chau dance picture by Saurav Mukherjee

The slowly dying art of Chhau Dance

Chau is a somewhat weird, over the top dance form that would confuse young millennials but it has a lot of history and culture associated with it. I was both mesmerised and confused looking at what was going on, and needed a local friend to explain to me, what it actually was. However, like a lot of different art forms that grew out of necessity of entertainment to the rural folks, Chau is also slowly disappearing into oblivion.

Chhau is (rather was) majorly popular in three places. The Purulia district of West Bengal, the Seraikela district of Jharkhand and the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa. The dance form emerged as a way to tell stories. Stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata and of different deities. Stories, performed by male dancers at night, in an asar with musicians giving them the rhythm.

These musicians are as important to the performance as the dancers themselves – they majorly play the shenai and the dhol. The musicians are led by a folklore singer on the mic, who keeps telling the audience in the local dialect about what is going on. The dancers and the musicians work in tandem using beats – their own language.

The Chhau dance in Myurbhanj in Orissa is different from the other two places because the dancers there, don’t wear masks. However, masks play an important role in Purulia and Seraikela. These masks tell about the character the dancers are portraying while complementing their flamboyant costumes. These masks also accentuate the head bobs and different other movements made by the dancers to give a more dynamic effect to the act. The masks are designed by local artists and are often faces of deities, because the folklore that the dance represents are often stories from the Hindu mythology where these deities are the protagonists.

The dancers don’t just dress up as deities. A lot of them dress up as supporting acts, like animals. In this particular clip, you can see a dancer in a blue costume, dressed up as a peacock to compliment the other dancer who is Karthik. In Hindu mythology, peacock is the vahan of Karthik.

The dancers themselves have to be extremely athletic because this dance form has extravagant stunts to keep the audience engaged, and all on the beat. During the asar, once the rhythm of the music fastens, dancers come in one by one and keep performing stunts for the amusement of the audience. I don’t know if this elaborate set of stunts by the dancer pertains to the storytelling or just to keep the audience engaged, but it is very entertaining to watch.

However, with the advent of technology, people are less bothered about going to watch Chhau dance when they can watch Netflix instead. UNESCO has represented Chhau dance in Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the Government of Odisha has tried to maintain it’s importance by creating Government Chau dance centre, but it is the people who are not entertained by it anymore.

In a world of glitz and glamour – the dancers have to wear dirty socks with holes in them and do vaults on a cold night in front of an unappreciative audience who would rather check Whatsapp stories than supporting a dying art form.

But that begs the question – am I any different? Would I have chosen Chhau dance over Netflix every single night if I had that choice? Probably not. I would slowly forget about this as I return to my daily life. Many years later, when I reread this post, I would wonder, what happened to the Chhau dancers I had seen that winter night? But, would I truly care? I don’t know. I imagine it will just remain a fleeting thought like thousands of others, that just pass by – without commitments or consequences.