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Chhau: Tribute to love & poetry

Trisha Bhattacharya, Mar 11, 2012 : 19:57 IST

Martial art

Chhau dance is almost a reflection of ancient Hindu traditions that emerge from, as well as merge into, tales from epics, and blend with the folk, tribal and classical art and culture of certain specific regions in India.

Enter : interesting.Chhau dance is mainly classified into the following three genres, which are Seraikella Chhau, developed in the Seraikella district of Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj Chhau, developed in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, and Purulia Chhau, developed in the Purulia district of West Bengal.

The use of masks is what differentiates the three subgenres from each other: Purulia Chhau and Seraikella Chhau make use of masks during the dance performances, whereas Mayurbhanj Chhau does not use masks but make use of costumes, make-up and facial expressions in addition to dance postures peculiar to Chhau.

The word Chhau finds its origins either in the word Chhauni, which means a military camp, or in the word Chaya (meaning mask or shadow). All the three subgenres of this dance have received fame and acclaim internationally. Originally, Chhau was essentially performed during the spring festival or the Chaitra Parva in these three districts, in April-May, but now due to its widespread popularity, it is celebrated during various other seasons and during other festivals as well. In its original form, the dance was performed only by men, who would also play out female characters gracefully, but this has since changed, as women too now learn this dance and perform it with much expertise.

Chhau dance is based on Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra, and unlike Kathak, Kathakali and Bharatnatyam, this dance form is not codified. In Seraikella, Seraikella Chhau initially started out as a form of martial arts, but it later merged with the nuances of folk art, folk life and classical dance elements to make it the dance it is today.

Purulia Chhau began with Puru Okaiyas, who were warriors, who danced in combative postures, to the music of dhols and other instruments specific to Chhau. Therefore, originally this dance form was a simple form of martial art, depicted as dance. However, over a period of time, it evolved into not only a dance of defence and bravery but also incorporated within its realm streams of love, simplicity as well as pathos and ethos.

In its original form, this dance was performed on the ground, encircled by villagers, but now it is performed on stage as well. Therefore, this is almost a sacred art form, and is visually engaging due to its stylised features and swift elegance.

Chhau dance is particularly staged on tales from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and even from the Puranas, which imbue this dance form with a deep sense of mythological mystery. Not only has Chhau associated itself with Hindu mythology, but also draws inspiration from the folk life of the hilly and forest regions of these three particular districts. The rasas displayed in Chhau dance are mainly those of veera, rudra and shringara. Some of the themes revolve around defence and offence, where eventually, all evil forces are overpowered and annihilated by godly forces.

Masks play a major role in Chhau dance, and depict a particular god or goddess’s expressions lucidly, thus enamouring the audience. These masks are multicoloured, statuette–like yet lively, and are made of wood and other materials. Purulia masks are based on the native folk art of West Bengal, like those found during Durga Puja, while Seraikella masks are based on the indigenous folk arts of Jharkhand. These masks are beautiful renditions of crafts from these regions.

Most of these dance performances usually begin with an invocation to Lord Ganesha by the sound and rhythmic beating of drums, and singing. Once Lord Ganesha has been invoked, more musicians on other musical instruments like the Dholak or Dhol, Dhamsa, Pakhawaj, Turhi, Mohuri and other wind-instruments like shehnai or the flute join in, and they are soon followed by a dancing masked Lord Ganesha. He is later followed by other gods and goddesses, animals, birds and rakshasas (demons). They, in turn, dance in fluid grace to enrapture the audience and narrate tales from epics through the beautiful conduit of dance.

Chhau dance is performed either as solo (for example, when performing Shiva’s tandav) or as duets (Radha and Krishna) or as a group (when performing the killing of Mahishasura by Goddess Durga). It is an impressive blend of folk, tribal and classical dance, and due to its style, presence and robust nature, becomes highly entertaining to its audience. Chhau dance is thoroughly spontaneous and evocative as it involves fast footwork. The various movements in Chhau dance, in addition to the feelings and sentiments engendered by dancers while performing the act, enthrall the audience and enliven the atmosphere. Not for a moment do you doubt that the dancers are not real gods or goddesses.

Chhau dancers wear elaborate costumes, crowns and accessories, along with masks, to add to the panoramic dance. Chhau dance performed in local areas usually begin in the evening and go on throughout the night. Chhau dance is also sometimes played out as a form of prayer to Lord Shiva and Parvati, who are the deities of the tandava and lasya styles of dance.

Seraikella Chhau has nuances of Shiva’s tandav in nature. The basic postures of Chhau dance are reminiscent of a warrior in a fight or war. The dancers perform this difficult dance with ease and depict the true culture of India with elegance. Chhau dance is a comingling of defence, elegance, and music, and gushes through as powerful poetry in motion.

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