Performing Chhau is like writing poetry in space. As the goddess rides the lion and slays the demon, mythology, martial art and music blend into a colourful spectacle of unadulterated, rustic yet sophisticated and liberating form of entertainment. The elaborate, stylized and often vigorous movements of this dance form, originating in the eastern states of Orissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand, transport the viewer to the forests, recreating scenes of tribal warfare and tales from the animal kingdom. Identified mostly by the masks and costumes worn by the artistes, Chhau is yet to gain popularity and take its rightful place among the celebrated classical dances of India.

By Saraikella Chhau exponent Sashadhar Acharya’s own admission, Chhau has remained confined to being local entertainment because it lacks glamour and state support that has promoted the development and evolution of other classical dance forms.

The nomenclature has many versions, though most people agree that the masks, called chhaya, give the form its name. The other accepted theory is that traditionally the dance was performed by and for soldiers in camps or chhaunis, hence the name and the warrior-like moves and battle themes.

Chhau is mainly categorized into three styles—Mayurbhanj, Saraikella and Purulia. Mayurbhanj Chhau does not use masks, giving the dancers more scope to use their body and explore movement, often in ballet style. “Here the hathyardhara technique uses swords and shields and the appeal lies in the martial art style; the kalibhanga technique embodies the lasya or feminine elements; and kalikata unites tandava (masculine) and lasya elements," explains Santosh Nair, who practises the Mayurbhanj style of Chhau.

In the Purulia and Saraikella styles of Chhau, the grandeur of the costumes and masks is a major attraction, although it limits the dancers from attempting vigorous jumps and using their body fluidly. These styles of Chhau draw heavily from the Mahabharat, Ramayan and the depiction of Shiva and Natraja through their energy, beauty and grace. Coming close to Kathakali from Kerala for its emphasis on attire and masks, the marked difference is that while Kathakali is highly song-based and stresses on abhinaya and mudras (expression through face, hands and body), Chhau music is almost entirely instrumental. In Chhau, the shehnai and drums, like the dhumsa and dhol, do most of the talking. This is also a limitation in taking Chhau to the masses, as it can only be performed to live music, and musicians are difficult to find. Most artistes are initiated into the art form by virtue of birth, continuing the family tradition. Taking up the dance or its music professionally is not lucrative enough.

Purulia Chhau is especially known for its themes on Durga and Mahishasur Mardini, a staple for the people of this region. Despite this, it remains a male bastion, with all-male troupes. Unlike the Mayurbhanj and Saraikella styles that have gained popularity in recent times, Purulia Chhau is still confined to the rural areas. Most artistes rehearse in the akharas, an open practice area, after finishing their day jobs and perform during festivals. For them it is a way of life, keeping them rooted and close to nature. With no frills attached and no mechanical interference, this breed of artistes is simply content in practice.

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