Under an open sky, the percussive beats of myriad drums reverberate, as an ensemble of drummers perform the taal bhanga announcing the arrival of Chhau dancers to the ashor (arena). Amidst shouts of “cho… cho…cho…” inviting the audience, masked performers carrying sword and shield enter the stage circled by drummers. Legend has it that the taal bhanga is similar to native hunters shouting “cho… cho…cho…” while chasing game during their annual hunting expeditions.
The frenzied atmosphere becomes vibrant with the acrobatic movements, in tandem to the cadence of Dhol, Dhumsaa and Charchari, and the melodic embellishments provided by native instruments such as ‘reed pipes, mohuri and shehnaii.’ The heightened theatricality of Chhau commences with the martial dance of folk warriors, as an enthralled audience gathers around.
Originating in the martial arts of Eastern India’s Manbhum District, Chhau’s folk heritage spans the three regional types of Purulia Chhau in West Bengal; Mayurbhanj Chhau in Northern Orissa and Seraikella Chhau in Jharkhand. Chhau’s war-like movements are often compared to the parikhanda (shield and sword) exercises of the region’s Paikas (foot soldiers).
Owing to the inter-mingling of tribal culture in the densely forested landscape, etymologists and folklorists differ in their interpretation of Chhau. Some argue that Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word Chhaya meaning ‘shadow, while others claims include an Oriya origin, either Chhatak/Chhaii (clowning) or Chhauni (military camp); or from the Bengali word, Chhau which means ‘mask.’
While Chhau’s martial heritage can be traced through centuries, Chhau’s formal development as an art form occurred under the aegis of Seraikela’s royal family, the Singh Deos. To ensure defence capabilities were preserved under colonial rule, some states maintained their Paikas as dance troupes with the same vigorous exercises stylized into themes set to music. The ‘first woman soloist of the previously all-male form’ Sharon Lowen suggests that the inclusion of women performers expanded with Chhau dancers such as Krishna Chandra Naik teaching women in Calcutta during pre-independence India.
While the theatrical development of Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau was largely influenced by patronage of Indian princely states, Purulia Chhau retains its vigorous folk character, and is the most flamboyant of the three styles. Purulia Chhau’s tribal earthiness is depicted in its ostentatious masks, acrobatic leaps, and energetic flourish.
Similar to the blurriness of the dance’s origins, the coalescent facet of tribal life contributed variously to the development of Chhau. With martial strains similar to paaikaali in Orissa and nachni performed by females in rural areas of the region, Chhau’s acrobatic dance narratives depend on the sub-genre of the region. Royal patronage also greatly influenced Chhau’s development.
According to Guru Shashadhar Acharya, the Singh Deos were responsible for the inclusion of Hindustani classical ragas and codification of dance techniques. Artists from Charida (also known as Mukhosh Gram) suggest that the ‘Chhau practice of wearing masks and narrative styles was also influenced by the ‘king of the Bagmundi and bhumiji chieftains.’
With the exception of Mayurbhanj Chhau, both Seraikela and Purulia dance styles are performed wearing Chhau masks. Renowned Chhau dancer, Ileana Citaristi, suggests, “Although Mayurbhanj Chhau was an expansion of Seraikella Chhau, patrons of the dance decided that masks were a hindrance to expression.” The pastel-colored Seraikela masks are in sharp contrast to the theatrical masks of Purulia which are adorned with beads and coloured feathers, towering nearly 2 feet in their vibrance.
Originating in tribal folk performance, the tradition of mask-making begins with sculpting a clay model of the face (Matir Muha). This process called Mathamathi involves coating the mask with powdered ash and paper mâché. D.I.C.O Purulia elaborates that once the initial Matir Muha is ready, artists detail facial features with clay paste (Kabis), finally covering with ‘cotton cloth dipped in the kabis and polishing with a wooden carving tool thapi.’ Coloration for different characters varies depending on regional representation, with similarities in Kali and Krishna’s depiction as blue-coloured.
Despite etymological and regional differences, Chhau is commonly associated with religious occasions such as the spring festival of Chaitra Parva in April, Gajan Festival honoring Lord Shiva, and the Sun Festival. Chhau performances traditionally begin before midnight and explore epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Purana. Chaitra Parva rituals vary depending on geographic traditions, generally beginning with the Jatraghat invoking Ardhanariswara. The inaugural Jatraghat is a dance procession of Goddess Sakti with the ceremonial rituals concluding with a similar dance of Goddess Kali. While Seraikella Chhau is devoid of Vachikabhinaya (vocal support), Purulia Chhau’s tribal flair is evident with the drummer singing during the performance.
Although recently classified by UNESCO as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Citaristi contends that private and government support for Chhau’s propogation has not increased. However, even as as Chhau’s stylised movements continue to enthral audiences worldwide, its theatrical aesthetic of a martial dance will remain etched as another gem in India’s cultural legacy.