Behind The Mask
(Chhau is a traditional art form of martial dance confined to a small part of India, and the assault of modernity has made its future uncertain.)
The Chhau dance is a genre of martial dance performed by tribal in the states of West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand. Based on place of origin and development, this dance can be classified in three subgenres—Seraikella Chhau, Mayurbhanj Chhau, and Purulia Chhau. The Purulia Chhau and Seraikella Chhau are more popular than Mayurbhanj because of their vigour. The major difference among the three is regarding the use of masks. While Seraikella and Purulia use masks, Mayurbhanj Chhau does not. The Seraikella’s technique and repertoire were developed by the erstwhile nobility of this region who both performed it and choreographed it. The Mayurbhanj Chhau is performed without masks and is technically similar to Seraikella. Purulia Chhau too uses masks, and in addition it exhibits the spontaneity of folk art. This is because, unlike Seraikella and Mayurbhanj, which enjoyed royal patronage, Purulia Chhau was sustained and developed by the people themselves.
There are a number of explanations for the derivation of the name “Chhau”. The word is believed by certain people to come from the Sanskrit root “Chhaya”, meaning shadow. As masks are an integral feature of this dance, it is thence called “Chhau”, which means mask. Some people believe it is derived from the local word “chho” which means expressing or doing something with gestures. Another explanation is that long ago this dance was performed by the military of the local kingdom in their leisure time. The themes included their heroic deeds and traditional folklore. They performed this dance for their own entertainment as well as to encourage themselves. As it was performed in their camps (locally known as “Chhauni”), the name “Chhau” came from that term.
Chhau is performed mainly in the Spring Festival, “Chaitra Porob” which lasts for about 13 days, but serious practice goes on through the year. Tribal men are the performers of this martial dance, mostly from the families of traditional artistes or from local communities. The most notable feature of the genre is the dresses and masks. Some villages are completely dedicated to the task. Here, almost every person is an expert on the making of masks and dresses. Children are trained in the forms of the dance from a young age. Chhau involves a display of physical skills, exercise and immensely hard work. It is mainly performed at night in an open space, called “akhada” or “asor” along with traditional and folk music on the reed pipes “mohuri” and “shehnai” (locally shaina). A variety of traditional drums provide the percussion. These are the “dhol” (a cylindrical drum), “dhumsa” (a large kettle drum) and “kharka”. The themes are based on folklore and episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Besides its importance to culture, Chhau is crucial to the local economy. There is a global audience for this folk art form, and a large number of families earn their livelihood by performing and selling masks and dresses. But the future does not look bright, as a lack of care, an absence of planning for the business of Chhau and government apathy threatens its growth. Fewer young people are willing to take up Chhau given the financial uncertainties that surround it. They prefer to look for jobs that don’t have so much uncertainty. The only way to ensure the long-term future of this art would be to make those involved in it financially secure.
Sanatan Bauri, a former Chhau dancer is standing outside of his house with his mask. He is a farmer by profession and used to play roll of tiger in the show of Chhau dance. He wanted to earn his livelihood as a Chhau dancer but ended as a farmer for not getting any financial security from this traditional dance, 2013
A craftsman is working on a chhau mask. The mask makers, who are Sutradhars or woodcarvers by caste, are located in two or three centres in purulia (mainly in Charida) and practically originated from one centre. They were also known as Dutta and Seal. Their livelihood depend entirely on the Chhau found only in West Bengal
A woman is selling Chhau mask at a shop in Charida village, Purulia, near Bagmundi and the Ajodhya hills. Most of the villagers are dependent on Chhau for their livelihood
A group of Chhau dancers before the performance. The elaborate costumes mean that it takes a group an hour or two before they are ready for the show
Helping hand of associate
Former Chhau dancer Sanatan Bauri having fun with his grandchildren. Recent days he does not able to perform his role as his age and health not supporting him to do this. He spends his spare time with family members now,
A Chhau dancer waits for the show to begin after worshipping the local deity
A dancer getting ready in the green room
Village boys having fun among themselves at the green room of Chhau
A Chhau dancer during his make-up before the show
A young Chhau dancer is wearing his attire before a show
The orchestra watches the performers practice in the field after harvest
It’s time to powder and paint to come on as show time gets closer. The artists have to do their own make-up as there are no dressers for the job
Traditional Banner of Chhau shows
Chhau dancers helping each others to get ready for their show
Chhau calls for great athleticism as it is a martial dance that employs mock combat techniques, stylized gaits of birds and animals and the movements of daily chores that women perform
It is mainly performed at night in an open space, called “akhada” or “asor” along with traditional and folk music on the reed pipes “mohuri” and “shehnai” (locally shaina). A variety of traditional drums provide the percussion. These are the “dhol” (a cylindrical drum), “dhumsa” (a large kettle drum) and “kharka”
Jiten Bauri who is the present manager of the Chhau group runs a local liquor shop to earn his livelihood. He playbacks the stories from the folklore and episodes from Ramayana, Mahabharata in the form of a song in his own style
Two Chhau dancers jointly performing as a lion in a show
The themes of Chhau dance are mainly based on folklore and the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Here the performers are doing Mahishasur Mardini
Two Chhau artists who mainly play some supporting characters in a show, sitting after their performance
A young dancer sitting alone after his performance. He was brilliant on stage but he is not optimistic about a career in this traditional art. The money is not enough for a normal life