Shreshtha Bharat Sanskriti Samagam, a first of its kind endeavour, was a recent festival of music, dance, drama, folk, tribal arts, puppetry and allied traditions held at Rabindra Mandap in Bhubaneswar.

To disseminate our deep tradition of art and culture across India, the chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, Shekhar Sen, has taken a calculated decision to old this kind of a festival in the nooks and corners of the country leaving out the big metropolitan cities where people are more exposed to such events.

There will thus be festivals held in Baroda, Guwahati, Amritsar, Tanjavur, Bhopal and such like.

Little did people, across the length and breadth of the country, know about the existence of the Bastar Band of Chhattisgarh, who performed their colourful and spectacular routine, which is in fact total theatre —replete with dance, drama and music. Devpad offered one a peek into the artistic scenario of one of India’s remote areas.

Anup Ranjan Pandey, who is associated with the folk theatre of Chhattisgarh, was a Nacha folk artist and is the group leader of Bastar Band. He spoke about Bastar and the Bastar Band he has created but my curious self wanted to know more.

We only hear of Bastar as a notorious place because of the activities of Maoists who unleash terror in that part of the country. “I am a traditional theatre artist,” said Pandey, “but I had moved to Naya Theatre and have worked under Habib Tanveer.”

But what made him interested in recreating the Bastar Band, I asked. “I was attracted to the traditional tribal music and instruments of the region and found that Bastar had hundreds of musical instruments that were facing extinction.

The younger generation had little or no knowledge about them. Only a few elders had the knowledge. I wished to protect them from extinction and have managed to resurrect a good many.

“The scenario there is grim. The conditions of life are fraught with danger. It is sad to see a land, so rich in natural resources, being one of the poorest regions of the country. But with the help of a few locals I have been helping tribal people to protect their cultural roots,” said Pandey.

Coming to Bastar Band, it is a musical ensemble, which Anup Ranjan Pandey is instrumental in forming. It aims to let people know about the performing arts of Chhattisgarh. The band’s objective is to spread the message of love, peace and brotherhood.

Though the Bastar region is inhabited by numerous tribes but the performance artists, strangely, are not from one particular village nor do they belong to one tribe. They are from the Muria, Dandami, Maria, Dhurwa, Bhatra, Doria, Munda and Halba tribes of Bastar. It also has artists from the Mahra, Ganda Mirgan and Ahir communities.

Each of the tribes have their distinct social histories and religious customs, with unique musical traditions and dance forms such as Saila, Suva and Karma, with complex foot work and are known for their earthiness.

Pandey travelled to different corners of the region from Raipur to Dantewada and Narayanpur to Kondagaon, in adverse situations, and tried his best to convince artists to join in. While some are professional musicians, there are artisans and farmers too in the team.

They wear traditional colourful costumes, which members of the troupe make themselves, besides ornaments like head gears, ankle bells and tinkling bells on their bodies for sound effect.

Devpad showcased ritualistic movements about their gods through nritta and natya. The presentation centered on their distinct tribal instruments identified with specific deities.

For example, Bhimal Pen is the god of rains, Pestapen the god of nature, Lingo Dev is equivalent to tribal Shiva and Hivarpen is the god of fertility while Adi Sangeeta consists of vadyas/ instruments.

Pandey was in search of the instruments but while at it, he heard interesting gathas or stories of Lingo Dev, from which he got to know about the different kinds of musical instruments. Amid such activities, the idea of the band materialised in his mind.

Folk music is always sung spontaneously and it is full of emotions. Pandey said, “Our presentation is not mere musical orchestration. It is folk-theatre and so I like to call Devpad, a tribal folk theatre.” The subject matter of their songs is situation-based and it follows the Adi Vasi Dharma.

Though Pandey has done a lot of work, it is only a drop in the ocean. What is important is that he has been able to set the ball rolling but others have to play their role too, to help keep tribal art alive.