Tribal Week Special: Gavri- An Ancient Rajasthani Folk Opera Spreading the Values of Nature Conservation and Women's Respect for Over 800 Years

Gavri upholds the importance of respecting daughters, forming an intrinsic part of Mewar's cultural legacy for centuries.
Raibudhia and Raimata are the two lead characters in Gavri plays.
Raibudhia and Raimata are the two lead characters in Gavri plays.File pic

Udaipur— Gavri, the ancient dance of Mewar, has graced the cultural landscape of Rajasthan's Mewar region for over 800 years. This traditional folk dance-drama is a ritual cherished by the Bhil-Gameti tribals settled in the area. Commencing shortly after the Rakhi festival, Gavari entails a challenging month-and-a-half-long fast. The presence of wooden weapons, clay mandal-like baja, and gurja-like weapons in Gavari suggests its ancient origins, predating the use of metals in theatrical performances.

The acts performed in Gavri, known as 'khel,' 'bhav,' or songs, represent a dramatic ritual of the Bhil tribe, held annually for centuries, spanning from a day after Shravan Purnima to one and a half months. The cultural spectacle predominantly unfolds in the Udaipur and Rajsamand districts, owing to the district's historical association with the origin of this revered tradition and the significant presence of the tribal Bhil community.

Not just an art form but religious responsibility

Upon the advent of season Bhadva, the Gavari artists embark on a journey performing in 40 plays, leaving their homes and villages behind. Throughout the entire month and a half, they fully immerse themselves in their roles, assuming male performers portraying all the female characters such as Raiyan, Khetu, Ambav, Kalka, Varaju, Kanjari, Gujari, among others. During this time, the artists regard acting as not merely an art form but also a religious and karmic duty, setting aside their familial responsibilities.

Dr. Sri Krishna Jugnu, a distinguished historian of Mewar and an authority on folk festivals, revealed to The Mooknayak, fascinating insights into this ancient folk dance drama. Acting within tribal communities holds ceremonial significance dating back centuries, even before the mention of such periodic character enactments in the works of prominent playwrights like Acharya Bharat and Adibharat, Dhananjaya, Bhojdev, Sharangdev, Someshwar, and others.

A striking aspect of Gavri is the unchanging nature of its characters. The responsibility of portraying a character is hereditary, with the head of the household responsible for the character creation. From youth to old age or until a son assumes the role, the same character remains in the family's care. Notably, the repertoire of characters extends beyond gods, demons, humans, and animals, including six types of characters like khechar and jalchar, surpassing the conventional four types mentioned in Natya Shastra.

The make-up and masks of Gavri artists are very attractive.
The make-up and masks of Gavri artists are very attractive.File pic

Resilient Female Characters

The female characters depicted in Gavri are not merely ordinary; they are resilient and exceptional. In times of crisis, they stand by men with strength and intelligence, akin to goddesses supporting humanity across heaven and earth. Moreover, they exhibit their prowess by wielding weapons, embodying both grace and power.

The commitment demanded by Gavri is formidable. Artists who assume the roles of women in the performance must abstain from returning home, consuming alcohol, and participating in domestic life. Male performers dance to invoke blessings for their daughters, sisters' homes, prosperity, and well-being. The performances also convey prayers for abundant livestock, timely rains, and the continuous prosperity of their sisters' households.

Gavri upholds the importance of respecting daughters, forming an intrinsic part of Mewar's cultural legacy for centuries. According to tradition, the Gavri from a specific village only performs in villages where sisters and daughters from their native village are married. The performance becomes an occasion of celebration and bonding, where all the sisters and daughters come together to witness the Gavari. The host villages generously provide food for the entire Gavari team, and in a heartwarming gesture, the sisters and daughters arrange food in different houses for the Gavari Dal members to avoid any perceived obligations.

In the core of the acts, lies message of nature conservation
In the core of the acts, lies message of nature conservationFile pic

Tales conveying messages of Nature's preservation

At its core, Gavri revolves around the story of Shiva and Parvati, emphasizing the preservation of nature. The performances never go against the principles of environmental conservation. "Badliya Hindwa," one of the most popular acts, emphasizes the significance of saving trees at all costs. This notion finds its roots in ancient beliefs concerning the protection of the environment, which echoes through various scriptures like the Brahmavaivarta Purana, Padma Purana, and agricultural systems such as Krishi Parashar and Kashyapaya farming.

'Badliya Hindwa,' is a captivating tale of nine lakh goddesses journeying from Nagaraja Vasuki Bari to bring trees for the flourishing greenery on earth. Among them, Amba brings mangoes, Nimj brings neem, and Pipalaj goddess presents the peepal tree, each named and celebrated in this captivating performance.

As the ladies plant these trees, they seek an unyielding promise from King Jaisal to safeguard them at any cost. The benevolent king solemnly vows that not a single tree will be felled, even if it meant sacrificing his own life. To test his word, the Goddess incarnates as Varju Kanjari. Meanwhile, Bhaniya Jogi and his disciples arrive from the Abu mountain, intent on destroying the lush greenery, and they persuade the king to cut down a banyan tree.

In an awe-inspiring sequence, the banyan tree responds to the unjust attack with cascading streams—a torrent of milk, a deluge of water, and finally, a stream of blood, causing chaos in the world.

This profound allegory echoes the ancient wisdom of cherishing and preserving the environment, reiterating the timeless lesson that trees should be safeguarded at all costs. Gavri, through 'Badliya Hindwa,' continues to inspire and enlighten audiences with its age-old message of ecological stewardship.

Folk artists enacting a tale during a performance
Folk artists enacting a tale during a performanceFile pic

The Performance and Colorful Spectrum of Characters

The dance drama is performed in a circle in the centre of which a trishul (trident) is planted, the singers stand near the trident and dance. Any open platform of the village becomes the stage. The five main characters are Raiee Budia (representing Shiva and Bhasmasur), the ralees representing, Mohini and Parvati, Kutkadia and Pat Bhopa, all other players are called Khelye. Kutkadia is the 'sutradhar' (narrator) of this play and he relates briefly the story of each play before it begins, thus the audience knows in advance. Trident, dhol, thali and mandal are used for music and the artistically prepared costumes and settings of the actors add to the effect of the play. These costumes are decorated with religious and auspicious mandras like sun, moon, stars, peacock, 'papiha' etc. Faces of human actors are painted with bright colours or masks are used. Black, yellow and red are mainly used. Dark blue colour is used for demons, black for thieves, red for goddesses and yellow for 'jogi sadhus'

The dedication of Gavri artists is exemplary, with the rigorous fast lasting for 40 days, during which they abstain from eating green vegetables and refrain from wearing shoes. They do not bathe during the fasting days, sleep on floor and consume meals only one time a day. Entire villages participate in the elaborate preparation and immersion ceremonies, culminating in jubilant celebrations. The artisans exhibit their skills through dance, postures, acting, statue construction, decoration, music, and conversation, offering a glimpse into their daily lives.

The intricate masks used in Gavri's performances exemplify the artistic brilliance of the Bhils. Each character is adorned with unique makeup, captivating the audience with a mesmerizing display of black, blue, yellow, and red colors.

Gavri, with its timeless legacy, brings communities together to celebrate their culture and heritage. Tribal artists perform the dance drama in August-September, enacting tales from mythology and social episodes inculcating lessons on environment protection, human values, respect for women. "Gavri is played so beautifully that the audience have an out-of-the-world experience. The magical effect of the folk music and dance force the viewers to stay put and watch the entire act until the episode reaches its end " says Kamlesh Sharma, a government officer. As the performances come to an end, the Gavari artists depart with the promise of returning the following year to enchant audiences in yet another village, carrying forward the enduring message of nature conservation and respect for women.

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