Smile please…on Odisha Dibas (A beam on 1st April won’t hurt)

Utkal Divas Greetings card made by Prachee Naik

By Charudutta Panigrahi
There was always humour, comedy and a certain cheekiness in public life in Odisha. I have heard that in one of the meetings of Utkal Sammilani in the early days, Lingaraj Panigrahi addressed the gathering as ତମେ and when asked about it indicating possible irreverence, his quick repartee was that ‘‘ତମେ’କହିବାଟା ଗଂଜାମ ଲୋକଙ୍କ ଅଭ୍ୟାସ. There was no rancour in anyone and it lightened the meeting with fits of laughter. Riling was common in public life and that made us more confident and well knit.

We fondly remember prominent personalities who had enviable ready wit and terrific sense of humour – Biju babu, Harihar Das, Akshaya Mohanty, Duti Krushna Panda, Habibulla Khan, Bhagwan Pratihari, Kalicharan Patnaik and many more. They added colour to Odia life. Humour unites and anodyne humour cements. Since 1936, we have reasons enough to be jocular, light hearted and playful.

I like Biswa Rath’s “Jibana ta dukha, Sansara ta mohmaya.” (By the way, Biswa is now a famous standup comedian of India, young, qualified and from Odisha). His opening line quite explains the ever proud display of glum on everyone’s look and voice in Odisha. Not only Odisha but across the country. Display of sadness helps me avoid jealousy at work place. Many people believe this. That look of despondency and the drag in my feet, every morning and evening, is my passport to a state ‘untouched by unwanted jealousy’. A telephone call must be attended with a gloomy ‘hallo’, so that the caller doesn’t know that I’m happy. I can’t be happy. If I laugh boisterously, then “there is some chicanery I
have committed to have gained something, to have been in a happy mood to have been laughing heartily on the phone, uff.” So much to hide my simple happiness. I am scared to demonstrate that I am happy or can be happy. A happiness, wanton and free spirited. Downcast is celebrated. Only depression, khali dukkha. There is a lurking hypocrisy in this dukkha – I want to show myself sad, when I am not. But I must create that despondency around me. Only then I am immuned from my peers, Why? Am I a prisoner of my own timidity?

Even before the advent of Orissa Theatre in 1942, promoted by the venerable Kali Charan Patnaik, a witty sense of humour had pervaded everyday life in Odisha. Probably because the mood in the society was less ‘crabby’. We were happy in the happiness of others. Crony nepotism or usurping of public wealth was less rampant. There was a bonding and belongingness which gave confidence in people to smile at themselves, at others and at situations. Humour knew no class divide. Though a bit forced and sometimes trite, stand up comedians have now ushered in the irreverence required to make humour unbridled. But cuss words and only f*uck or {BCs} and {MCs} don’t make humour. They are
shockers and can provide the initial draws.

Brilliant plays like Girls’ School in 1942, Chumban i.e. ‘Kiss’ in 1942, Bhata i.e. ‘Rice’ in 1944, and Mulia i.e. ‘Labourer’ in 1946 had oodles of comedy. Pure comedy and not slapstick. Tima of Annapurna theatre, Radha Panda in Odia films were brilliant with no fake accent or intonations and were spontaneous. Jayi or Jayiram Samal, made comedy simple and brought it to the masses. And dropped his guard with superb comic timing in films. Since 1975 he has been prolific even though in the nineties humour in Odia films suffered due to ‘insensitive’ copies and dubbings from South films. Papu Pom Pom is natural talent, inventive and has an uncanny sense of timing. He and Jeevan panda have given Odia diction a new-found acceptance and identity. Odia diction in Odisha is pathetic. But a director once told me that twisted Odia accent is popular among the masses. Is it? “But people would consume what you give them”, I said, almost dejected. Mamina or Jyotsna Satpathy and Sadhana Parija or Comedy queen Runu deserve special felicitation because they have successfully break the glass ceiling and taken up comedy amongst an audience which has not necessarily been expecting ‘original’ work and that too from female comedians. Not limited to only theatre or films, humour has windows in
various formats. Kuna Tripathy is forthright in his stand-up comedy and it’s time he expands his portfolio and variety.
Cartoonist brothers Aswini and Abani Rath of Bolangir, the celebrated duo who are now acknowledged by Limca Book of Records, have certainly added colour to everyday life in Odisha with their punches, though not always funny in their cartoons. But there could be various forms of bringing in humour to Odisha lives. Niankhunta, a tabloid of satire published cartoons prolifically since 1938 and used cartoons to make caustic storytelling, visually attractive and retainable. But the writings and the cartoons were almost always political satires. But there was nothing much beyond politics. It contributed a lot to make politics, the centre of Odia chit chats and bantering in social life. During the
40’s, Omkar Nath Panigrahi of Bolangir came out with brilliant cartoons and quite burlesque too. Dr Mahtab edited Prajatantra, and his political satire called ‘Gaan Majlis’ was a regular mirror in the paper which summed up life in a pintsized cartoon. ‘Gaan Majlis’ was extremely popular, was cerebral and much ahead of its times. It represented the hopes, aspirations, troubles and joys of the average  Odia, through a daily comic strip in Prajatantra paper, a state-based presentation, akin to the Common Man of Laxman. But now it has been discontinued. Memes in whatsap or other social media are a big
hit world -wide. Why can’t cartoons regain their lost glory? But that’s a different topic to discuss about.

It is common belief that Faturananda (real name Rāmachandra Mishra) was the first full time, professional Odia satirist, writer and humourist. His early life was not easy, and he could afford to be funny even in the teeth of adversities. That’s the inertness of humour to material worth and its great power. Humour is power.

All the above mentioned refer to performances in humour – films, theatres, writings, poems, publications etc, but what about the innate sense of humour in Odias? Somebody has aptly said that “the only way to survive is to have a sense of humour.” The Ancient Greeks also told jokes. There were ‘joke-groups’ who met to trade and test their wit, like the group of 60 who met in the Temple of Heracles in Athens in the 4th century BC. The khatis in Odisha were great congregations for exchange of humour – of all kinds, from plain college bantering to poetry readings to sharing of anecdotes or film critiques and the like. A variety of hilarious indulgences but without any caveats. Till the eighties,
the social life in tier I or II towns of Odisha had minimal social tensions. Relaxed, people were relatively much calmer. Was it because they were less ambitious? Or they were less insecure?
On one hand I pride myself to be the inheritor of the Jagganath benediction and on the other hand I am increasingly becoming insecure and volatile. If I submit to the Supreme, I need not worry about my welfare and if I am not under pressure, then I should be free to be having an authentic smile on my countenance. I flaunt my piety and yet run scared in life. Am I not quashed in between.
Sandwiched. How do you think I can cultivate or retain my sense of humour? Humour is God’s blessing to a few fortunate and truly ‘independent’ souls, people who have the openness to laugh at themselves, speak without hang-ups and live without guile. If I am out to please others, I can’t have much of ‘unadulterated’ comedy in life. Differently, if Odisha is beset with poverty, disasters and setbacks then humour should be the sanitiser or the arbitrator. Because someone has said that, “humouris the weapon of unarmed people: it helps people who are oppressed to smile at the situation that pains them.”
I remember distinctly that till the eighties we made lively and daring political jokes, imitated the politicians of the day and used exaggeration and caricature to pass comment on the social and political wellbeing of the state. But probably someone told me that I would be taken more seriously if I am ‘smug’ faced. And I have locked my humour, somewhere away. And now I have force myself to get nostalgic to remember my ‘smile’ which is buried since decades. A pity.
Let me wake up, let me rekindle myself and my unbridled humour. If I can laugh at myself, all the rest would follow. Let simplicity and hearty humour be Odisha’s valuable export. At least for the next eneration, let me pledge, this Odisha Dibas, to laugh from within.
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
ହସିଦେ ଯାଉ ଲୋ ଦୁଃଖ, ମାଣିକ! ଆଲୋ ମାଣିକ
Charudutta Panigrahi
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