Humour and a bit of cheekiness were always part of public life in Odisha. At a meeting of the Utkal Sammilani in the early days, Lingaraj Panigrahi had once addressed the gathering as “ତମେ (tomey, a less revered way of addressing somebody, as opposed to apono, which is akin tothee)”. When the possible irreverence was pointed out , his quick repartee was that “ତମେ’ କହିବାଟା ଗଂଜାମ ଲୋକଙ୍କ ଅଭ୍ୟାସ (tomey kahibaata Ganjam lokonko abhyas, meaning, it is in the habit of Ganjam residents to say tomey).
There was no rancour, it only lightened the atmosphere, triggering 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 a terrific sense of humour, like 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 had enough reasons to be jocular, light-hearted and playful.
I like Biswa Rath’s “Jibana Ta Dukha, Sansara Ta Mohmaya (Life is sadness and the cycle of life and death is an illusion).”
His opening lines quite explain the ever-proud display of glum on everyone’s face and voice in Odisha. Not only in Odisha but across the country.
By the way, Biswa is now a famous stand-up comedian.
Many people believe that a display of sadness helps one avoid jealousy at the workplace. That look of despondency and dragging of feet, every morning and evening, is one’s passport to a state of being “untouched by unwanted jealousy”.
A telephone call must, thus, 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 just hide simple happiness. I am scared to demonstrate that I am happy or can be happy. Downcast is celebrated. Only depression, khali dukkha.
There is a lurking hypocrisy in this dukkha – I want to show myself as sad, when actually I am not. But I must create that despondency around me. Only then am I immune 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 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 sense of belonging, which gave people the confidence 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. Cuss words sure don’t make for humour. They are shockers and can provide the initial draws.
Brilliant plays like Girls’ School in 1942, Chumban (meaning kiss) in 1942, Bhata (rice) in 1944 and Mulia (labourer) in 1946 had oodles of comedy, pure and not slapstick.
Tima of Annapurna theatre, Radha Panda in Odia films were brilliant with no fake accent or intonations. Jayi or Jayiram Samal made comedy simple and took it to the masses. Since 1975, he has been prolific even though in the nineties humour in Odia films suffered because of “insensitive” copies and dubbing from other movies.
Papu Pom Pom is a natural talent, inventive and with 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 mention because they have successfully broken the glass ceiling and taken comedy to an audience which has not necessarily expecting “original” work and that too from women 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 Balangir, now acknowledged by Limca Book of Records, have certainly added colour to everyday life in Odisha with their punchlines, though they are not always funny in their cartoons.
But there could be various forms of bringing in humour to Odia lives.
Niankhunta, a satirical tabloid, published cartoons prolifically since 1938 and used cartoons to make caustic storytelling visually attractive and retainable. But the writings and cartoons were almost always political satires. There was nothing beyond politics.
It contributed a lot to make politics the centre of Odia chit chats and bantering in social life. During the 1940s, Omkar Nath Panigrahi of Balangir came out with brilliant cartoons, quite burlesque too.
Dr Mahtab edited Prajatantra and his political satire ‘Gaan Majlis’ summed up life in just 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, a state-based presentation, akin to the Common Man of Laxman.
But it has now been discontinued. Memes on WhatsApp or other social media are now a big hit worldwide. 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 humorist. His early life was not easy, but 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 those mentioned above presented humour in 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” that 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 khattis 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 likes. 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 less insecure?
On the one hand I pride myself in being 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, “humour is 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 comments on the social and political well-being of the state.
But probably someone told me that I would be taken more seriously if I was “smug-faced”. And I have locked my humour away somewhere. 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 generation, let me pledge now, to laugh from within.
“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”
ଅଳପ ହସିଦେ ଯାଉ ଲୋ ଦୁଃଖ, ମାଣିକ! ଆଲୋ ଆଲୋ ମାଣିକ (Alpa haside jau lo dukho, Manika! Aalo aalo Manika)
(The author writes about planning and policies)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and don’t necessarily reflect those of the website)