Chhau: A Folk Performance of Eastern India

Indian theatrical tradition goes back to antiquity and is deeply rooted within local culture and consciousness. Therefore, it has its own uniqueness and structure that is truly eastern in its orientation.  The theatrical traditions of India are divided into  Loka dharmi (the popular), the folk, which includes Nautanki of Punjab and Swang of Himachal Pradesh and the Natyadharmi (the traditional), the classical, based on ancient texts on drama, like the Bharatanatyam. Several characteristics delineate the classical and the folk.  The classical performances of India are based on a set of codified laws, such as those of the Natyashastra, but at the same time are “open” to interpretation.  The Natyashastra (800 A.D.) is an ancient Indian treatise on drama, written in Sanskrit that is the foundation for not just the classical dances but also most of the theatrical dance forms prevalent in the country such as Kuttiyatam of Kerala, Ankiya Nat, Ramlila and Raslila of Uttar Pradesh and Terukootu, of Tamil Nadu and Chhau of Eastern India.

Chhau is a fine example of a semi-classical form, since it keeps the basic elements of acting styles, costumes, instructions for directors, stage craft and design and plot structure as based on the Natyasastra, and yet it does not follow the same “strictness” and “purity” of the classical form.  Chhau involves basic martial art techniques and is performed traditionally by males belonging to the three contiguous States of Jharkhand (Seraikela), Odisha (Mayurbhanj/Baripada) and West Bengal (Purulia).  While these three forms have the same basic stances, modes of expression and expressive symbols, there are some differences between the three forms.  Chhau of Seraikella utilizes graceful masks of soft tonal qualities lending the dance form a “feminine” quality.  At the same time, since these masks make facial gestures impossible, it therefore involves elaborate footwork.  The Mayurbanj Chhau (cover picture) on the other hand, does not use masks at all and lays more emphasis on facial expressions.  The Chhau dance at Purulia does not have many female characters, since its themes are from episodes of the epics of Mahabharata that do not have such characters. Women as performers have not yet been introduced to Chhau at Purulia, while Chhau at Seraikela and Mayurbhanj have an array of female characters and women as participants.

 

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Seraikela Chhau

 

 

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Purulia Chhau

 

 

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Mayurbhanj Chhau.  Picture courtesy : Dancer Ms. Carolina Prada

 

The reason why Chhau is predominantly male can be attributed to its history. Gajapati rulers of Kalinga desa (present day Odisha), on their mission of expansion annexed parts of many present day states such as Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Their territory extended from Ganga to Kaveri and they were able to do this with the help of infantry troops called Paikas. The word Paika is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Padatika’ meaning infantry. These valiant Paikas were not on the regular payroll of the militia but farmers who became soldiers part-time. These groups rendered their services in return for huge land grants. In order to stay fit and battle ready, these farmers would gather every evening at the local paika akhadas to exercise and practice. This gave rise to a martial form called Parikhanda Khela, practiced with swords and shields, which later metamorphosised with time into the magnificent dance form Chhau.

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The warriors of the royal princely houses of Singhbhum and Manbhum dynasties (eighteenth century to early twentieth century) employed the techniques of the martial arts or Parikhanda khela, and used them to dramatize narratives.  These dramatized narratives became the genesis for Chhau and since this form involved these martial art techniques, it was taken to be a masculine form.  The word Chhau has its origins in Chauni (military camp) and Chhaya (Shadow or mask). The colloquial meaning of the word Chhau is dexterity, skill and technique.

The royal princes of the Manbhum and the Singhbhum dynasties remained the major patrons of this form before Independence.  They were not only instrumental in keeping the tradition alive by funding the form, but also by participanting as performers.  They often supported this art by giving generous donations and encouraged competitions among the individual performers or troupes.  The kings of the Singhbhum region (Baripada) organized the performers into two main competitive groups, the Dakshin Sahi, southern part and the Uttar Sahi, the northern part named after the regions of the town of Baripada and yearly competitions was held between them.

The dramatic form of Chhau parallels Kathakali, another all male martial art dance drama of Kerala.  Since the techniques that are involved are based on martial art techniques, men have traditionally performed both these forms.  These forms are semi classical and do not have any set codification. Chhau has elaborate masks but Kathakali has elaborate face make up that resemble masks.

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The basic steps of Chhau involve imitation of nature: the walk of a cow, stalking of a crane, fish jumping out of water, household duties performed by females like mixing of cow dung, grinding of spices, fetching water from the pond etc.  These movements, the Uflis (the basic stances), and the Chauk (elaborate footwork) are synchronized to form the pieces or the Topkas.  The basic plots of the dramatic form are taken from Hindu mythology, religion and history for example Chandrabhaga (depicting love of the moon), Ratri (a love story between the moon and night) and Meghdoot (based on a popular Sanskrit play written by the playwright Kalidasa).

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Most popular theaters, like Ramlila and Raslila of rural north India have deep ritualistic and mythological foundations that are performed during major festivals.  Like other religions these nativity plays depict the birth of gods and dramatize stories about them.  Chhau is also associated with a major ritual festival of Eastern India, the Chaitra Parva (spring festival), held in the month of Chaitra or April. It does not have a religious base but uses themes from mythology and is performed in the evenings to entertain the people of the regions of Sareikela, Mayurbanj and Purulia.  The parva has rituals that honor the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of destruction.  The festival is held over thirteen days involving the Chhau performances in the evenings of the days of the rituals, barring some specific days and thirteen men of some specific communities or the Bhaktas, the devotees, perform these rituals.     Many austere practices, ceremonies and ritual sacrifices mark the Chaitra Parva.  However, the performances of Chhau are not a part of the ritual and are performed in the evenings for the entertainment of the local people.

Some folk theatre forms of India like the Lavani and the Tamasha of Maharashtra are meant purely for the entertainment of people.  These use sex and strong sexual innuendos as a theme that makes it immensely popular.  Since, these performances are held in the night and employ the use of secular songs and dances, the women performers are not given high social value and esteem, and many women are discouraged to participate as performers.  Many of the performers also come from traditional low classes.  Traditionally, Chhau also had placed restrictions on women as performers. The origins of Chhau can best describe the lack of any female participants in the early years and their denial as performers.

 

 

To be continued….

The cover picture is courtesy Ms. Carolina Prada

Most of the other pictures used in the post are from the presentation on Chhau Masks and Footwork of Seraikela Chhau by National Folk Support Centre and can be accessed at the website http://www.slideshare.net

Author – Gouri Nilkantan

She can be reached at pact.delhi@gmail.com

One thought on “Chhau: A Folk Performance of Eastern India

Add yours

  1. Hi Gouri, very well-written article on Chhau, a subject very close to my heart. Also heartiest welcome to VEHF platform. We are looking for an immense engagement with you on various facets of Indian heritage.

    Liked by 2 people

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