The living tradition of Gotipua originated in one of the most popular pilgrimage centres of India, Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa. The Gotipua dance emerged in the early 16th century and what makes it unique is that its performers are pre-puberty boys (age 3 to 12), dressed in female attires. Watching Gotipua dancers perform is an important learning experience for Odissi trainees, because most of the aspects of Odissi have been taken from the Gotipua dance. Although there are not too many details regarding its exact origin, there are two theories to highlight the emergence of this tradition.
One theory states that with the coming of Mughals, the Devdasi system gradually declined. To carry forward the legacy, the temple priests and elite people chose boys from poor families to dance for the deity. The other story is related to the most famous Bhakti saint of this region, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who wanted dance troupes to perform in the procession of Lord Jagannath. However, the priests refused his request because they believed ‘devdasis‘ could not perform the dance during their menstrual period as it would make the ceremony impure. So eventually, young boys were chosen to dance for the deity.
During this time, Orissa was also going through a lot of social and political changes. Both the Mughal and the Afghans were trying to seize power in this state. It is said that to fight against them, ‘akhadas’ were constructed, in which the young boys were given physical training to become fighters. They were even trained in dancing to make them a part of the temples so that they could protect the temples of Orissa from the external threats. And thus, the tradition of Gotipua came into existence.
The boys are chosen exclusively from very poor families at a very young age and then they are trained under expert gurus (maestro), following a rigorous training. Generally, the training process includes sessions of yoga, massages, acrobatic exercises, formal schoolwork, and hours of rigorous practice. Families consider it a great respect if their child is selected to be a Gotipua, who are hence also known as ‘god’s own children’.
In Oriya, “Goti” means ‘single’ and “pua” means ‘boy’. Contrary to the name ‘single boy’, Gotipua dance is performed in groups. While most of the elements of this dance can be closely related to Odissi, this dance form gives special place to acrobatics where yogic postures and special ‘mudras’ are enacted.
Guru Maguni Charan Das, a 96-year-old danseur was awarded Padamshree in the year 2004 by the Indian government for his attempts to revive this old dance form. He is now a living legend in Orissa who brought great laurels to this folk dance.
The repertoire of dance includes four phases in the same order, namely, Vandana (worship prayer), Sa ri ga ma (an elegant dance number), Abhinaya (dance on poetry from Geet Govindam, the 12th century sacred verse, especially dedicated to Radha-Krishna) and Bandha Nrutya (acrobatic and yogic postures)
The dance performance is supported by music that consists of Mardala (two heads drum, rhythm percussion instrument indigenous to Orissa), Gini (small cymbals), harmonium, violin, Bansuri (flute) and one or two vocalists.
The costume and make-up of the boys are considered sacred and have evolved in the last 50 years. The dancers wear jewellery made with beads, bracelets, ornaments along with brightly coloured traditional dress called as ‘Kanchula’.
As a tradition, Gotipua inherently highlights the belief and ethos of the Hindu philosophy. By temporarily taking transgender identity, Gotipuas represent the nature (Lila) of the Supreme Lord, who just works through its thousands of manifestations on this Earth in the form of human beings. They represent the possibilities of numerous gender norms and several combinations of sex and gender. In fact, throughout the Hindu holy texts, we have had mention of demigods and saints who have existed in multiple identities, in different sex and genders. And, if we view the dance form in a larger perspective, it celebrates the existence in full acceptance of all possibilities of sex, gender and self. Moreover, the soul, the ‘atma’ has been regarded to be a neutral entity in Hinduism, which again points out to the same fact that even though we all are different from outside, encapsulating many roles and entities, inherently, we all are the same.
As the Gotipua dance is performed by the downtrodden, it has opened up opportunities for a parallel economy for them, which is all set to gain international exposure, thanks to the brilliant works of several Odissi gurus in this field. Gotipua dance groups have now gained recognition from Orissa government and the future of this dance seems bright. Such dance traditions are symbolic of India’s rich cultural heritage and the tolerance we have for all forms of life, irrespective of external differences. We must surely promote them to continue the legacy of India, a home to diverse art practises.