Let Simplicity & Hearty Humour Be Odisha’s Valuable Export

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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 and Khallikote Maharaja were on a riling spree because one was a little late to the meeting, “So what was the big work, which kept you occupied on the road?”

The other said, “When you like Biswa Rath’s “Jibana ta dukha, Sansara ta mohmaya.” (By the way, Biswa is now a famous stand-up comedian of India, young, qualified and from Odisha). His opening line quite explains the ever-proud display of glumness on everyone’s look and voice in Odisha.

Not only Odisha but across the country. Often, being sad is your gateway to happiness because in my section in the Secretariat, I would have no envy crossing my path. That look of despondency and the drag in my feet, every morning and evening, was my passport to a state ‘untouched by unwanted jealousy’.

A telephone call must be attended with a gloomy ‘hello’, 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. 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 to 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. He 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 dubbing 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 broken 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 honestly forthright in his stand up comedy and its time he expands his portfolio or 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 story telling, visually attractive and retainable. But the writings and the cartoons were almost always political satires. 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 40s, 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 pint-sized cartoon. ‘Gaan Majlis’ was extremely popular, 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.

It is common belief that Faturananda (real name Rāmachandra Mishra) was the first dedicated and professional Odia satirist, writer and humorist. 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.” 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 Jagannath benediction and on the other,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. But I am quashed in between. Sandwiched. How do you think I can retain my sense of humour? Humour is God’s blessing to a few 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. Because someone has said that , “humour is the weapon of unarmed people: it helps people who are oppressed to smile at the situation that pains them.”

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 well being of the state. But probably someone told me that I would be taken more seriously if I am ‘smug’ faced. And now I have to be nostalgic to remember my smile, which is buried since decades.

Let me wake up, let me rekindle myself and my humour. I can laugh at myself and the rest follows. Let simplicity and hearty humour be Odisha’s valuable export. At least for the next generation, let me pledge on Odisha Dibas to laugh from within.

“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

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