“Even the mask acts in chhau.” “Art is man’s distinctly human way of fighting death”

Leaonard Baskin
American Sculptor, illustrator artist

The above quote aptly describes chhau dance, a martial art dance form from India. The journey of Ashoka to Ashoka– The great was weitten by massacre and blood sheds. It resulted in Kalinga war. Ashoka ruled from 273 B.C. to 232 B.C. and Kalinga war was fought around 260 B.C. This atrocious war ended physically but it loomed on into the minds of people living there. In those times, Kharwel Dynasty made learning and using of a martial art, using sword and sheild compulsory. In order to prevent kalinga from future invasious this FARIKHANDA MARTIAL ART using sword and shild was taught to every single citizen. Each and every person in each and every village adopted learning and using this mortial art as if it were a religion. Northeastern Jharkhand state’s singhbhum and seraikella, Bengal’s Purulia and Orrisa’s Baripada Mayurbhanj were all parts of then kalinga are today the epicentre of modern times where chhau prevails as art form.

These places are still preserving and promoting this ancient martial art based dance form of India. It has to be noted that emperor kharwel motivated the common citizens of his dynasty to practice like soldiers and be ready for any contigency. The adept soldiers fleet roamed from one village to another and trained and popularised this martial art form as chhau dance. It was not only a martial art to fight any unforeseen but also a way of entertainment. Later on this art form acquired classical rules and regulations and was seeped into the cultural fabric of that region. The places where such practice of martial art cum dance form was practiced were Khurda, Kuttack, Puri, Neelgiri, Dhenkanal, Mayurbhanj, Seraikella, Singhbhum, Poda haat and sorrounding regions.

This art form later survived and continued during the times of 12-13 A.D. while Delhi sultanate was prevailing. The fighters of Khurda challenged the British force under the garb of ‘Krishak Sena’ 2000 years passed and perhaps people forgot FARIKHANDA FORMAT but chhau still carries the legacy of its inception and is classically getting refined and attened to new formats. The reason being its deeprooted faith and belief in its origin. Kapila vatsayan connotes chhau as distinct from all the other art forms of India. Be it southern dance, Odissa and Eastern Bengal’s Yatra Drama, Manipur and Assam’s Dance Ballets, Northern Indias RaasLeela & Ram Leela. Chhau is altogether distinct and different. At first its like a flashy display of valour and vigour but actually it comes out to be very discreet and distinct dance art form.

In today’s parlance chhau is denoted by the area or region where it originates from. For example Seraikella Chhau, Mayurbhanj Chhau and Purulia Chhau. All three styles have their distinctive features and signature steps and nuances. But at the same time the socio-economic background of its performers is also a distinctive feature of its style. Purulia chhau is mostly adopted and presented by economically backword and downtrodden people. Mayurbhanj chhau doesnt have such weak economic participants and infact comes from a special class of people called ‘PAIKA’. These were the official warriors of Mayurbhanj rulers. Where as seraikella chhau dancers are soldiers or warrior class people. They were supported and sponsored by their state and administration. The artist and mask makers belonged to royal families and they played the role of gurus and performers too. This also proves that art and culture thrives in all economic classes across the social fabric alike.

Apart from this, various people also opines about the origin of the word ‘Chhau’. Few suggest that chhau originated from word ‘chhaya’ means shadow. While others including seraikella rulers hold that chhau originated from sanskrit word ‘Chaima’, which means disguise. Another theory which originated from odissi language is that this word has etymdogy from hunting from hide out another says chhau came from ‘Chhawni’ means where army rests. Actually it hardly matters which one of these theories is correct?

Saraikella Chhau : Seraikella chhau was patronised by royal segment. Not only this, but princess used to participate in it. Besides princess, tribals, artisans, farmers, soldiers etc. used to participate in chhau. Untike southern Bhagwat fair or Yakshgaan styles where all the formateties and worships takes place inside green rooms, in chhau it is not only Manglacharan which augments the festivities but the entire event marks as a well celebrated and sought after festival.

The entire celebration goes on for about 26 days. Seraikella chhau is like any other chhau but its hand and body gestures have a definite way. Also the style of walking while dancing is also unique. The dance is equally important as the acting part in the ballet is. Although vocal singing is nunimal but drum beats are conspicuous. Seraikella chhau is known for its masquerade. The artists prepare their masks themselves.

Mayurbhanj Chhau : Mayurbhanj Chhau is pure martial art at its dance epitome. Its almost classical in its presentations, with definitive rules and regulations, formats and layouts. It is more elaborate and in the format of a ballet. But at the same time performance of Mayurbhajn Chhau remains to be a fortnight of celebrations.

Purulia Chhau : Purulia Chhau is very distinctive form the other chhaus. Although it has the grandeur of mayurbhanj Chhau but there is absence of grand masks which are signature of seraikella chhau. But at the same time Purulia Chhau has rich dancing style where there is an elaborate dance presentation imbibed in all performances. The performers wear masks of the characthers they display but they are not as impressive and fancy as those of seraikella chhau. The footwork and rythm is very high spirited and rigourous.

Seraikella, Mayurbhanj & Purulia Chhau are unique art forms of Indian heritage which are second to none. This dance form joins together the states from which each style gets it distinct identity namely Bengal, Bihar & Odissa.

This dance style has now doned the status of classic and is a living legend of some 2500 years of continuen. It has now become a culture in itself.