), khutte paiya (one with lots of movement of the feet), and several that are named after birds, where the movements are supposed to imitate courtship dances of the respective birds.
Despite the fact that there are twenty-two paiya tal [N. rhythms] and their subsequent dances, most villages only know how to dance three to five of these. Sushil Chaudhary commented that, during his young days, they would help each other learn the dances and the rhythms. Participating in dance was the way to both demonstrate that you were ready for a spouse (who wanted to marry a girl who couldn’t dance, or a boy who couldn’t play the madal?) as well as find a spouse (he was the village’s agwa mandaria, his wife was the village morhinya, and they courted through these sakya-paiya dances). But now, the question asked was “how much education does s/he have?” Dil Kumari Chaudhary said that, in her day, her father played the madal and taught them the paiya dances. In her village, there are twelve paiya that are danced; but according to her, in Dobar Gau, there isn’t a person who knows how to play the paiya rhythms!
From my own observations, the paiya now seems to be peer-taught while the sakya is passed down between generations. With less peer participation, the number of paiya dances people can dance now is substantially reduced as not all of them are learned and passed on.
While the sakya is seen as a religious dance [N. dharmik naach], which must be done in a prescribed ritual context or suffer consequences, the paiya dances are regularly performed in cultural shows or song and dance competitions. However, they are not unattached. Sangita Chaudhary describes their relationship as the paiya being for the pleasure of the audience and dancers, when they want a break from the sakya and want to have fun. Ashok Tharu sees the paiya as a representation of the affection between Kanha and Radha, played out in two dimensions—the madal players are Kanha, and the dancers are his gopinis, or cow herders, or more specifically Radha; and the dances are named after and imitate the courtship dances of birds found in the forest, where Kanha and Radha often had their trysts.
Sabita, Anuj, Sahil and I began to head home at about 8:15PM. Anuj was already asleep, so Sabita went to find her husband, Khopi; she would give Anuj to him so she wouldn’t have to carry him all the way home. She entered a neighboring house to inquire about her husband’s whereabouts, leaving me with Sahil and his cousin on the road. I was noticed by a random guy walking toward the dance—hadn’t I been at the Dobar Ghau naach the night before? he asked. Yes, I had been. He commented that he and his friends were going village-to-village, to see all the village performances. I tried to stave his conversation by mentioning that I was waiting for a friend, indicating that I was about to leave. They guy was encouraged though—did my friend live here? I just ignored him, but he continued to press me for conversation.
Sabita emerged from the house; she now knew her husband’s location. She briefly looked at the guy in the dark, but when she realized she did not know the man, she just ignored him, and went on. Much to my embarrassment, the guys called out after me (“Miss! Miss!”).
At the next house, Sabita found Kopi, and went inside to give him Anuj. Having given Anuj to Kopi, Sabita, myself, and the two boys set off for her maithi [N. natal home] so she could get her basket of stuff—and eat some bhat [N. rice].
On the way back to our home, we went by the road instead of crossing through the rice fields; Sabita thought it would be easier, since it was dark. We ended up passing a group of young men who were not from the village—one of them started calling out to me, seeing I was white; Sabita shined her flashlight in his face to see who he was and when she realized he was a “na chinne manche” (N. someone she did not recognize) she told him to shush and walked on. The guys began following us though, keeping pace, and engaged in conversation with Sabita. It was all in Tharu, but Sabita’s tone was short and unfriendly. When we got back to our house, she said they were people from other villages who had come to see the Sukhrwar dance.
When I interviewed Sangita Chaudhary, she commented that there is often informal competition between villages, as to who has the best dance of the season. People in the area will go from village to village to see the dances, and can tell you which village has the best dance.
But another reason people may come is that their village no longer has that dance. I was made aware, early in my research, that many villages no longer practiced this tradition. Upon further conversations with people, many of these villages no longer had a matawa, some no longer had a guru aama to teach the song to the girls. Chandra Prasad saw this leaving off of tradition akin to villages no longer nurturing their local deities, the Bwiyatan. If they no longer obeyed the Bwiyatan, then the didn’t have a matawa, they didn’t employ a guruwa, and they no longer kept up the dances that recited the deities’ names (in other words, needed to be opened with a samroti), namely, the sakya-paiya, chokra and barka. Yet other difficulties also cropped up—Chandra Prasad commented that they did not have enough mature dancers/singers in his village to have the dance this coming year, as all their young men and women were out of the village studying or working. He hoped they would not have to leave off the dance for more than one year. Ashok Tharu commented to me that, for the first time ever, ALL of his village’s young women were absent from his village of Hekuli this past spring for work or schooling. What impact this will have on his village’s sakya-paiya naach has yet to be seen. On a different note, the women of Nawalpur told me that their village did not have the sakya-paiya during the Maoist insurrection—a big gathering of people at night would attract police attention; out of fear, they did not dance during that time, almost six years. Sangita Chaudhary related that during that time, there were reports in her area of people being beaten by police, or accused by police of being Maoist cadres, as they went to or returned from the nightly dance.
The sakya-paiya naach, while certainly a ritual dance done for the pleasure of local deities, is far from serious or grave. The atmosphere is one of fun and flirting. Ironically, while the dance is supposed to open the village up to good, it instead often opens up the village to strangers from neighboring villages or bazaars who may be dangerous. Changing values in the Tharu community present challenges to continuing the dance as is—namely education competing with this traditional form of education and socializing—while at the same time opening up new ways to pass on remember these songs—namely, the written form. Because this dance is attached to other traditional Tharu institutions—namely that of the matawa and guruwa—whether a village has this dance at all often depends on the strength of these institutions. Yet activities like community workshops, such as the one in Manpur VDC during Dashai, where community members gather to openly discuss these challenges, shows that the Tharu are actively aware of the decline, and are looking for solutions to continue this tradition that many see as a distinctive marker of Dangaura Tharu identity.