Pala is a unique folk performing art of Odisha that combines elements of classical Odia music, theatre and Odia and Sanskrit poetry. It also has a history of communal amity as it emerged as an attempt to forge Hindu Muslim unity during the Mughal era. Pala is believed to have originated in the 16th century.
Pala troupes worship ‘Satyapir’ who is sacred to both Hindus and Muslims.
Though the Pala form originated in Bengal, it flourished in Odisha and also helped create amity between the two communities.
In olden times, Pala performances were organised in villages and towns on special occasions such as marriages, birthdays, and festivals and community members would gather to watch the lively performance.
But with the march of time and development of media, the stately folk form is now fighting for survival. There are very few Pala practitioners across Odisha.
In fact, the Pala artists have sought government intervention to keep the tradition alive.
Pala is presented in two ways – baithaki (seated) or thia (standing).
The Palas perform in villages where the performance usually starts around 8:30 pm. The performance begins with a loud percussion ensemble which is also a way to gather the crows for the performance.
The gana or gayak sings ballads from Odia poetry written between the 17th and 20th centuries.
The poems and kavyas are sung in the traditional chhanda (quatrain) classical style. Apart from the traditional poems, the gayak also sings episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The gana is the pivot around which the Pala performance rests. The singer has to have thorough knowledge and understanding of the poems and kavyas so he can put across the meaning of the verses to the audience. He must also possess good music and performing skills to be able to add drama and recreate the storyline before the audience. He employs his flywhisk to aid his performance, using it sometimes as the thunderbolt of Indra, or the bow of Rama, or flute of Krishna.
A good gana has to devote years to the study and practice of music, oratory, acting and reading of the kavyas.
A Pala group consists of five to seven members.
At the beginning of the performance, the ensemble enters the stage to the loud music of cymbals and mridang. After the ensemble, the main gayak enters into the arena and the group first offers invocation to Satyapir, the presiding deity.
The gayak then begins the performance. He is supported by the bayaka (drummer) and the palia (chorus). The Sri palia is the main chorus singer who supports the gayak. He also holds cymbals in his hands and strikes them in time to the music. The others support the singing and also dance to the music in slow, small steps.
Like most arts, Pala is facing stiff competition from anytime-anywhere entertainment. But it is important to keep these arts alive by supporting the artists. After all, they are a slice of history and a reminder of where we came from.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)