Celebrate Asia: Colourful masks, martial arts and an Indian dance fit for the gods
In our series on unique people, places and food in the region, CNA Lifestyle witnessed how one village in West Bengal is keeping the centuries-old Chhau dance alive.
One of India’s oldest dance forms, the Chhau dance is a traditional, semi-classical dance that started in the 19th century and combines folklore with tribal traditions and martials arts.
Story has it, soldiers practising martial arts during peacetime turned their workouts into a dance for entertainment for the kings and queens, and also for the people.
Today, it’s earned a spot on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage that’s still being performed in April during the Chaitra Parva festival to thank the gods for a good harvest. Those keen to catch authentic performances in India can visit three areas: Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.
All three offer different styles and in West Bengal, you’ve got the Chhau dance from the Purulia district. What makes this particular one unique is the use of masks, which are made using age-old traditions that date back at least a century.
These masks are the most important element in the performance. Purulia Chhau masks are chiefly crafted by carpenters collectively called Sutradhar, which means “thread-holder” in Sanskrit.
In Purulia, these masks are mainly made by entire families of Sutradhar in the village of Charida, which is full of workshops displaying these colourful, intricate creations.
Rajib Dutta is one such mask-maker – his great-grandfather began the tradition, which has been faithfully passed down to the next three generations of men in the family.
The process of making masks is elaborate and takes several days or up to a week, he told CNA Lifestyle.
“First, we make the clay mould, which we transform into the character’s face,” Rajib explained. “Then we will paste pages of a book on the mould. We stick the paper with a type of glue and cover it with cloth. After it dries, we start painting and decorating the mask.”
The masks are painted with varying levels of intricate detail, and decorations added: Feathered headdresses, pom-poms, beaded tassels, plastic flowers of all colours and sizes. These masks take the form of characters in the performances and made to look accordingly dramatic. Those of the characters of major gods are highly detailed.
Chhau performances are based on famous Sanskrit texts and local folklore such as the Ramayana, Marabharata, the Puranas and the Rigveda. Masks of gods and goddesses are elaborate and painted red or orange while masks depicting demons are often blue. Costumes are no less adorned, with red prominently featured in the outfits of the gods and goddesses, and characters also wield accessories such as swords.
BEYOND THE MASK
Chhau is performed in an open space called asar, to the sound and rhythm of various kinds musical instruments including drums such as the cylindrical dhol and a kettle drum called the dhumsa, alongside reed pipes like the melodic shehnai.
“Without music Chhau is incomplete; every beat creates movement in the dance. The body moves to the beat and the movement changes to the beats,” said Rajib. These moves include a mock combat technique called khel, bird-style walking (chalis) and animal gaits (topkas). These athletic Chhau dancers use movements to skillfully convey emotions, for example, they heave their bodies to show anger.
The Chhau is performed almost entirely by men, including the female roles that require masks. “There is a lot of hard work involved. The mask itself weighs five to seven kilogrammes. The costume weights about four to five kilogrammes. To dance in this get-up is not an easy task for the dancers. It is not easy for women to do this dance because of their build. They cannot keep up to the rhythm of the dance. This is why both male and female characters are performed by male dancers,” explained Rajib.
The stories in Chhau dance feature characters from the Hindu pantheon, with the chief character being Lord Shiva. “The dance is about the destruction of evil,” said Rajib. “We take parts of the story where we show good destroying evil, where good triumphs. This is the uniqueness of the Chhau.”
Traditionally, Chhau was performed for royalty – the King of Baghmundi in Purulia was said to be the main patron – and the wealthy, as well as the British governors of the West Bengal region.
Today, Chhau dance is a community celebration that unites people from different strata of society. Purulia Chhau is performed during important religious occasions such as the Gajan Festival and other Shaivite festivals – this form of Chhau adapts the Tandava form of Indian classical dance, and most of the performers are Shivaites, or followers of Lord Shiva, the patron of the Yogis and Brahmins and the protector of the sacred texts, the Vedas.
Chhau dance varies in the masks and movements from region to region, but it is a tradition that is handed down orally, making it an intangible cultural heritage that was, at one stage, in danger of falling into oblivion, mostly because of modernisation and economic pressure.
However, with the zeal of the community and UNESCO’s recognition, these East Indian regions are witnessing a revival in the popularity of Chhau, and what will hopefully be the preservation of a rich tradition for many generations.
To find out more about Celebrate Asia, visit www.cna.asia/celebrate-asia.