Chhau: A Signature Dance Form of Purulia

Indian Folk arts impose the aroma of cultural diversity besides elegance and grandeur. Especially, the eastern part of India is ornamented with some unconventional folk arts that add vigor to India’s cultural platter. Step in West Bengal, one of the most culturally distinct Indian states, and you will find the justifications of the previous comments. While talking about West Bengal, while discussing folk art, how can we be far away from ‘Chhau’? Yes, chhau! One of the most acclaimed marginal dance forms of West Bengal.

When someone comes across the word ‘Chau’ the first thing comes to his mind is: a man in a weird mask putting an awesome spectacle. Sources say the word ‘ chau’ came from the Sanskrit word’ Chaya’, which means ‘shadow’(or image or mask); some says it originated from the Sanskrit word ‘Chadma’ which means ‘Disguise’. Besides chhau dance of bengal, eastern Indian states like Odisha and Jharkhand also embrace the folk dance.

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Chhau dance Purulia: Where Splendor Meets Vigor

Like any other folk dance, this one also claims for some signature moves. Thus, the artists have to go through rigorous training of martial arts, acrobatics and athletics. Basically the Chhau artists put up the dance with Hindu religious themes or tell stories from Hindu epics. Brief and simple rituals precede the dance performance. The rituals chiefly conducted in front of a Shiva temple or the village square.

As the performance begins, the chief drummer sings the introductory song. After introduction, the heroic character enters and commences his dance. On the other hand a demonic character takes several vigorous turns or summersaults and turns to the spectators for applause for his virility. Such skillful acrobatic feats proliferate every year leaving the researcher completely amused for their innovative skills in improvising such exciting sequences.

Sad Truth Proposes Decay

Due to lack of sustained patronage and guidance, Purulia Chhau shows very little evolvement since its hunting or warfare origin. Performed by the early inhabitants of this arid region, it is almost an antithesis of sophisticated and stylized Seraikella (Jharkhand) form. Till the early decades of this century these dancers and the form were patronized by the Bagmundi ruler, but due to unproductive land and ever failing rains the ruler could hardly provide necessary support.

Chhau and Its Commercial Revival

Since 1961, when this form was first witnessed by an anthropologist in a remote village of Purulia district and their subsequent visits in major cities world over, the locals have formed their own ‘parties’ in anticipation of a sponsored trip abroad.

They have added more ‘exciting’ combat scenes with more skillful pirouettes and summersault. The costumes specially the headgears have acquired enormous size and jazzy decorations. They naturally opted for the warfare scenes that would reflect their life of perpetual hardships and conflict with nature itself. Even the characters the noble and heroic characters like Rama and Sita are depicted with forceful gestures.

Chhau Dance Mask

As you enter Chorida, a small village in Purulia district during Chau season, the village that provides some of the best masks, practically every house and every member of the household is seen occupied in making masks or assembling decorations for headgears. The eyes on these masks are wide open, although the air passage of nostrils is very narrow. The demonic nature of a character is ascertained by the knitted eyebrows and thick hair growth on the face by pasting jute fibers.

Also Read: Patachitra: The Art of Bengal

Dawn of Realisation

It’s a shame that such an artistry with such rich tapestry of storylines was about to die. Modernization and urbanization has devoured many marginal and regional art forms but somehow Chhau maintained its existence. This Spring-time regional entertainment has now come to the metropolises for its exposure. It can be termed as the ‘Dawn of Realisation’ that many NGOs and institutions are now valuing this form of art. In 2010 the Chau dance was inscribed in the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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