Keeping cultural traditions alive

Mask dance

Although the dance was patronised by the local rajas, it was never an exclusive royal ‘preserve’ . In fact, many of the performers are drawn from the ‘economically deprived classes’ and the dance is enjoyed by princes and paupers alike.

In Purulia, the land of its origin, Chhau dances are performed by the people, for the people — without the patronage of any particular family or individual. However, in the other areas, with the fall of the royal families, the popularity of this excellent dance form has, to an extent, declined.

Chhau is primarily a mask dance, a kind of dance-drama performed without dialogue. The masks used for the dance are made of pulp and clay by mask-makers known as sutradhars hailing from Charida, a village in Purulia district.

Like Kathakali of Kerala and Manipuri of Assam, Chhau dance is probably an ancient cultural tradition which incorporates tribal, folk and classical elements. The main characteristic of this dance is the use of masks denoting tribal gods. Folk songs like jhumur or tusu or jaoya, and episodes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the puranas are an integral part of this dance form.

This dance is performed in the open air with the audience sitting around the performers in a circle. Generally, the performance starts at ten in the night and continues till the next morning. First, each group of musicians enters the stage, plays their instruments, sings and dances. Then the vocalists come with folded hands and sing a brief invocation to Ganesha. Finally,  drummers begin to beat their drums in a frenzy and the dance begins with the appearance of Ganesha who is followed by other dancers wearing suitable masks.

Earlier, Chhau dances were performed without props. However, present day dancers use swords, shields, bows, arrows, and even mechanical devices. Colourful and attractive, it sure is a dance form that leaves the audience spellbound.

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