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Chhau - The Dance of the Masks

The simple tribal people of Bihar express their creative joy through the Chhau dance, Originally a war dance to perfect fighting techniques, it has over the years evolved into a narrative ballet.

Hillocks like lone pebbles on an endless stretch of undulating land, skirted and bordered picturesquely by the distant forest range and the serried row of hills. The soil, red-black. The people, mostly tribals-black complexioned, their eyes clear and bright-the children of the soil. The thinly sanduned river Kharkai provides the major life force for the inhabitants of this day stretch of land. And ancient Jagannath Temple on the river bank, the sudden flicker of mica, the bare bodied children playing hide and seek, the faint rumble of distant drums, called ‘Dhamsa’ by the tribals. Al these become indispensable part of the place- a little peaceful hamlet called Seraikella. Seraikella was formerly a princely state which is now a subdivision in the District of Singhbhum, situated north of Orissa in South Bihar, only thirty miles from the steel town of Jamshedpur or Tata Nagar.

The spring season which according to the Indian Calendar, marks the end of a year and opens up a new one, is celebrated at Seraikella as the old ‘Chaitra Parab’. Certain rituals are followed such as carrying a pitcher of water around the village to invoke the god, who is supposed to ensure prosperity and a good yield of crops. These rituals lead to the excitement of the people that reaches a crescendo as the auspicious moment of the special Chhau performance arrives. Visitors to this place during the spring festival will also get infected by the heightened exaltation and ecstasy. As the whole village dances through the night, one definitely gets lured to mingle with the lively, rustic people.

The state Singhbhum, in which Seraikella always played a vital role, is the land of the singh Kings. A long line of Singh Kings have contributed to its history. It was Darpanaryan Singh who founded this state in 1205. Since then there was no interference in the supreme sovereignity of these rulers. The ‘Seven Hundred Hills’ of Saranda and Bangriposi and the impossible virgin forests ensured a certain amount of security and cultural autonomy of this land, rendering it inaccessible to the invaders. For centuries it remained culturally invincible. Still clashes and little skirmishes among the local warriors sometimes posed a threat, and the possibility of a foreign invasion could not be absolutely blown away. A few garhs and kellas (fortresses) were constructed to shelter and train a special troop of fighters. To attain perfection in different fighting tactics and strategies and at the same time to acquire sound control over one’s physique, a dance was invented-an intentional modified from of the tribal dance. This dance was named pharikhanda or the war-dance with shields and swords.

Later, during the British rule, the shields and swords lost their charm, overpowered by more sophisticated firearms and the object of the dance lost its objective and became a skeleton of its original from. Later this form was given a touch a classical delicacy and a refined tenderness. The dance became open to creativity, innovation, imagination and impulses. It attained a classical sophistication, even maintaining and nourishing the tradition-borne folk elements inherent in this form. This combination of classicism and folk elements imparted a unique feature to this dance form and made it widely acceptable to all people-a supple medium in which is reflected all that is best in nature. This newly evolved dance was a kind of narrative ballet, illustrative not only of the elemental nature, but of the subtle nuances, gestures and movements of the physical world-both animate and in-animate. This dance came to be known as the ‘Chhau’ dance.

There is some controversy over the origin of the word ‘Chhau’. According to some experts the word ‘Chhau’ is derived from ‘Chho’ which means a mask or a shadow, while according to others the word is derived from ‘Chhauni’ which means the barrack of soldiers. All these meanings, however, are related to the nature and the origin of the dance. Seraikella is the place where this dance from was born and on the eve of the spring festival, every year, people celebrate this occasion with the colourful show of ‘Chhau’. The gates of the old Maharaja’s Places are kept open for the dancers. The courtyard is specially prepared. The members of the royal household, through the ages, have not only been the patrons, but also have been taking an active part in the ‘Chhau’ performance.

Small boys at the tender age of vie are chosen and taken under the tutelage of their elders and taught the stories of the legends, along with the imitating gestures to narrate them. The preparation of dancer passes through three stages. The first one is called chali or the movement that mimes a particular gait of an animal. At this stage a disciple has to be trained in a very strict grammar of measured footwork and posturing, and various twists and movements of the upper limbs. Al these moves are certain stylized gestures that imitate the footsteps of militant fighters or animals in action. The next phase is called upalaya or upheli which is the soul of the dance. The earlier movements are refined through upalaya and the subtleties and variations of the movements mould this dance into a classical medium of aesthetic fineness. The dance, which was originally a masculine war-dance, now acquires softness and a tenderness through upalaya which teaches the use of speed with a controlled movement and mingle it with a rhythmical spasm which is necessary to portray a domestic scene. An abstract expression is put into a form by the rhythm of the limbs and the acting of the whole body. The housewives’ daily chores, the fashionable youth of the suburb, the surreptitious movements of an animal-all these rather ordinary sequences are rendered poetic by the nimble twists of the body and delicately measured, intricate footsteps that are born of a creative harmony and an artistic fusion between imitation and imagination.

After challis and upalayas a dancer goes through rigorous training of the complicated khel or exercises of sword-play with opponents. These khels demand a great amount of agility. A guru, chanting a few mnemonic syllables guides the movements of the dancer who also memorizes them to count his own footsteps. The strenuous exercises have a set structure which is strictly adhered to. As it is difficult to dance long sequences wearing a mask, the items of the ‘Chhau’ dance last from five to ten minutes each. As the face is covered, there is no scope for facial expressions, only abrupt movements of the head and neck convey the moods. The static expression of the mask is animated by the limbs of the performer. Perhaps it is a major function of the mask, which represents a mythological character, to lay emphasis on the performance as a group activity, steering our eyes away from the individual dancer. Without the mask, the very dance-from would have been changed, and with it a heritage with its rather collective character.

In Seraikella, the craft of moulding masks, an art- from by itself, has been handed down from father to son through countless generations. After the famous mask-maker, Prasanna Kuma Mahapatra, his son, Sushanta continues to maintain a high standard of artistic perfection in the making of masks. At first the expression of a character is visualized and then given a shape on the mask, moulded from the dark clay found on the banks of the Kharkai river. The clay is first dissolved in water, then made into a thick paste. The clay-model, fixed on a wooden structure is dried for two or three days. A gauze is wrapped over it followed by two three layers of paper and a coating of clay. The nose and eyes are carved out by a sharp-edged knife and the clay scooped out from the hollow of the dried up clay model. The mask is brushed and painted. This method is otherwise known as papier-mache. These masks are painted mainly with flat transparent shades and the lines are bold and clear. Avoiding the realistic identification the masks take up a symbolical character. The three-pronged mark and the third eye on Shiva’a forehead represent vigorous energy and imagination and a small pout of the lips expresses affection and tenderness. The mask of ratri (night) has drooping eyes conveying the mood of a mysterious world lying hidden and fragile in the darkness of the night. The mask of the deer, made for Banabiddha has eyes knit in anguish. The stylized gestures of the eyebrows, eyes and mouth are painstakingly painted to bring out the distinctive character.

The dancing is accompanied by an orchestra that comprises the local variations of drums shenai, signa, mandira, flute, and these days violin, sitar and harmonium also. As the music starts, dots of torch lights are seen marching in an endless procession towards the ‘Chhau’ mandap (the venue of the performance). People gather from as far as ten to fiteen kilometers away.

At present there are two major venues for the ‘Chhau’-Rajbari (the king’s place) and the stage constructed by the Bihar Government. The latter is generally crowded with VIPs and officials but the former has a typically local, regional flavour. It is said that the princes played a vital role in the evolution of the ‘Chhau’. The palace for these few days is open to everybody to celebrate the spring festival.

The nights of the Chhau dance hold everybody spellbound and as the dance comes to an end spectators realize with surprise that dawn is breaking. Items of major interest are aarti (offering a prayer), mayur (the peacock), nabik (the boatman), ratri (the night), Radha Krishna etc. In aarti a priest offcers a lamp and prayer to the god. The mayur which is choreographic fantasy displays the rapturous pleasure of the bird at the approach of the monsoon. The nabik dance is unique in its own way, playing on various symbolic levels of meanings-the boatman accompanied by his wife, playing his oars, a caught in a ragin storm and he finally triumphs the evil force in the shape of the storm, bearing his wife and boat safely to the shore. The storm here stands for the ordeal that life presents and that man goes through it towards victory. Ratri has a mysterious, wistful and ephemeral quality about it. Night descends on the earth spreading a pall of awe inspiring darkness but as the moon and the stars appear, night starts frolicking with them. Then the night casts a spell of caressing oblivion and lulls the weary world to a tranquil sleep. And a new life, a regeneration is hinted at the end. In sabar the trials, the defeat and the final victory of a hunter in a forest are portrayed with an unmatched ingenuity. Radha-Krishna celebrates the eternal love of the divine lovers. Through these dances the performers communicate with the spectators. This rapport between the artiste and the audience is of great importance in the performance of Seraikella Chhau.

The Chhau dance erases the class and caste divisions of society. The dancers come from the upper castes, as well as from the tribal communities. Their intermingling and total team work is necessary for the performance. The themes and gestures combine myths with regional folklore which add richness and colour to the central from of the dance. These regional features-the people, their costumes, the changing of seasons-all go into moulding this traditional art from which attracts people from all over the world.