India is a country with a rich range of various cultures and traditions. Each part of India has different ways to preserve those cultures traditions such as folk and classical dances. Folk and classical dances play a big role in the Indian culture as a way of communication. One of the dance-drama folk art that is performed in India is the Chhau dance-drama of Eastern India. There are three types of Chhau dance-dramas but this essay will focus on only two types: the Seraikela of Bihar and the Purulia of West Bengal. Both Chhau styles are masked dance-drama forms that are unique. To understand the significance of this folk art for the Indian community, it is important to first understand the elements and the origins of the Chhau. The Chhau is very significant to the Indian culture because it is both a religious and mythological practise that has been passed on thought many generations. Not only is the Chhau dance-drama used for festive celebrations but is also used as a way to communicate moral message by the portrayal of stories from the Indian mythology. The portrayal of stories is where the theatrical aspect comes in the picture. The Chhau characters are mute so therefore, movements and masks are used instead of dialogues to show certain emotions and feelings to bring the story forwards. The study of the origins, history, costumes, music, staging, music and performers brings to the conclusion that indeed, the Chhau dance-drama is a folk art that is very significant to the Indian culture and the Indian people.
1) Introduction- Folk dances in India
India is one of the very few countries in the world to possess a rich range of different cultures and traditions. Each and every region of India has a unique culture that has passed through many generations for centuries. What I find really interesting about India is that they have well preserved their cultures and that even today, they are still practising certain traditions compared to other countries that have lost their cultures by evolving into a more modernized civilisation. Cultures and tradition can be passed on through generations by many ways like paintings, written scripts, music, theatre and dance. Folk dances and folk theatre play a big role in the Indian culture as they are art forms that are a very efficient way of expression to the community. Folk dance is an art used to convey the local culture, legends, myths and religious beliefs of a specific region and as India has many different cultures, the folk dances vary from one region to another. Indian folk dances are the products of a variation of socio-economic classes in India. They are usually performed by ordinary people rather than professional dancers in small towns or villages where people gather together to celebrate special occasions such as harvesting, marriages, religious holidays, festivals, birth of a child etc… Since in India all those festivities are celebrated quite often if it’s not every day, folk dances have become an essential part for the Indian culture.
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Some folk dances which are performed in India also incorporate theatre in their dances. Those dance-drama forms are a rural extension of the ancient theatrical tradition found in the Nathya Shastra . The Nathya Shastra is known as the oldest surviving text on stagecraft in the world written by Bharata Muni between 200 AD and 200 BC. The Nathya Shastra covers stage-design, music, dance, and makeup which are important components for the folk dances in India and also for musicians as it is the only text that provides details about the music and instruments used in that period. One of the folk dance-drama forms that has survived past several centuries and that is still being performed today despite the movement of modernization is the Chhau of Eastern India. The word ‘Chhau’ is believed by certain people to come from the Sanskrit root ‘Chhaya’ meaning shadow and since masks forms an important feature of this dance, it is thence called ‘Chhau’, which means mask. Among other dance-drama traditions in India like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali and a few more, Chhau is a rare and unique colourful masked dance-drama form. There are three types of Chhau named after their geographical locations; the Seraikela of Bihar, the Purulia of West Bengal and the Mayurbhanj of Orissa (Figure 1). This Essay will focus on the elements and the origins of the dance-drama form of Seraikela Chhau and Purulia Chhau and to what extent they are significant to the Indian Culture as a folk art. Why did I choose this rare form of dance-drama among others? Simply because I thought that my temporary stay in India would be the perfect occasion to discover a totally new and unknown form of art for me that is directly related to the Indian culture. Since I am a theatre student, I think that exploring a rare form of art is an excellent way to broaden my knowledge of theatre through different cultures. I chose to write an in-depth essay about the Chhau dance-drama of Eastern India among many others also because I find the Chhau very interesting in the way it combines dance and theatre together to tell a specific story or mythology by using rhythms, movements and masks instead of dialogues like most of the theatrical forms use.
Figure 1: The orange shaded area of this political map of India represents the Eastern part of India where the three types of Chhau dance-drama originated from.
2) The history and origins of Chhau:
The origins of the Chhau dance-drama are still not certain as is the origin of the word “Chhau”. The dance is known as Seraikela Chhau in Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj Chhau in Orissa and Purulia Chhau in West Bengal. If we look at the basic differences between the three different styles of Chhau, the Chhau dancers of Purulia wear highly stylized masks, in Seraikela the masks are smaller, while in Mayurbhanj the dancers do not always use masks. The word “Chhau” is interpreted in different ways by different quarters and persons. Most of the people say that the word ‘Chhau’ arises from the Sanskrit root “Chhaya” which means shadow and that the art originated in West Bengal. On the other hand, some people disagree and think that it had arisen from the word “Chauni” which means camp for soldiers and that it originated from the state of Orissa. The reason being the hypothesis that the word “chhau” derived from the word “Chauni” is that the Chhau originated in the mock fights of the Oriya paikas (warriors) who fought rhythmically to the accompaniment of indigenous music instrument . Chhau dance is then believed to have originated as a martial art that contains vigorous fight and acrobatic movements. Since the period of time the Chhau started to be performed, many of the main rulers of the region of Orissa worked for the development and conservation of the art. The Chhau is a dance-drama performed only by men. The Chhau dance-drama barely evolved and today follows the basic principles of the Natya Shastra text and has become closely connected to religion. For several centuries, the Chhau dances have been used in association with the religious festival “Chaitra Parva” also known as the “Sun Festival” which is celebrated every year starting from the Chaitra month of the Hindu calendar which is around March-April in the Gregorian calendar. During this time of the year, the different social and economical classes used to come together, from the royal family to the local farmers, to celebrate the Chaitra Parva. India is a country where religion takes an important part among the lives of the people. The aim of the Chhau dancers is to worship different Gods and Goddesses like for example Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati for the goal of acting to call for their blessings to stay protected from evils. Besides being performed for religious purposes, the Chhau dance-dramas are also mythological as they are mainly based on the episodic epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Hindu mythology consists of stories of Gods, Devas and Asuras. In Hinduism, Deva is the Sanskrit word for a God or a supernatural being, normally resident in one of the numerous heavens and reborn there as the result of good karma. The Asuras are a group of power-seeking deities who are sometimes referred to as demons or sinful souls and are opposed to the Devas. Basically, there is a confrontation between the good and the bad and this confrontation is portrayed by characters in the Chhau dance-drama. However, with passing of time the dance-drama started being used for many other occasions and celebrations through the year in the different states.
3) Masks and Costumes:
Characters from the Indian mythology such as Lord Shiva or Ganesh are mythological and therefore, superior to the human being. It was not easy playing such characters using only the human facial expressions and features and that is the reason why in the early periods, different shapes and symbols were used as facial painting or body painting by the dancers to emphasize the characteristics of the different mythological characters .The practise of covering the face and the body with painting gradually gave birth to masks and bright coloured costumes in the dance performances to personify the God and Goddesses of the Hindu mythology.
“The mask is made not to hide or to conceal, but to expose. As an instrument of metamorphoses, the mask permits man to lose his identity, and allows the gods to manifest themselves with an uncovered face. To mask oneself is to give life to a superior being”
Masks have been used for many centuries throughout the world for both ritual purposes and traditional theatres especially for the expressivity they add in a character’s performance. Masks are often used in folk arts because they are a part of a costume that adorns the whole body and embodies a tradition important to the religious and/or social life of the community. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch an actual Chhau dance-drama performance but I got to experience I quite similar style of dance during my trip in the island of Bali in Indonesia. As the community from Bali follow the Hindu religion, they have mythological stories resembling the Indian ones. The performance I’ve seen in Bali was a dance-drama style of performance as the characters were telling a story using dance, movements and gestures to act a story. The dance-drama constituted five acts telling a story using the good ones and the evil ones which is till now very similar to the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. In the Balinese dance-drama, the characters were wearing masks as well but not all of them compared to the Chhau dancers of Purulia and Seraikela where it is compulsory for all the characters to wear masks. In the Balinese dance-drama, only the superior characters wore masks to express their power and their high status while the other characters were only covered with colourful full-face makeup. As a member of the audience, I can say that the masks helped a lot in creating an epic style of atmosphere on the stage and also in creating a connexion between the characters and the audience which is the reason why I think that masks are used by all the characters in the Chhau dance-drama. The performance that I have seen in Bali helped me a lot in understanding the purposes of the use of masks in the Chhau dance-drama as the Balinese dance is performed for religious and mythical purposes as well. Figure 2 shows an image of the characters in the Balinese dance taken during a performance while Figure 3 shows the characters of the Chhau dance-drama. The similarities in the masks used to portray superior beings can be noticed between both dance-drama forms. Even though both forms use masks, the masks are different in the way they are made and the way they look.
Figure 2: Masks in the Balinese style of dance-drama. Figure 3: Masks in Chhau dance-drama of Eastern India
The Chhau dance-drama enters in the category of poor theatre as all the materials, costumes, masks and accessories are made out of small expenses. . The Chhau masks are made with low priced ingredients such as river soil, newspapers, thin pieces of clothe, little bit of lime and paint. The facial masks are mostly manufactured by the artisans of the villages of the regions of West Bengal or Jharkhand as the Seraikella and the Purulia are the only styles of Chhau that uses masks as a compulsory part of their costumes in their performances. In Seraikela for example, the craft of mask making is an art that is handed down from father to son through many generations. The techniques and the fundamental nature of the Seraikela and Purulia Chhau dance-drama are based on the use of masks. Not only does it add beauty, color and life to the dance but it also evokes bhava (mood) and rasa (aesthetic sentiments) in the audience. Masks have a big role to play in the relationship between the performer and the audience. In Chhau, every performer has specific masks according to their characters. The Gods and Goddesses usually wear small pieces of decorative glittering materials in the facial masks accompanied with feathers and jewels while the evils or demons like the characters Ravana or Mahishasura wear grotesque masks. The masks used in the Chhau dance-drama are also used to interpret expressions. As the Chhau dance-drama is a speechless form of performance, the expressions given by the masks becomes essential. As the use of masks eliminate any form of facial expressions, the Chhau dancers use head gestures and neck movements to express any sort of feelings or emotions. I think it is really interesting how the portrayal of a story can be done using only body language and masks instead of spoken language and facial expressions. From a theatrical point of view, it is not common and that is what forms the uniqueness of the Chhau dance-drama in the world. The figures 4, 5 and 6 bellow illustrates example of Chhau masks used for different characters.
Figure 4 Figure 5 Figure 6
Like the masks, the costumes are made out of inexpensive local materials. The costumes that the Chhau performers used at the time the dance-drama started being performed are not known so therefore, we cannot tell if the costumes they are using today have evolved or stayed the same since the early years of the performances. Today, the costumes that are used in the Chhau performances are from various bright colors and designs as it is a performance that is supposed to evoke joy during festive periods. The costumes for the lower part of the body differ for the performers playing the Gods and the ones playing the demons. The artists that play the Gods (Devas) characters usually wear pajamas of light colors like green, yellow or red or a mixture of colors to make the characters look more attractive and alive; whereas those playing the role of the demons (Asuras) wear loose trousers of darker and deeper colors such as black. The costumes for the upper part of the body are made out of various designs and are as attractive and colourful as the costumes of the lower part of the body. For the performers that play characters such as animals or birds, suitable types of masks and costumes are used to portray the specific types of animals or birds. For example the character of Lord Shiva will be displayed by a tiger skin costume and his son Ganesh with a dhoti (Figure 7). The costumes also consist of many jewelleries and anything that look extravagant as those costumes are supposed to portray inexistent mythological characters.
Figure 7: Dhoti
Figure 8: Colourful costumes used in Chhau.
4 ) Music and staging:
As the Chhau dance-drama is performed on festive occasions with a gathering together of a whole village community, there is no raised platform or dais being settled down for the performance. With the aim of keeping the traditionalism of the event, the Chhau dance-drama usually takes place in an open air ground where the spectators are divided into sections of women and men and sit in a circle surrounding the area where the Chhau is performed. The stage used for the Chhau performances is decorated in a colourful and joyful style to create a festive atmosphere among the villagers and is usually lit by torches or oil lamps that serve as lighting which once again are made to adhere to the traditionalism of the event. The staging of the Chhau is organized in a style that encourages people from any social or economical class to gather together and celebrate. The fact that the Chhau dance-drama remains a local and traditional event after so many years is fascinating to me as many other dance or theatrical forms evolved to become more of an entertainment or money based purpose practise than a traditional one. It is very interesting how the Chhau is staged in a way to form a joyful atmosphere in a folk environment.
Like other ritual dances, the music accompaniment is a really important part for Chhau. The music style and the rhythm produced by the accompanying instruments are one of the key factors that characterize the uniqueness of the Chhau dance-drama. As the Chhau dancer is mute, the music and the lines sung by the orchestra are really important to introduce the performance. They create the right kind of mood and atmosphere for the scene to be enacted. The most important instrument accompanying the Chhau performances is the use of drum. The two main kinds of drums that are used in the Chhau performances are the Dhol ( Figure 9) and Dhamsa (Figure 10) which are played by local drummers of the area who also dance as they play. As for the tradition, the drummers themselves make the instruments and the tones used for the Chhau dance-drama based on the Hindustani Ragas wish is a Hindustani classical music concept. Ragas have a particular scale and specific melodic movements; their sound should bring delight and be pleasing to the ear. Reed pipes such as Shehnai (Figure 11) are also used by the orchestra along with the drums. The drum beats are important in the Chhau performances because they are used in the beginning of the dance-drama as an invocation to Lord Ganesha sung by a singer from the orchestra. As soon as the invocation to lord Ganesha is over, the drummers and musicians walk in to create an environment prior to the dance before the Lord Ganesha makes his entry followed by the other characters.
Figure 9 : Dhol Figure 10: Dhamsa
Figure 11: Shehnai
5) Performers and techniques:
Even though the Chhau dance-drama is a folk form of dance, it also includes some elements from the classical form of dance of India like the navarasas. The navaras are basically nine emotions that are used in the Indian classical dances and dramas to make both the dancers/actors and the audience appreciate the meaning of the lyrics and the movements that are being portrayed by. The nine rasas goes as follows:
adbhuta (wonder) and
These nine emotions have been mentioned in Nathya Shastra and all dance and theatrical forms in India use these emotions extensively.
As there are no spoken dialogues in most of the Indian dances including the Chhau, the navarasas are usually portrayed by using the eyes, the face, the muscles and the body shifts as a whole. In the case of Purulia and Sereikela Chhau, the movements of the eyes and the face are not possible as it is compulsory for all the characters to wear masks so the focus is on the body movements more than anything else to portray the nine different rasas. Since the Chhau dance-drama evolved from martial arts, the movements are very specific and important. The mask movements usually show anger while the shoulder and chest movements show joy, depression or courage depending on the way the dancer portrays it. The movements of the lower part of the body of the Chhau dancers are very quick and strong while the upper part of the body barely moves and the head rests in a slanted position. Jumping in the air is a movement that is often used in the Chhau performances because they serve as a gesture of attack in war scenes between the good ones and the evil ones. The kind of jump seen in the Chhau performances is known as ‘ulfa’ which is an indicator of the physical power and acrobatic skills of the performers. As we can see, the body language plays an essential role in the folk dance-drama Chhau. In relation to the theory of knowledge, Chhau is very interesting in the way that it uses body language as a way to communicate with people.
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6) Interview with Chhau master Chandi Mahato:
Chhau dance-drama is a very rare and not commonly known form of folk art. Published books and web sources are not enough to properly study this art form in depth and therefore, I thought that an interview with an actual Chhau dance master would be ideal and effective to pursuit my exploration on the topic. As I live in Bangalore, a city in the state of Karnataka in the south part of India, a face to face interview was not possible so I sort this problem out by having a telephonic interview with the Chhau master Chandi Mahato. Chandi Mahato is a middle aged Chhau master residing in the remote village named Baghmundi in the Purulia district of West Bengal. He comes from a long lineage of Chhau dancers and teachers and has trained a lot of modern Chhau dancers including his son Lalit Mahato. An otherwise almost illiterate person, Chandi Mahato has learned a lot from his experience with Chhau dancing and at 67 years old, Mahato has performed in all major cities in India several times. Mahato is a farmer for most part of the year but he also engages himself in training theatre troupes in India working with the methods propounded by Jerzy Grotowsky. After asking Mahato nine questions about his experience with Chhau and the Chhau art in general, I felt more enlightened about the Chhau dance-drama form. The answers I got from Mahato are very interesting (See Appendix 1). Like most of the Chhau practitioners, Mahato learned Chaau from his father Gurupada Mahato who also learned it from his father and Mahato also taught it to his son Lalit Mahato which confirms that the Chhau is a tradition transmitted from father to son through many generations. Chhau is usually learned form a young age because when one grows older, the flexibility of the body becomes weaker. Mahato’s training techniques are very specific and challenging because dancing and acting using acrobatics is certainly not easy. Chandi Mahato persisted on the fact that the specific training is essential for Chhau practitioners and that consequences such as injuries of the performer or misinterpretation of the character could follow after a bad training. Drama is incorporated in the Chhau by the acting of a story without the use of any spoken language but instead body language. Mahato says that he uses a lot of typical exaggerated actions, movements, and gaits accompanied by music and rhythms which are easily recognised by the audience to carry the story forward. The Chhau master Mahato agrees on the fact that Chhau dance-drama as a folk art is very important to their community and cultural identity. Most of the people from those villages are farmers living in poor conditions. Therefore, they stick to this art form to bring joy and colors to their daily routines and they also use it as a way to express their emotions either the positive or the negative ones in a creative way. Chhau is also very important to their community because it is used to convey eternal moral messages. They use mythological stories to convey these moral messages for goal to educate people from those villages. Mahato is therefore stating that Chhau as a folk art is important to the Indian culture and is very significant as well.
After an in-depth study of the elements and origins of the Chhau dance-drama, it is therefore evident that this folk art is based on traditional and cultural elements. Chhau is an integral part of the culture heritage of India and it’s an indigenous dance form created with a typical Indian psyche which is deeply rooted in the scriptures that are followed by all major Indian dance and dramatic forms. The Chhau is an art that is not only used for festive purposes but also as a way of communication with the community to convey certain messages using mythological stories. The Chhau is mostly performed for an audience that is typically Indian including sons and daughters of Indian soil, brought up with typical Indian values. As explained in the film by Vikrant Kishore “Dancing for themselves”, the states where the Chhau originated from are states in where poverty is a big problem and that is one of the reasons the residents of those states are very attached to the Chhau and work hard on preserving it. Lalit Mahato who is the son of the Chhau master Chandi Mahato features in the film “Dancing for themselves” and explains through the movie how important Chhau is for him and his culture. Lalit Mahato said “Whatever it takes I’ll teach my son Chhau Dance, no matter if I’ve to just eat boiled rice”; this quote shows the importance of Chhau as a cultural aspect for the lives of those villagers. The Chhau dancers do not practise this art only to entertain an audience but they also use it as a creative way to express their feelings and emotions. It is incredible how the different states of India Including the ones practising the Chhau dance-drama preserved their cultures intact. What we also have to take into consideration is the fact that those areas have not yet been touched by the fast movement of modernization. What would happen once modernization touch those areas? Will it affects their culture? Will they still perform the Chhau dance-drama as it is performed today and would it still be as significant for their culture? Those are questions that one should have in mind. I personally hope that those states don’t lose their culture because I think that the Chhau dance-drama is a unique and fantastic form of folk art that should be preserved the way it is.
Mahato, Chandi “Chhau dance-drama.” Telephone interview translated by Tamojit Ray. 24 Feb. 2010.
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Gajrani, S. History, Religion and Culture of India. Vol. 4. Dehli: Isha, 2004. Print.
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“West Bengal Chhau.” Indialine. Web. 12 Dec. 2009.
“West Bengal Chhau.” Indialine. Web. 12 Dec. 2009.
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