Mukund learned at the Dancing Ground, he taught at the Dancing Ground, and he probably brought more Dancing Grounds back to life than anyone else. Where he is from, there is a rhyme, about his village of Khasi and two others, Lohra and Gohrite:
Jaha basain teen jait
Baja bajay teen rite
Khasi Lora Gorite.
Where the three communities live together
Musical instruments are played day and night
Khasi, Lhora, Gorite.
Now, Mukund lives far away from his village, in the Chutthea section of Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand. He was the first to leave his village for a different life. Just past the Garmin Bank, turn right down a small lane, then left down another alley, past flowing sewage and piles of trash and families sitting on their apartment stoops, wrap around to the right and when you reach the turquoise walls and buildings, you’re there, at Mukund’s house, the new Dancing Ground.
Seated, from left: Lalu Shankar, Mukund Nayak, myself, and Suda Masin
I first arrived in the cool of night, riding on the back of Mukund’s motorcycle, and we started almost immediately. Mats were unrolled, drums dragged in, and the harmonium opened from its wooden box. First came the introductions to what Mukund called his Music Family—the experienced students of dance, drumming, and singing who lead his performance ensemble—and then they sang me a Welcome Song, with drums cracking like thunder and a singing voice that explodes off the tongue.
When Mukund started his work over thirty years ago, students, teachers, and performance troupes didn’t exist. People learned through observation and practice, and performances were woven into each village’s life. But, organized performances were unheard of. Mukund started from the ground up, going person to person and village to village, seeking performers and musicians and dancers, anyone who would help him build a professional culture of performance beyond what had always happened organically.
It is easy to imagine what attracted people to Mukund. His energy, his hearty laugh and genial demeanor, his skills on multiple drums and as a singer, and his work ethic. One evening, after a long day of work and study, we sat outside his house, and Mukund spoke heatedly with a few artists, debating whether to track down a musician Mukund wanted me to study with. At one point, he turned to me and yelled, “I want to work!”
We worked that night, just like, I imagine, people have been working for him for years. Mukund’s son Nandlal says that, “People know his name, are inspired, and come to join him. They come to help his vision and his music.” In 1985, he started Kunjban, his performance troupe, and since then Mukund’s house has become a focal point for arts. What he is doing, I think, is taking village traditions to a new level. According to Jharkhand’s village elders, each village has a place called the akhra, the Dancing Ground, where music and dance are performed and from where, according to legend, those arts emerged. These are arts of the soil, and Mukund has taken them to new heights. He himself has become a Dancing Ground, a source of energy and inspiration, a place which emanates art.
Mukund Nayak, in front of the crowd at the Mela festival.
A day before I left Ranchi, I went with Mukund and a few students to the Mela, an annual festival that attracts over 10,000 people from all over Jharkhand and beyond. Mukund led us, walking through the crowded masses, to a stage with over a dozen drummers, instrumentalists, and singers. We followed Mukund onto the stage, and while I took a seat with the students at the back of the stage, looking out over thousands of people, one of the singers handed a microphone to Mukund. He greeted the crowd, introduced the song, then unleashed a melody that rose from his throat in passionate celebration. That is how I picture him: performing his music with thousands of his people dancing, cheering, and singing along.