Masked revelry

Chhau is a traditional dance form prevalent in eastern India, especially in the tribal belt of the provinces of Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. It may have been derived from Sanskrit word Chāya (shadow, image or mask). Others link it to the Sanskrit root Chadma (or disguise), yet others such as Sitakant Mahapatra suggest it to be derived from Chhauni (military camp, armor, stealth) in Odia language. There are three distinct forms of Chhau, named after the location where they are performed:

(i) Seraikela Chhau of Jharkhand

(ii) Mayurbhanj Chhau of Orissa

(iii) Purulia Chhau of West Bengal

While in the region of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha, the dance is performed during the spring festival of Chaitra Parva , the Purulia Chhau dance is celebrated during the Sun festival. Irrespective of the origin, masks are an integral part of the dances of Seraikela and Purulia. The Chhau dance found in northern Odisha, does not use mask during the dance, but they do when the artists first appear on the stage for introduction to the audience.

The Purulia Chhau Dance draws inspiration from martial arts and combative training and portray stories to the audience, As such, elaborate masks and headgear associated with battle and war are worn during the performance. The story itself revolves around the two great epics of Indian Mythology – Ramayana and Mahabharata. Over a century old, this dance form was widely endorsed by patrons belonging to the royal families, rich landlords and British governors in the West Bengal region. The performances are predominantly put up during the Gajan Festival, which takes place to honor Lord Shiva. Interesting fact, Purulia Chhau Dance is listed on UNESCO’s world heritage list of dances.

The knowledge of dance, music and mask-making is transmitted orally. It is performed by male dancers adopting indigenous forms of dance and martial practices such as Khel (mock combat techniques), chalis and topkas (stylized gaits of birds and animals) and uflis (movements modelled on the daily chores of a village housewife). The dancers perform a repertoire that explores a variety of subjects: local legends, folklore and episodes from the epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and abstract themes. As their faces are covered by masks, dancers must emote and express through body language. The dancers mainly come from communities known as Mundas, Mahatos, Kalindis, Pattnaiks, Samals, Darogas, Mohantys, Acharyas, Bhols, Kars, Dubeys, and Sahoos. Musicians are from the communities known as Mukhis, Kalindis, Ghadheis, Dhada. They are also involved in the making of the instruments. Communities of traditional painters known as Maharanas, Mohapatras, Sutradhars are involved in the making of these masks.

The style and variety of the costume of the dancers largely depends on the characters being portrayed by them. Usually, there are three types of characters – Gods and Goddesses, Demons and Monsters. When depicting Gods and Goddesses, the color red is a prominent aspect of the clothing, as is elaborate costume jewelry around the neck and the headgear. Demons, while also elaborately dressed, are most likely to have different colored faces, for example, a blue face. For monsters and animals, suits made to depict an animal or monster along with appropriate masks are worn.

Disclaimer: I met the artists during the Khajuraho Dance Festival of 2017. Being a fellow Bengali, it was very interesting to build a rapport to learn more about this dance form from my state. You can also read up on the Khajuraho special of why it is more than a temple of sex!

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

West Bengal

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