A young boy is running through the rain-splattered woods dressed as a peacock, ready for his first dance – a performative art that integrates the heritage of dance and drama, Chhau. The dance form draws simultaneously from martial arts, tribal, and folk traditions and culminates in a somewhat otherworldly experience—a collective conscience that elevates and transports viewers into a distinct spiritual realm. And this sense of the collective is essentially nothing but that intoxicating power of the moment when an entire community comes together to celebrate a festival that is rooted in their life’s fabric.
Chhau dance, at its core, gets its raw, earthy aesthetic from the uniqueness of the form itself, the crude, yet complex indigenous musical instruments such as the dhol, the pakhawaj, or the nagara that accompany the performances, to say nothing of the fundamental purpose it serves in society, that of uniting communities is an almost surreal participatory experience. Originally conceived as a war dance, the three distinct traditions of this folk art, viz. the Purulia Chhau of West Bengal, the Seraikella Chhau of Bihar, and the Mayurbhaj Chhau of Odisha, have retained the essence of the dance drama—the stylized combative techniques—albeit having spurned other thematic forms of storytelling. From the decade-old tradition of enacting tales from epics, mythology, and folklore, to integrating narratives that capture everyday lives and activities of the villagers and mimetically bringing alive elements of nature, birds, and animals, Chhau manages to performatively depict the entire gamut of human emotions through an immersive sensory experience. While the dance form has managed to pass on stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, or the Puranas steadfastly from one generation to another, the communal appeal of Chhau relies heavily on vibrant representations of the ordinary. Whether it is a boatman and his wife (nabik) thrown into the perilous waters of life itself, fisherfolk (dhibor) and hunters (sober) captured in the act, the graceful movements of a swan or the captivating peacock (mayur) dance, Chhau turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, encapsulating the beauty of everyday life in its artistic expression.
This inspiration from rudimentary elements of life adds to the appeal of this exuberant folk art to entire communities as they are bound together by the spirit of this festival. Yet it so imaginatively draws from the humdrum routines; the communal grounds within the village where the dances are performed also serve to create a sense of belonging, taking the village folk back to their roots. These spaces reverberate with the drum beating, which is a crucial medium for establishing social solidarity. But what is infinitely fascinating is how Chhau encompasses the entire continuum between the quotidian and the remarkable. The presentation of the quotidian itself makes it remarkable and vice versa, with one constantly feeding into the other. The performance, with its range of unique techniques, movements, and gestures, is so specific in its characteristics that they appear daunting to those outside the periphery of this particular skill set that this folk form demands. No individual who isn’t rigorously trained in this form can ever make inroads into this otherwise raw traditional presentation without knowing the nitty gritty of the form itself, thus allowing for a veil between the common person and the performative art of Chhau.
Yet, curiously enough, the men and now women who perform the craft are not necessarily professionals. Most of them spend the year engaged elsewhere, perhaps toiling in farmlands and trying to put together two square meals daily. They are amateurs, tending to come from economically poor backgrounds. Yet, for decades, these artists have performed the complex movements of Chhau, elevating it beyond the reach of the untrained.
What is this peculiar power of the rustic melodies accompanied by the painted faces and masks, conjuring up imagery that stays with the audience long after the performance? And yet, despite the strength of this imagery, Chhau still struggles to find a foothold beyond the remote villages where it survives. While there is a growing demand for niche art forms that take one back to the grassroots, traditional folk forms like Chhau remain tucked away in the wooded corners of West Bengal, Odisha, and Bihar, where they originated.
Chhau artists try and make it more socially relevant through the stories they narrate. Chhau is often used today as a medium to communicate social issues and spread awareness on themes such as the dowry system and female foeticide, thus further adding to the spirit of the collective. However, the core nuances remain the same even as the stories pile on. After surviving as a traditional tribal art form for generations, Chhau only stands the test of TikTok!
Author: Surangama Guha Roy
[Sociology; Goldsmiths College, London; Presidency College, Kolkata; Research & Writing]Illustration: Sabyasachi Chatterjee; Edited by TDLM Design Team