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Chhau Dance

Inscribed in 2010 (5.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Chhau dance is a tradition from eastern India that enacts episodes from epics including the Mahabharata and Ramayana, local folklore and abstract themes. Its three distinct styles hail from the regions of Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj, the first two using masks. Chhau dance is intimately connected to regional festivals, notably the spring festival Chaitra Parva. Its origin is traceable to indigenous forms of dance and martial practices. Its vocabulary of movement includes mock combat techniques, stylized gaits of birds and animals and movements modelled on the chores of village housewives. Chhau is taught to male dancers from families of traditional artists or from local communities. The dance is performed at night in an open space to traditional and folk melodies, played on the reed pipes mohuri and shehnai. The reverberating drumbeats of a variety of drums dominate the accompanying music ensemble. Chhau is an integral part of the culture of these communities. It binds together people from different social strata and ethnic background with diverse social practices, beliefs, professions and languages. However, increasing industrialization, economic pressures and new media are leading to a decrease in collective participation with communities becoming disconnected from their roots.

The etymology of the term ‘Chhau’ has been a source of debate amongst scholars. Many claim it is derived from the Sanskrit ‘chhaya’ i.e. shadow, image or mask. Others suggest that it is derived from ‘chhauni’ meaning military camp or armour, indicating the martial nature of the dance form.

Earlier, there used to be mock-fights in communities at the beat of war-drums which took the shape of a martial dance called Phari Khanda Khela or Rookmar Nacha. It is from this that Chhau dance is said to have evolved. Later, it developed stylisation and techniques of its own.

Gradually, Chhau underwent variations within itself according to costume and performance style on regional basis. There are three types of Chhau dance today, one each from Purulia district of West Bengal, Seraikela district of Jharkhand and Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. The former two perform with masks, the latter without it.

The usage or non-usage of masks shape the style of dance to quite an extent. In Mayurbhanj Chhau which does not use masks, the nature of choreography is far more intricate whereas in Purulia or Saraikela Chhau, usage of masks especially restricts face expressions. Here performance is more focused on heavy body movements lending it a more martial and acrobatic touch. These movements are called topkas and uflis. Shields and swords accompany masked Chhau of Purulia and Seraikela. Emotions like lajja (shyness), ananda (joy) and pratishodh (vengeance) are also expressed through body movements. While in Saraikela Chhau symbolic masks are used and the actor conveys the character through his movements, Purulia Chhau uses masks made in the shape of the character portrayed.

The theme of Chhau dance differs according to its regional variations. Masked performances from Purulia and Saraikela which are martial in nature, usually have festive or folk themes. It is usually a form of community celebration. On the other hand, Mayurbhanj Chhau has a wider scope with religious themes from Hindu epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas.

Chhau is performed during the annual festival of Chaitra Parva which falls in the month of Chaitra (March-April). It is an all-male performance. The instruments accompanying the performance include different kinds of drums like dhol (barrel shaped), nagara (hemispherical), chadihadi (cylindrical) and dhumsa (bowl shaped). Mahoori (a wind instrument like shehnai) is also used.

The art of Chhau dance is passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition and local practice. Once the people are free after the harvest, they assemble in an open space called akhada and practice it under the guidance of a guru. After rehearsals, public performances are staged by the dancers.