Indian Chhau Dance – Brief History and Nuances of the Art

Indian Chhau Dance

Indian chhau dance

My first encounter with Indian Chhau Dance was in a village of Puruliya District where I had the opportunity to see a village function in which two dancers were performing the eternal tale of love of Radha-Krishna wearing huge ornamental masks and traditional dance dresses and it was this encounter with Chhau that sparked of the interest to know more about this ancient art form.

This dance form has its origin in the Indian states of Odhisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal.  Basically, Chhau dance has been distinguished in three types based on its place of origin and development, Seraikella Chhau, Mayurbhanj Chhau and Purulia Chhau. The word Chhau ideally draws its name from the word Chhauni(Military Cantonment) as this dance, which is infused with a lot of Raudra Ras and mostly tells stories of wars used to be performed by and for the soldiers in their camps for entertainment. The word Chhau, as some say, may also have been derived from the words Chhau (which denotes the number six) or even Chhabi (which denotes an image).

Chhau is not only a war dance but also a spiritual preparation. The dance is performed by many religious associations on the eve of the lunar month, the last day of Chaitra which as per the English calendar usually falls on April 12. The performance usually starts with the worship of Shiva and Shakti as this dance is all about invoking a sense of valour and pride with the portrayal of victory of Good over Evil.

The biggest attraction of the Indian Chhau Dance is the mask which is made of clay, Silver and golden foils cut into different shapes, string of beads, pith works, and coloured paper flowers, feathers of hens and peacocks are used for decorating the masks and the use of these materials again can be traced back to the arts’ popularity in the rural areas of Bengal, Jharkhand and Odhisa. The final fine finish comes with a coat of oil and glitter. A finished Chhau mask weighs up to 3kg and costs upto 2000 INR.

The Chhau dance is a very colourful fare as it has a heady mix of theatrics and the tribal beats of the Dhol and Dhumsaa that accentuate the overall presentation of this very ancient form of dance drama. A cylindrical drum called Chadchadi and small hemispherical drums called Tikraa are also used to create the right kind of sounds for this dance.

Indian chhau dance

Since the Chhau dance mostly depicts acts of wars and war preparations, its texts are primarily taken from the Ramayana and Mahabharat. Modern choreographers and performers are however trying to bring about a variation in the tales told to make the dance form more acceptable to today’s generation.

In most tribal areas from where this dance forms originates, it is considered a way of life so much so that children born in these villages start learning this dance form at a very tender age as part of their basic education.

The influence of martial arts in this dance form is very evident and a few Chhau styles would even compel one to trace its roots to South Indian dance forms such as Kathakali. The masks and head gears worn in this dance form the most crucial part of the entire performance as dancers perform some marvellous acrobatics on stage wearing these heavy elaborate gears. Doing cartwheels and such other gymnastic feats without the elaborate mask touching the ground is supposed to be one of the high points of Chhau.

Dancer Prakriti Kashyap in one of her article says” The children are taught and disciplined in the art of Chau from a very young age, not as an occupation, but as an intrinsic part of their very being. Due to years of ethnic tradition, Chau dancers are simply born into the Chau Society, and from birth are taught to accept their vocation of dance as an unquestionable given. Every single part of their lives reflects in their art, since dance for them is not just a means of existence; it is the meaning of their life”

This fascinating Indian art form has been appreciated world over and has even been shown in Indian Cinema time and again. Bangla Movie Lal Pahare’r Katha made in 2007 where Mithun Chakraborty plays the role of a former Chhau dancer who teaches disabled boys the art form and transforms both of their lives in the process has been appreciated by the audience and critics alike. Chau Dance was also shown in Anurag Kashyap’s latest Bollywood Hindi Movie Barfi and even formed an integral part of young Bengali director Raj Chakroborty’s Bangla Movie Proloy.

Indian Dance forms have always garnered huge appreciation from audiences and art lovers from all over the world and the Chhau dance and its dancers have made the country proud in more ways than one.

Article Compiled By: Krishna Deb

Image Credits: Google Images

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