Chau: The Rare Mask Dances of Eastern India


The Purulia School of Chau, West Bengal

Oct 31, INDIA (SUN) — The traditions of Indian dance and dance dramas are among the most perplexingly complex and varied theatrical cultures of the world. The geographical vastness, different ecological conditions, multiplicity of races and their languages, the complex religious beliefs and ritual practices and equally intricate social structure have all contributed in creating the most colorful panorama of dance and dance drama traditions.

Among the neo-classical dance and dance dramas like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali and a few more, Chau, the rare mask dances of eastern India are quite unique.

It is difficult to ascertain the antiquity of the three major forms of Chau but surely this region, as noted by several ancient scriptures, was one of the most arduous areas to be penetrated by an outsider. The thick forests and hilly region inhabited by the "hostile tribals" made it impossible for anyone to trespass. The incomplete historical account compels us to accept some 'reconstructed' notes that mention the locals and a few Hindu chieftains, who gradually established their sovereignty within the small pockets of this region after 12-14 century A.D. They slowly influenced the life and customs of the native tribals. Today, layers of these influences accumulated over centuries are discernible in the cultural activities of these tribals.

Gambhira Rakshasa Mask, Bengal e. 20th c.

Chau dances are performed by these indigenous peoples in three adjoining states: Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The three forms of Chau are named after the district or village where they are performed: the Purulia Chau of Bengal, the Seraikella Chau of Bihar, and the Mayurbhanj Chau of Orissa.

Surprisingly, the earlier writers have made considerable effort to understand the origin of the word "Chau" and to ascertain its classical origin, and they have tried to establish the origin of the word "Chau" from the Sanskrit root word, ''Chaya''. Others have tried to justify its martial base and the derivation of the word by suggesting that "Chau" is derived from the local dialect, meaning an army camp. However, they have overlooked the outcries of the performers or the drummers during performance. Particularly in Purilia, the singer/drummer often rushes to the new characters "by shouting "cho... cho...cho..." with excitement, before they enter into the arena. By doing this, he infuses the same enthusiasm in the dancers. During the course of the performance, too, such excitement and outbursts of joy are expressed by the singers and other members of the orchestra.

Purulia Chau

Seraikella Chau

Seraikella, a small town in the Singhbhum district Bihar, is an arid flat land surrounded by low lying hills, which have protected her from external threats and saved her from subjugation by any foreign rule. Only as late as 1820, the princely state signed a treaty with the British, but continued to enjoy freedom including celebration of religious rites. Probably this freedom from external influences enabled Seraikella to preserve its uniqueness. It is said that a former king, apprehensive about the inevitable inflow of outsiders, did not accept the proposal to connect Seraikella with a railway. Today to reach Seraikella, one has to arrive at the steel city Tatanagar by taking a six hour train ride from Calcutta, and then proceed to the town by bus.

The Chau dance in Seraikella and the surrounding villages, including Purulia and Mayurbhanj, are performed as part of the annual festival Chaitra Parva. Throughout India several religious festivities, often followed by dance and dance dramas, are related to the agricultural cycle that coincides with the phase of moon and transition of sun from equinox or one constellation to the next. The completion of one agricultural cycle is marked by the beginning of a new cycle, and this continuous rhythm of life and creation is celebrated in several ways. The month of Chaitra (March-April) heralds Spring and the new cycle of agriculture. The next 15 days or more, till mid May, the most import time of the year is celebrated as the New Year in many regions, particularly Seraikella, neighboring regions and several parts of India.

In Seraikella, as also in Purulia and Mayurbhanj , a minimum of a week before the sun's transition on 14th April, elaborate rituals are offered to lord Shiva and His consort Shakti. Unfortunately, due to the political and economic situation and the dissolution of the princely state, the king who was the chief patron of the rituals is now unable to carry them with the traditional pomp and show. At the same time, people's faith in these rituals is diluted due to modernization and education. Such socio-economic and political reasons have reduced the duration of ritual-celebration from 26 to 13 days, or just the last four days of a traditional festival.

Purulia Chau

Three days prior to the sun's transition, i.e. on 10th April, the first ritual, Jatraghat, is performed. Prior to this day, on Tuesday (if 10th April happens to fall on Tuesday itself then on the same afternoon), an auspicious pitcher, Mangalaghat, is propitiated by only women.

On the next day for the ritual called Vrindavani, a devotee is dressed in white and his face is camouflaged with mango leaves, and he whisks mango twigs in his hands and pranks around. Children enjoy playing with this devotee who represents Hanuman, the monkey god who sets out to damage Ravan's orchard where Sita is kept captive by the demon king. On the third day, after Vrindavani, the ritual Gariyabhar is conducted. A devotee dressed in dark clothes carries two pitchers of milk and butter on her shoulder. Accompanied by two other devotees, also dressed as cowherdess, the chief devotee comes in procession with the staff.

Before the royal members took active interest in modifying the Chau dance during 20's and 30's there only existed simple dances that represented wild animals, ghosts (chirkuni) or at the most they introduced 'Bai' or woman and man masks and their dances. The princes educated in universities and having been exposed to the new culture of theatre and cinema in Calcutta, introduced epical and poetic themes in the repertoire. Their flair for Sanskrit, Bengali and Oriya literature, and interest in music and poetry enabled them to introduce lyrical themes. Similarly the introduction of more refined instruments like sitar and Sarangi and others instruments embellished the romantic themes further. The basic dance technique believed to be based on martial art, known as Parikhanda, was also modified gradually. The masks too received complete transformation from their rustic appearance.

The King Aditya Pratap Singh Deo after studying the world famous frescoes of Ajanta, guided the master craftsman Prasanna Kumar Mohapatra to refashion the masks. On the gentle pastel color of the masks delicate and elongated lines of eyebrows and eyes were marked to match the lyrical body kinetics of this dance. When a well-trained dancer adorns these masks, theyat once become eloquent with emotions transmitted by every twist and turn of the dancer's body. There are also more dramatic dances which are inspired by Sanskrit classics like Meghdoot, The Cloud Messenger, written by the great poet dramatist Kalidas, or other Bengali poems.

Purulia Chau

Purulia Chau

Due to lack of sustained patronage and guidance, the Purulia Chau show 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 form.

During the festival time a special flask shaped dancing arena is prepared, where several dancing parties assemble to perform. Two or more dhamas or kettle drum players and an equal or greater number of drummers accompany the groups. The tune is provided by a bo-like wind instrument called Marui.

Gambhira Rakshasa Mask, Bengal e. 20th c.

Unlike Seraikella Chau, here the chief drummer sings the introductory song or renders rhythmic passages during the performance. After introduction of a heroic character, when he enters the arena he runs to and fro several times in the narrow passage before commencing his dance or dialogue with other characters. On the other hand a demonic character takes several vigorous turns or summersaults and turns to sections of spectators for recognition and applause for his skill and virility. Such skillful acrobatic feats proliferate every year, leaving the researcher completely amused for their innovative skills in improvising such exciting sequences.

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 process of making masks is nearly the same, however, due to thick layers of clay, paper and mud, these masks are heavier than the Seraikella masks. Moreover the eyes on these masks are wide open, although the air passage of the nostrils is very narrow. The demonic nature of a character is ascertained by the knitted eyebrows and thick hair growth on the face, made by pasting on jute fibers. Thus the variety of masks in this form is equally or more varied than the Seraikella masks, even though the thematic content is limited to epic spiritual stories.

Mayurbhanj Chau

The royals of Mayurbhanj district of Orissa maintained a long and sustained political and marital relation with the Seriakella royal family. The latter sent a Chau master, who influenced the dance style in Baripada and nearby villages.

During the Chaitra Parba celebrations, the dances in Baripada villages are preceded by elaborate rituals, with some modifications in the rituals observed in Seraikella. The noticeable feature of this form is that since the elimination of masks, the body kinetics has changed considerably. The wider leg extensions, the flexion of the torso or the subtle jerks of the shoulders to punctuate the rhythmic cycle have all become more pronounced and strenuous. The basic technique, as repeatedly claimed by the writers and scholars, is believed to be derived from the martial art of sword and shield play. The combination of these movements are employed in the interpretative dances based on the epics.

The patronizing royal family of this form did not take an active interest in the development of the form, like their counterparts in Seraikella, but they encouraged healthy competition among two groups, Dakshin sahi and Uttar sahi, situated on either side of the river bank. Today this competitive spirit attracts several Chau groups and thousands of spectators, who sit through the night-long performance.

The elimination of mask has encouraged many female dancers of the other styles recently to learn this unique language of strong body kinetics. They have adopted the rudiments of the form and incorporated in their innovative dance many unique choreographs. Such creative efforts have at last generated audiences' interest in the Chau forms in general, which had been considered tribal, folk or semi-classical a decade and a half ago. Now, after a few years of regular choreographic introduction, they are enjoying a respectable place among the other classical dance styles of India.

Gambhira Asura, Gurd Shell, Bengal e. 20th c.


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