Assamese culture embraces various performing arts and Ojapali is one among them. This is a traditional art form and is considered to be one of the oldest. Though perceived in the districts of Kamrup, Nalbari etc. in Lower Assam, it is but most popular in the district of Darrang. Ojapali showcases a combined performance of narrative singing, dancing gestures and dramatic dialogues.
Generally performed by a group of five men, the name ‘Ojapali’ comes from the words ‘oja’ and ‘pali’. The lead artiste is known as ‘Oja’ and he is accompanied by assistant artistes known as ‘Palis’. The chief among the Palis is the ‘Daina-pali’ or the right-hand aide, who makes the theme further interesting by his humorous dialogues. A small pair of cymbals called the ‘Khutitaal’ is the sole instrument used during the performance.
The performers of Ojapali render two types of songs called ‘malanci geet’ and ‘jagar’. The songs are sung in Sanskrit. They also sing ‘Patsha Geet’, a type of mixed song, which was composed during the Muslim reign. Besides singing, Oja, the chief performer, maintains the rhythm with his feet. Simultaneously, he explains the theme with suitable body movements and facial expressions. The costume worn by the performers are white gowns with long sleeves. They also wear various jewelry and ‘nupur’ on their feet.
Ojapali can be categorized into two major forms – Byah Ojapali and Sukananni Ojapali, based on their style of performance. Byah Ojapali performers are also known as ‘Vyah-gowa’ or singers of Vyasa’s works, as they primarily focus on the great epics. On the other hand, Sukananni Ojapali performers are known as ‘Maroi-gowa’ or singers of Maroi Puja. These performers sing songs of the snake-goddess Manasa Devi, composed by Sukavi Narayana Dev, an ancient Assamese poet.
Ramayana and Mahabharata are the dominant subjects of Byah Ojapali. The stories are sung in pure classical style based on various ragas, with dancing movements made by hands and fingers known as ‘mudras’. To entertain the crowd and make them understand, amusing dialogues with explanations are presented during the performance.
The heart-rending tale of Behula and Lakhindar from the Padma Purana is presented by the performers of Sukananni Ojapali. This art form is usually performed during Manasa Puja, to worship the Deity of serpents. The entertainers start their performance by singing songs in praise of several Gods and Goddesses before going on to the story divided into three parts namely, Deva Khanda, Baniya Khanda and Bhatiyali Khanda.
Another form of Ojapali known as Ramayani Ojapali is gradually declining. In this art form, stories from the Ramayana are presented. According to records in history, Barbyahu and Sarubyahu, two talented artistes of the Koch kingdom, were summoned by the kings time and again to sing numerous mythological verses and subsequently, their style of performance became prevalent among the masses. However, some other reports relate Ojapali to the pre-Vaishnavite period.
[Published in the blog ‘North-East India’ on 16 March 2012]