Sukumar Adhikary appears much older than his chronological age, which is a little over 50. He is an ice-cream vendor by profession. Mithun Lohar, son of a daily labourer Panchanan Lohar, works as a mason. Ranjit Gorai’s mornings pass in selling vegetables.

Sukumar Barik deals in his own small business of burning conch wastes to procure conch lime for betel leaves. They are all undistinguished figures except for three days from Vijaya Dashami to Dwadashi every year.

For, on those three auspicious days a great metamorphosis turns Sukumar Adhikary into Hanuman, Mithun into monkey king Sugriv, Ranjit into Bibhishan, brother of Ravana, and Sukumar Barik into Jambavan, the King of Bears who was created by Brahma to assist Rama in his battle against Ravana.

Once they don the masks of Lord Rama’s four aides, they are elevated to some of the prominent Ramayana characters. They are the four participants of traditional mask dance form of “Ravankata Dance” (dance of slayers of Ravana). According to pundits and local historians, Ravankata dance probably dates back to more than three centuries. However, it is considered by many as old as four centuries that started between 1626 and 1656 CE.

Veer Hambir (1565 to 1620 CE), the 49th ruler of the Malla Dynasty influenced by Srinivasa Acharya converted from Saktaism to Vaishnavism. From then on a great upsurge among plebeians of being consecrated to Vaishnavism was noticed. They were all devotees of Lord Krishna. Later by the strong influence of Ramanandi, also known as Ramayats or Ramavat, a branch of Vaishnava Sri Sampradaya of Hinduism, the Vaishnavites of Bishnupur were divided into two different sects — the devotees of Lord Rama and those of Lord Krishna.

Most Ramanandis or Ramayats consider themselves to be the followers of Ramananda, a Vaishnava saint in medieval India. They were earlier a martial sect and fought with the Mughals. After renunciation of weapons, they began to follow Brahmanic methods and started studying Vedas and Upanishads.

The ascetic wing of the Ramayats constitutes the largest Vaishnava monastic order. Some ‘asthals’ or ‘dharmashalas’ (almshouses) were built in Mallabhum, where not only prayers and worship of gods were conducted but also saints, sages and devout persons congregated there. One of such ‘asthals’ was founded in Nimtala area of Bishnupur by Malla King Durjan Singha Dev who reigned from 1089-1109 Bengali era (1682-1702 CE).

As the presiding deity there is Raghunath, another name of Rama, it is called Raghunath Jiu Asthal. Here Rama, Laxman and Sita are worshipped.

Centring round the Raghunath Jiu ‘asthal’ a folk dance form called Ravankata Nrittya (Ravankata Dance) patronised by the kings of Mallabhum was introduced. Ramprasad Das (Mishra), the incumbent Mahanta of the dilapidated Raghunath Jiu Ashthal said, “Sri Sri Raghunath Jiu ‘asthal’ or temple was established in 1093 Bengali era (1686 CE). The inception of Ravankata Utsab dates back to the establishment of the ‘asthal’. It was renovated in 1342 Bengali era (1935 CE). The band of Ravankata mainly comprises 8 participants including four mask dancers and four players of music. This traditional folk dance is still confined in the very particular families from its inception.

The four Ravankata dancers wear wooden masks of Hanuman, the greatest devotee of Lord Rama, Sugriv, the monkey king, Bibhishan, brother of Ravana who joined in the camp of Lord Rama in his war expedition against the demon king, and Jambavana, the king of bears, respectively.

The masks of both Hanuman and Sugriv almost resemble each other. They are painted off white in colour with drab noses. The slight difference is that the mouth of Hanuman is a little wider than that of Sugriv. However, the mask of Jambavana is almost like an Asian Black Bear except for the white spot on the chest. Bibhishan wears a red mask with a turban on his head. The bodies of the dancers all along are covered with rough jute fibres of respective colours of the masks.

The mask dancers can see through the holes between the teeth of the masks of Hanuman, Sugriv and Jambavana, whereas, only Bibhishan watches through the holes in the eyes of the red mask. The masks are made of ‘gamar’ wood because of its lightness and durability. There are many apertures on the rear sides to loop the dyed jute fibres through for hair. The masks are painted every year by the great ‘fouzdar’ family that paints Bishnupur’s famous ‘Dasavatara Taash’.

Ravankata Utsab (festival) lasts only three days, from the auspicious Vijaya Dashami to Dwadashi. On the very first day i.e. Vijaya Dashami, the mask dancers perform in the courtyard in front of the ‘asthal’ of Raghunath Jiu. Then they proceed towards the main road adjacent to the temple and dance there too.

On the very first day of Ravankata Utsab, Indrajit, the valiant son of Lankesh Ravana is slain in the evening. Next day i.e. Ekadashi, Ravankata dancers with four musicians roam about some areas of the town entertaining all and sundry the whole day. In the evening Kumbhakarna, a giant brother of Ravana, is killed.

On the day of Dadwashi, the main festival is held. Ravana is slain at night in th e presence of a huge crowd. A Brobdingnagian idol of Ravana equipped with bow and arrows in fighting posture, is set up on a tractor on one end of the street. A set of 10 wooden heads are then attached to the torso of the demon king made of clay.

On the other end of the street, a makeshift chariot carrying Rama, Laxmana, Sita and Hanuman is set up. From the evening towards late at night, the four mask dancers along with those playing music run on the street. They perform a variety of chivalric strides and gestures. They gyrate, stomp and swirl with great vigour. The dance symbolises the macabre performed by the monkey soldiers of Lord Rama after the defeat of Ravana.

However, when the auspicious moment comes, Hanuman is garlanded. The dancing Ravankata band move through the thoroughfare thrice with the crowd shouting “Jai Sriram!” .Then with utmost agility, Hanuman dictated by Jambavan, jumps on to the tractor and slays Ravana with a sword. Thus the Ravankata Utsab ends with the defeat of the demon king who abducted Sita, the wife of Lord Rama.

The people rush to collect the clay remains of Ravana as it is considered auspicious. There is a popular belief that the person who decapitates Lankesh, suffers from fever the very next day. What is significant is that there is an apparent distraction from the mainstream story of the Ramayana in Ravankata dance theme. On the three consecutive days from Dashami to Dwadashi, all the three royal demons including Indrajit, Kumbhkarna and Ravana are decapitated by Hanuman as per the instructions by Jambavana instead of Rama.

In the story of Ravankata, Jambavana is considered the one who knows the secret of Ravana’s death. But in the mainstream Ramayana story, Jambavana enlightens Hanuman about his potential ability to fly.

Actually, the communities of Ravankata dancers belonging to lower strata of the society mostly comprised the army of the Malla kingdom. Therefore, Hanuman, instead of Rama and Laxmana is assigned the task of slaying the demon warriors.

The musical band of Ravankata dance is a strange blend of musical instruments. Two drummers play Nakara. It is a skin-covered hand drum, a festival instrument mostly used in South Indian Hindu temple rituals and ceremonies. One of the musical instruments is called Tikora and the one used in the Ravankata dance is not like Mridanga but mostly like a kind of Tassa. The other musical instrument that accentuates the rhythmic cadence with metallic sound is a ‘Kansar’’ (a disc made of brass).

Sukumar Adhikary, in the mask of Hanuman recites the nonsensical chant of Ravankata band which is “Tang, Tang, Tang, Tang/ Jurdu Juddum Tang Tang/ Jurdu Juddum, Jurdu Juddum/Ravan Katar Bandarta/Jurdu Juddum Tang Tang”. The same chant is repeated in different rhythms. The musical players belong to Dome community whose main profession is to prepare skin-covered musical instruments.

In the past Ravankata Utsab was arranged with pomp and grandeur in the royal palace of Bishnupur. Now this festival is mainly concentrated at the Nimtala area for three days. The mask dancers entertain people of the town for two days.

Surprisingly, this traditional dance form despite being confined to particular families has not lost its attraction. Every year the people of Bishnupur and its surrounding areas look forward to Ravankata Utsab with equal enthusiasm and it also extends the joys of the Puja days.

The state government has already introduced a monthly allowance to the families attached to Ravankata dance. Ranjit Gorai, alias Bibhishan, as a Ravankata dancer seemed optimistic. He said, “We are now being invited in government-sponsored fares and programs to perform Ravankata dance. We participated in the Mati Utsav in Burdwan and the recently innovated Poramatir Haat at Bishnupur. Besides, the state government is encouraging us to attract more people to learn this traditional dance form.”

According to another veteran Ravankata dancer, Panchanan Lohar, who can no longer participate in the dance due to ill health, the multifarious acrobatic feats like pirouettes in mid-air, back flips etc in the dance form, keeping pace with changing times and tastes needs to be infused to attract people.

Needless to say, regular training and thorough practice are also needed to acquire the acrobatic feats. Only then will this traditional folk dance be elevated to the status of other popular mask dances that have originated in Bengal.