Bhubaneswar: It sounds unbelievable but the fact is that the world’s largest open-air theatre, Dhanu Jatra, is held here at home, in the western Odisha town of Bargarh. This is when the legendary Kansa comes to rule the town, which transforms into Mathura for the duration of the festival. This year, it is being held from January 11 to 21.
The premise of the festival is to show the defeat of evil over good. The cultural extravaganza is a visual delight with different episodes being depicted frame by frame, beginning with wedding of Kansa’s sister Devaki with Basudev followed by his accession to throne, dethroning his father Ugrasen and concludes with the death of the demon king at the hands of his nephew Lord Krishna.
The grandeur surrounding the festival can be gauged from the fact that Bargarh Collector Indramani Tripathy recently unveiled its web portal and poster at his office. Interested people from all over the world can watch live telecast of Dhanu Jatra on the portal.
Surprisingly, however, the excitement every year is about who will play the coveted role of Kansa. Bhubaneswar Pradhan, who was picked last year after several rounds of audition, will ascend the Raj Darbar in the demon king attire again this year. He along with were Hrushikesh Bhoi and Gopal Sahu have ruled the make-belief empire with an iron hand for the past three decades.
Gopal Sahu: Among the trio, he is a veteran having played Kansa for 23 years from 1984-1998 and 2001-2008. The loss of the crown and the make-belief kingdom went on to haunt Sahu for long. He preferred to stay indoors and watch the show on television. “Raja thili, praja heli (I was king, now I have been reduced to a mere subject)” is how the sub-inspector of police had summed up his feelings. The organising committee replaced Sahu because of his falling health.
The credit for encouraging him to take up the role goes to his wife. She felt he was apt for the role because of his physique and voice. His nephew played the role of Krishna from 2005 to 2008. For the Dwapara Yuga king’s role, Sahu received Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1994 and the lifetime achievement award from the then chief minister J. B. Patnaik.
Bhubaneswar Pradhan: He was selected in 1999 but did not come up to expectations, so Sahu was brought in again in 2001. He is the owner of an opera party, Samaleswari Gananatya and is a professional artiste. He hopes to make up for the lost opportunity this time.
Hrusikesh Bhoi: He came through an open interview in 2009 and had been playing the role till last year. An ambulance driver by profession, he almost lost the coveted crown by appearing as King Kansa at Dharmasala Mahotsav in Jajpur district in 2016, violating tradition, which restricts a person from playing the character on any other platform in the Kansa attire.
The Artiste Advisory Committee, however, pardoned him after he gave in writing that he would not repeat the mistake.
Dhanu Jatra is said to have begun either in the 16th century or the 18th century. Bundi Ratha (originally Bunde Ratha) of Deogaon was the first Kansa. He played the role of the tyrant king of Mathura for two consecutive years. Bhimsen Tripathy succeeded him in the third year of Dhanu Jatra. From 1957 to 1980, Yudhistir Satpathy was the Kansa, minus 1973 when Radheshyam Dash donned the attire. Debendra Biswal replaced Satpathy in 1981 and the following years saw Nilanchal Dash of Sohela playing Kasan before Sahu begun his long innings.