In the tarpa, the Warli, Malhar Koli and Bhil tribes find a reflection of — and way to celebrate — their natural environments

Warlis, Malhar Kolis and on occasion, the Bhil tribes of Maharashtra, usher in bountiful harvests, festivals and marriages by dancing to the high-pitched tunes of a tarpa.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe October 30, 2019 09:40:34 IST
In the tarpa, the Warli, Malhar Koli and Bhil tribes find a reflection of — and way to celebrate — their natural environments
  • Warlis, Malhar Kolis and on occasion, the Bhil tribes of Maharashtra, usher in bountiful harvests, festivals and marriages by dancing to the high-pitched tunes of a tarpa.

  • Performed by both men and women from the tribal communities, the folk dance is named after the wind instrument, known simply as tarpa nritya.

  • Comparable to a Scottish reel, an eightsome or a Dashing White Sergeant, tarpa is like a country-dance that is seldom taught and often just observed, as it is passed on from generation to generation.

Editor's note: This article is the first in a five-part series documenting the folk dances of Maharashtra. Read more from the series here.

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On an auspicious night, under a shimmering moon and amidst the glow of many lamps, dark shadows fall against the fractured walls of small cottages. Hand in hand, these silhouettes move in a circle along the narrow lanes of a village, hopping forward and backward to the music emanating from a severely nasal-sounding instrument.

Warlis, Malhar Kolis and on occasion, the Bhil tribes of Maharashtra, thus usher in bountiful harvests, festivals and marriages by dancing to the high-pitched tunes of a tarpa. Performed by both men and women from the tribal communities, the folk dance is named after the wind instrument — known simply as tarpa nritya.

Celebrated among most indigenous cultures as the king of folk dances, tarpa is the primary entertainment at social gatherings in the settlements of the Warli and Kokni tribes along the coastal strip of the Palghar district (around 200 km away from Mumbai), and for a few communities along the Satpura hills, as well as certain regions in the union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Comparable to a Scottish reel, an eightsome or a Dashing White Sergeant, tarpa is like a country-dance that is seldom taught and often just observed, as it is passed on from generation to generation. It is free-flowing and minimally choreographed, yet coordinated and synchronised.

In the tarpa the Warli Malhar Koli and Bhil tribes find a reflection of  and way to celebrate  their natural environments

Illustration by Rini Joseph/ Firstpost

Earlier paintings of the Warli community depict men and women banded together in a helix, symbolic of the eternal circle of life, with the tarpakar playing the instrument in their midst while today, every other Warli tote bag and embroidered fabric carries the imprint of this age-old folk art.

For small clusters of agrarian communities and forest dwellers, it is a wordless expression of happiness and fulfilment. They rely on the tarpakar — who stands at the centre of a clearing with the performers around him — for the music, and on the udvya (or the leader of the group) for indicating a change in formation or a variation in the footwork.

“The tarpa as a loknritya (folk dance) pulls together each and every person of the community as opposed to a choreographed act performed by a select few. This enhances the sentiment of unity and togetherness,” observes Vaishnavi Nimbalkar, a classical and folk dancer and performer.

The dance is usually performed with men and women standing alternately. Women hold each other’s hands (skipping the man between them), and the men do the same. The performers then rest their hands at the back of the person in between, near the waist, and effectively lock the circle.

The tarpakar introduces the first musical strains, a sound akin to a bagpipe, and the dance begins. Starting with slow, droning intonations of the same note, the performers warm up with a simple footwork — two steps forward and one step back.

Tarpa comprises a range of footwork patterns; hand gestures — or what are known in classical dance as mudras — are rare. Intertwined dancers sway as one in a human chain, bound neither by the necessity to orchestrate a precise choreography nor to narrate a story.

Instead, the dance reflects their natural surroundings in ways both obvious and less so. For instance, in the form of the tarpa known as bhat bhalanyacha nach, the participants stand in an arc, keeping their right foot in front and move forwards, backwards and sideways, resembling the paddy crops swaying in a breeze. During the gunjavayacha nach, they bend at the knees and imitate the act of picking leaves and twigs off the ground and putting them on their heads. In the lahuricha nach, they stand in a line, holding the waist of the dancer in front and move along a zigzag pattern — imitating the movement of the lahuri or grey francolin.

Every foot pattern has its own tune and more and more variations are introduced as the speed picks up. Participants also from a circle that revolves around the tarpakar, hopping a few steps within the circle and a couple of steps back, gradually inching closer to him.

A little way into the performance, the tarpakar gradually increases the laya (speed) through a uniform rhythm pattern. Two bamboo pipes covered in palm leaves and joined to a dried bottlegourd with honeybee wax produce music in this instrument. Three flute-like holes in one of the pipes maintain a constant note, while the other has six that can be manipulated.

To an untrained ear, the music would sound more or less monotonous, for on a tarpa, much like the bagpipe, the same note cannot be repeated in succession and there are no pauses between two consecutive notes. However, every foot pattern has its own distinct tune.

According to Nimbalkar, sometimes performers shout directions at each other, even as the change in the note of the tarpa cues a change in the footwork, in order to coordinate movements and avoid clumsy entanglements that could break the flow of the entire chain.

During the performance, the tarpakar may take the music towards a slower rhythm, and then shift rapidly to a faster beat, again and again, for tarpa is not restricted by the stringent rules of laya and taal that govern several dance forms. It is as vigourous as the dancers.

Through a number of such sets and ups and downs in the tempo, the dancers execute spontaneous variations in the footwork without missing a step and when the music slows they come to a steady halt. They continue stepping forward and then back in the same position until the pace picks up. And the dance begins again.

The performers infuse many variations in the chain, sometimes drawing the figure eight around the tarpakar, at others moving like a train, or alternately throwing up a leg in the air as they move sideways. The performance carries on for as long as the dancers and the tarpakar keep the act going.

In customary folk culture, while the Warli, Kokni, Bhil tribes wear jewellery and drape textiles to assume the character of a deity, animal or a natural element, for tarpa recitals, they do not have a prescribed costume.

Women dress in the customary nine-yard saree, Nimbalkar notes, yet there are subtle differences in draping the fabric. (The traditional Maharashtrian method involves donning the padar first while the tribal women drape it at the end. So also, the nirya — the fan that stretches from the waist down to the feet in the front — are usually left-facing but face the right when draped thus.)

Women wear an anklet on the left foot as an accompaniment while men accessorise with a toda (a heavy metallic anklet) on one leg and a string of 25 ghungroos in the other, just enough to produce soft tinkling sounds. Seasonal flora makes for garlands for women woven through their braids while the men’s headgear is a small cap.

Long before there was language, the only way of expressing delight, sorrow and desire was gesticulation. Tarpa is singular in that it does not resort to lyrics, rather the harsh tonality of the instrument and the dynamic movement of the performers alone creates the vitality of the dance. Traditionally performed on moonlit nights, tarpa pulls the audience and the performers into a trance, a spell cast by harmony and unbridled joy.

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