When we hear of any mythological place or character of Mahabharat, start picturizing Uttar Pradesh. But do you know that there is a small town in the culturally rich state of Odisha where all mythological places and characters become lively every year? ‘Dhanuyatra’ is a drama which is performed during the last week of December or first week of January annually in the tiny holy town called Bargarh.
The uniqueness of this play is that it is performed in the world’s largest open-air theatre as acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World record. Unlike usual theatres that confined with four walls, it is sprawled over 30 sq. Km. in town performed by thousands of characters.
The Department of Culture of the Government of India also accorded National Festival status to it on November 2014. This grand festival begins with the marriage ceremony of the demon Kansa’s sister Devaki with Basudev and ends with his culmination by Lord Krishna depicting the victory of virtue over vice. You may be a theist or an atheist; you may or may not believe in the mythological events, but can’t deny the moral messages disseminated through this mega event: that every evil power has its own end. You may rule over a system for a certain period of time by arrogance and all-evil means, but ultimately it is the truth and justice that prevails.
The localites say Dhanu Yatra festival began for the first time in 1948 after India’s independence from the clutch of the British Empire. The analogy was quite simple that the victory of Indians over British rule was compared to the victory of Lord Krishna over the anarchy of Kansa. This mythological episode begins with a portrayal of the dethroning of emperor Ugrasena by his son Kansa, over the marriage of his sister Devaki with Vasudev.
After the coronation of Kansa, one day a heavenly voice called Yogamaya prophesied him that his sister Devaki’s eighth son will slay him. Aftermath which he imprisoned Devaki and her husband Vasudeva and started killing all their children one after another. However, the eighth son, Krishna [incarnation of Vishnu] was transported to Gopapur[Gokul] by his father Vasudeva, where he was cared for by foster mother called Yasoda. In this grand play, Bargarh is portrayed as Mathura and an adjacent small village Amapali as Gopapur [Gokul].
In between, there is a Jeera river [a tributary of Mahanadi] as the Yamuna. The eleven days long ceremony displays all the childhood and adulthood events of Krishna by personifying him as a God-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and as the universal Supreme Being. It is quite interesting to observe the faith and devotion of the people of Amapali and Bargarh worshipping costumed child artists as if they have discovered the original Krishana and Radha. People don’t even consume non-veg foods during the festival.
On the other side, the character of Kansa is also immensely respected and obeyed by the Mathurabasi [people of Bargarh]. The person who plays the role of Kansa has to possess many qualities like vast knowledge on mythology, expertise in language, a roaring voice with strong physic. Sitting on a beautifully decorated royal looking elephant, the Mathura King with his convoy visits various corners of the town during the day time and observe the inconvenience faced by the people of Bargarh. During the evening time when the ‘Rajdarbaar’ is opened, he listens to the grievances of his subjects [people] and summons high officials like district collectors, Superintendent of Police [SP], Member of Parliament [MPs].
Very often they are fined with gold and silver coins for not paying much heed to people’s inconvenience. Even people like former Chief Minister Biju Pattanaik were not spared from the penalty of King Kansa. There are also some interesting instances of ‘Kansa’ entering into the state-run bus and ordering the driver not to consume liquor. After noticing the unhygienic conditions in bus terminals, once he slapped a fine of “two lakh gold coins” on the concerned authority. Certainly, this is done for the jest, but invisibly it spread the message of awareness on various public issues.
Not only the prime characters like Kansa or Krishna, but the supporting actors also are well respected in the locality. Thousands of theatre artists of the region and across the country get an opportunity to showcase their talents. We often can find glimpses of foreign artists performing folk dances and music in front of Kansa and mass audience. The festival not only gives some sort of livelihood to the artists but also to vendors, handloom businessmen, Mina Bazaar owners and so on.
On the concluding day, Minister Akrura following the advice of the demon Kansa goes and brings Krishna and Balaram by luring them to show Dhanu Jatra held at Mathura (Bargarh) after preparing a meticulous plan to kill duos. But the outcome goes contrary to the expectation and the demon Kansa is slain by Lord Krishna instead in front of the Mathurabasi [people], depicting the ultimate repercussion of the evil power.
Following the rituals of the ceremony, soon after the conclusion of the whole episode, The Kansa character goes to Jagannath [one of the Avatars of Vishnu] temple, Puri to seek an apology and to wash away all sins committed during the festival by using harsh language against Lord Krishna. This eleven-day unscripted act is exceptionally realistic in nature, a cause for unity and a symbol of identity for the local masses.