Chhau Nritya is a semi classical traditional dance from eastern India. This dance form ratifies interludes from epics such as The Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is also based on local folklore and conceptual notions. It has three well defined styles named after the locale where it is performed—Bengal’s Purulia Chhau, Jharkhand’s Seraikella Chhau and Mayurbhanj Chhau hailing from Odisha.
Chhau ranges from commemorating martial arts, athletics and acrobatics in convivial themes of folklore to an assembled dance form revolving around religious themes like Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism. The roots of Chhau dance are deeply imbibed to religious festivals, and are notably performed during the spring festival Chaitra Parva. The costumes differ between the three dance styles with Purulia and Serakeilla using specially made handmade masks to discern the characters. However, the Mayurbhanj Chhau exempts itself from the use of any mask.
With its origins traceable to primordial forms of dance and martial arts, the lexicon of its maneuver encompasses mock warfare techniques, conventionalized treads of animals and birds and gestures modeled on the errands of a village housewife. The dance brings immense tranquility as it is performed in the night in open spaces to conventional and folk themes. Music is orchestrated on the reed pipes such as mohuri and shehnai, which is accompanied with resonating drumbeats from a variety of drums.
This dance form is an intrinsic part of the culture of the locals. It brings together people from different collective strata and traditional background with heterogeneous social enactments, faiths, vocations and languages.
This dance form is an intrinsic part of the culture of the locals. It brings together people from different collective strata and traditional background with heterogeneous social enactments, faiths, vocations and languages. Chhau dance was once taught only to male dancers hailing from families of orthodox artists or from the regional clique. However, the male rampart of Chhau was dissented by women. As mentioned earlier, this two hundred year old tribal dance was performed only by men. Since Chhau Nritya depicts warfare, it was restricted only to king’s sepoys or security guards. But women challenged the patriarchal society and stepped in to learn this dance form.
In year 2003, a workshop on the Seraikela Chhau is a typical case study to see how the male bastion has been stormed by women. Hundreds of girls from the city made a beeline for the workshop to learn Chhau under the aegis of Guru Shyama Charan Pati.
“This dance form was originally for men. Women were not allowed to take part in it owing to several reasons. In those days, the condition of women was deplorable. They had practically no right or privilege. They were confined to the four walls of their house,” Pati said. “…Girls from respectable families were not allowed to dance or sing. Female dancers were looked down upon. Dancing was confined to only courtesans. Chhau was performed by soldiers. It is a type of martial art. Women were strictly forbidden to practice it,” he added. “According to this dance form, girls are impure. Chhau is the worship of Lord Shiva and so women cannot take part in it. Chhau dancers wear masks. One of the reasons behind wearing masks while performing this dance is that the women characters are played by men. Chhau steps are difficult for girls,” Pati said.
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Popelka Mitra a student of Sacred Heart Convent however does not believe in such ideas. She mentions girls to be equally efficient as the boys. She added there is nothing a girl cannot do and Chhau is no exception. Ananya Bose, her friend said, “I have been practicing hard for some days now. It is difficult no doubt but not impossible. I can master it with regular practice and hard work. We will prove to be better than the boys.”
Since this dance form depicts warfare, it was restricted only to king’s sepoys or security guards. But women challenged the patriarchal society and stepped in to learn this dance form.
The fabulously fabled Guru Krishna Chandra Naik who taught Chhau to young women in Calcutta, now Kolkata, recalls it to be a quite learning and growth period for him. He burgeoned not only as a teacher but also his fecund creativity as a choreographer and veneration for the aptness of women in a hitherto all–male dance form. Noted artist Gul Bardhan studied the Mayurbhanj style Chhau under the tutelage of Guru Krishna Chandra Naik along with other dance heritages. Post the death of her husband in 1954 she single handedly carried this dance form inculcating choreographic works which comprises the archetypal signature production of the epic Ramayana.
There are many Chhau dancers, who have remarkably excelled the dance form—Madhuri Bhatia, Sharon Lowen, Daksha Seth and Ileana Citaristi are some notable names. Noted Odissi exponents Padmavibhushan, Dr Sonal Mansingh and Padmashri Ranjana Gauhar are said to have assimilated Mayurbhanj Chhau in their fusion performances.
The discourse of Chhau dance will be incomplete without the mention of the contribution of the great danseuse Sharon Lowen. Sharon is one of the foremost performing artists in Chhau dance, and she is also trained in Odissi and Manipuri. She had mastered Mayurbhanj Chhau under Late Guru Krishna Chandra Naik and Seraikella Chhau under Guru Kedarnath Sahoo. She is the first woman performing artist of an all male dance form. She introduced Mayurbhanj Chhau to the United States, at the 1978 to Asian Dance Fete in Hawaii followed by performance at the Olympic Arts festival of Masks in Los Angeles. She singularly also ensured that Chhau was being frequently presented on Doordarshan’s National Broadcasts.
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History is witness that time and again women have bludgeoned in all segments of classical and non classical dance forms. Nothing is impossible for a woman. Not even the martial art dance form Chhau, which was once dominated by men.
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Hi, Popelka Mitra here. Went through your article and glad to see your approach towards feminism. Currently I am a research scholar of International Relations and a graduate of political science. I was happy to see a new perspective people are trying to take up. Even after these years I have been practicing Dance and especially Chau.
Loved your work.
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