Behind the mask
Chhau dance is a genre of martial dance performed by some tribal communities (mostly Bhumij and Kurmi tribes) in the state Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa in India. Based on the places this dance form can be classified in three subgenres – Seraikella Chhau, Purulia Chhau is practiced in Jharkhand and in the Purulia district of West Bengal respectively whereas Mayurbhanj Chhau is seen in Orissa. The nomenclature of this dance form has many versions. In local term ‘Chhau’ means mask. Most people agree that the term gives the form its name. The other accepted theory is that traditionally the dance was performed by and for soldiers of the local kingdom at their camps (locally known as ‘Chhauni’) in their leisure time. The dance theme included their heroic deeds in life and traditional folk lore. They used to perform this dance for their own entertainment as well as to encourage themselves. Hence the name derived from the local term ‘chhauni’.
Traditionally chhau is performed in the festive season during spring known as “Chaitra Porob” which last for about 13 days. It is mainly performed at night as the dance form is very hard working in nature which includes continuous limb movements and graceful head and neck movements to perfectly portray the character’s moods, sentiments. With the traditional instruments such as ‘shehnai’ (locally known as ‘shaina’), a variety of traditional drums like ‘dhol’ (a cylindrical drum), ‘dhumsa’ (a large kettle drum) and ‘kharka’, it is performed in an open area called ‘akhada’ or ‘asor’. The themes for this martial dance are mainly based on folklore and episodes from ‘Ramayana’, ‘Mahabharata’.
In spite of so many aspects, Chhau remain confined to being local entertainment because it lacks glamour and state support that has promoted the development and evolution of the other traditional dance forms. Most artistes are initiated into the art form by virtue of birth, continuing the family tradition. But nowadays, the young generation is not much interested in taking up the dance or its music professionally as it seems not lucrative enough to them.