The recent debates over performing the Hojagiri dance have caused a stir on social media and among the members of the Reang tribe, with school-going students being at the receiving end of it. Adivasi Awaaz creator Anuprava Debbarma, looks at different angles of this debate in the following article.
Recently, an online war broke out among the Reang tribe of Tripura. The much-heated debate was over a dance known as the Hojagiri dance of the Reang tribe. It is a famous dance form. On 23rd September 2022, a group of students were performing the Hojagiri dance in an inter-school competition. What was unusual about this dance was that it included male dancers. Traditionally, only female dancers take part in the Hojagiri dance, and the males work behind the scenes for the dance. This depiction of male dancers dancing alongside the female dancers sparked off a heated online debate among the people of the tribe, with some people supporting it while a few others viewing it as a ‘distortion’ of their culture.
Before delving into the debate let us first learn about the Hojagiri dance – its importance and significance in the Reang culture.
Hojagiri dance is the traditional folk dance of the Reang tribe. It is performed by young girls and women, balancing various props. Traditionally, the male members do not participate in the dance, however, they participate in singing, playing the flute (Kshumu/ Sumui), cymbals and drum (Khaam). The props used by the women include burning bottle lamps, plates, handkerchiefs, a gola (Tripuri aluminium/ steel pot used for storing/ carrying water) and a baailing (a large Tripuri handwoven bamboo plate used for winnowing rice and for various other purposes). Each performer has her own props. The women balance themselves on the gola and dance to the tunes of the flute, while balancing other props like lamps, plates, etc. Apart from these difficult balancing acts, the dance also requires the performers to perform difficult poses. The dance is extremely difficult to execute, but the women of the tribe seem to perform it with much ease and perfection. The dance is performed on the day of Hojagiri (Laxmi Puja) and various other special occasions/events of the Reang tribe.
Folk dances, like any other performing arts, are a part of our culture and important for our tribes or communities. It is a way through which people of that particular community or tribe keep their culture alive, share it and pass it on to their younger generations. Folk dances are a form of intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is a practice, representation, expression, knowledge, or skill which is a part of a place's/ community’s cultural heritage (UNESCO). The Hojagiri dance is among the intangible cultural heritages of the Reang tribe. It is one of the most famous folk dances of not only Tripura but also India. It has gained national as well as international recognition.
The debate started with the video of a group of students performing Hojagiri, going viral on social media. Apart from female dancers, the performance also included male dancers. As soon as the video went viral on social media, some people started applauding the performers, commending them for their innovation and creativity. They were happy to see the male performers perform alongside the females for a change. Instead of being behind the scenes, for the first time, the male members also took part in dancing along with women. This section of people was appreciating the performers for showcasing the Bru (Reang) culture with a ‘twist’.
On the other hand, there was another section of people who took great offence at the performance. They were unhappy with the fact that the performers instead of showcasing the true form of dance, introduced male dancers along with the female dancers. They accused the performers of trying to distort their Bru culture. They argued that this dance is a part of their identity, and it is a ‘misrepresentation’ to showcase the dance with men, unlike its true form. They also argued that there was no space for any ‘twist’ or ‘fusion’ as it was their traditional dance form. Online hate started pouring in, for the performers, criticising them for this act and accusing them of trying to change the ‘true’ form of this dance.
In response to these accusations, the supporters of the performance argued that the dance was just meant for entertainment purposes and not to offend anyone. It had no intention of replacing or ‘distorting’ the true nature of the dance. They stated that no one could change the original form of the dance and the original form would always remain the only identity of the Reang people.
The students who participated in the dance performance stated that the dance was performed not only by the Reang tribe members but also by students belonging to other tribes. Their intent was not to offend anyone but to entertain people through something unusual and innovative. Hence, they performed Hojagiri with a twist. They also clarified that they did not mean to change the original form and content of the dance. It was purely executed for entertainment purposes while participating in a competition. The students of the various tribes came together to represent the Bru (Reang) culture through a novel idea.
Hence, the question is, was this act justified? Did this performance really try to ‘distort’ or ‘replace’ the original dance form?
The answer is complex. While one should be mindful when representing a culture or an art form of any culture, we as viewers should also be responsible enough to understand the intent of the performers. Constructive criticism is always a part of a healthy debate but online trolling and publicly shaming are not healthy ways of voicing our opinions. It should be noted here that the performers were school-going students of classes 9 to 12, who indented on showcasing Hojagiri from a different perspective. Also, the answer to the question is very subjective. It can vary from one individual to another. It depends on how we view the situation. Some might view it as an innovative and new idea, while some can be offended by the fact that it included male dancers, unlike the traditional practice. Yet, to troll students and publicly shame them is not a correct way of approaching the problem. We as viewers and audiences need to be more sensitive, understanding, mindful and tolerant; and try to view things from a broader perspective.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.