Chhau, a form of tribal martial dance of India, is believed to have originated in the former princely state of Mayurbhanj. Today, three variations of the dance are performed in eastern India – Seraikella Chhau in Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj Chhau in Orissa, and Purulia Chhau in West Bengal. All the dances are performed with masks. However the masks, style and accompanying music of each form is noticeably different.
Purulia is the westernmost district of West Bengal. Its location is a funnel for the monsoon current from the Bay of Bengal to the north western parts of India – it also forms a corridor between the hinterlands in Orissa, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, and the developed industrial belts of West Bengal. The present district came into existence only in 1956 and unavailability of proper historical documents makes it difficult to determine the origin and antiquity of the Chhau dance form. In the past, parts of eastern India was inhabited by the so called ‘hostile tribes’. However, it is believed that during 12 to 14 AD few Hindu rulers established control over small pockets in the region. It was perhaps under their influence that Chhau became a part of the tribal life. In the recent past the Bagmundi ruler patronised the dance form. The diminishing royal support, unproductive land and ever failing rains forced the performers to migrate to nearby urban areas in search of a living.
There are three different views regarding the nomenclature of this form. The oldest theory suggests that the word ‘Chhau’ originated from the Sanskrit chaya (shadow). The second opines that the word is derived from the local dialect meaning ‘an army camp’. While the third believes that the origin of the word may be rooted in the enthusiastic shout ‘cho… cho… cho’; often echoed during hunts.
Chhau in West Bengal has a distinctive character of its own. Though it has not changed much in spirit from its hunting or warfare origins due to lack of sustained patronage, its outer form has been altered to an extent. In fact the Purulia Chhau is almost an antithesis of the sophisticated and stylised Seraikella form.
Brief and simple rituals precede the performances usually conducted before a Shiva temple or in the village square. Basically, a ritual dance, Chhau was performed on the occasion of the sun festival observed at the end of the month of Chaitra (mid April) as per the Bengali calendar. With time Chhau has become an integral part of other festivals too. It also provides an opportunity for groups of young people to pursue it as a profession. There are many renowned Chhau dancers in Purulia like late Gambhir Sing Mura and Nepal Chandra Mahato; both were Padmashree awardees.
No dais or raised platform is constructed for Chhau. Spectators crowd around in a circle and enjoy the unfolding story squatting on the bare ground. The dance usually starts as darkness falls and continues till dawn. The reverberating drum is an important part of the performance. With the rumble and a thunderous invocation to Lord Ganesha, the dance begins. As the invocation fades out, musicians builds up the crescendo with the dhol and the dhamsa (both percussion instruments). The flute-like marui holds the notes and the melody of the rendition. In Purulia Chhau the chief drummer sings the introductory song or renders rhythmic passages during the performance, unlike the Seraikella Chhau. As opposed to the godly hero a demon engages in vigorous somersaults at the entre to make the distinction between the unbridled and the stoic. The stories selected for the dance are usually based on episodes of the Hindu mythological epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Sometimes episodes from Puranas are also used. Two rasas, emotions, dominate the performance, i.e., vira, power and rudra, strength. The victory of good over the evil is the central theme of most of the dances – ‘Mahisaur Badha’, ‘Mahiraban Badha’, ‘Kiratarjun’, ‘Abhimanyu Badha’, ‘Bokasur Badha’. No woman participate in Chhau, men perform the female roles with élan.
Opposed to yesteryears where the ornate mask stood juxtaposed against a plain apparel, Chhau costumes used today are colourful and flamboyantly designed. The pyjamas worn by the artists playing gods are deep green, yellow or red, while those of the asuras, demons, are dark or black and loose. Sometimes, stripes of contrasting colours are used to make the costumes more attractive and different. Goddess Kali, a popular Chhau character, sports a pitch black costume.
The most important and characteristic part of Purulia Chhau is the mask. This is an indispensable part of the dance that liberates the dancer and assigns a role. Vigorous jumps, hops and twists portray the mood of Chhau. These movements however are not arbitrary. On the contrary, every body movement including the movement of the even the peaks of each masks follow prefixed rules and grammar of the dance. The shoulder and chest movements indicate euphoria, melancholy or courage. Jumping in the air or as it is known in the dancers’ dialect ulfa, indicates attack during the enactment of a war scene. The expression in the mask’s face is researched intently and portrays minute nuances of the character. It needs extremely high artistic perfection and detailed knowledge of mythology and the epics for the artist to make the right mask depicting the appropriate mood. The wide eyed masks are made of pulp, painted with indigenous colours and decorated with peacock feathers, zari (gold and silver embroidery) and jute – used to make knitted eyebrows and thick hair on the demon masks. The variety of masks in the Purulia Chhau is perhaps more varied than the Seraikella masks despite its thematic content being limited to epical stories.
Although unique, Chhau is yet to make it to the mainstream Indian dance canvas. The inhospitable terrain and climate as well as the present day political turmoil in the region where Chhau was traditionally performed have affected not only the performers, but the dance form itself.