The Chhau masks are an integral part of the world-famous Chhau Dance, essentially a war-like folk dance involving acrobatic moves and martial art forms. This dance form is based on mythological stories and Hindu religious themes. The Chhau dance has been listed under the UNESCO’s world heritage list of dances, thus having international recognition. While Bollywood owes the credit to make it popular among the Indian maas. The Chhau mask that is a vital part of the dance is made in a tiny village named Charida in the Bagmundi circle of Purulia district in West Bengal.
The Chhau dance is known to be associated with the martial art form and so it has a history that is linked with the war. It is thought that the word Chhau has been coined from the word ‘Chhauni’ (meaning barrack) where the soldiers performed these dance dramas to entertain themselves and also to celebrate their victory. With time, the high energetic pure form of martial art dance has gradually transformed to the present acrobatic form of Chhau.
There is region wise segregation of Chhau dance as Chhau of Purulia from West Bengal, Chhau of Seraikella from Jharkhand and Chhau of Mayurbhanj from Odisha. The Seraikella form of Chhau has the requirement of the mask as a primary accessory. Seraikella used to be a part of the ancient Singhbhum area with Oriya speaking people. After independence, it came under the state of Bihar and finally under Jharkhand.
Bijoy Pratap Singh Deo was a member of the royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Seraikella and was the pioneer to modify the war-like dance form to the present day Seraikella Chhau. He is also been attributed to carrying forward the art to Europe. The uniqueness of Seraikella Chhau lies in the absence of ‘Vachika Abhinaya’ (any form of speech or vocal communication) and the symbolic masks used here are much more simple and sombre.
Coming to Mayurbhanj Chhau, a dance from the northernmost part of Odisha bordering Jhargram in West Bengal. With huge forest cover in the district, the dance is said to have originated in the forest in early days. With royal patronage and timely modification, the dance form has matured to be more genteel than the rigorous form of martial art. These advanced techniques differentiate it from the other form of Chhau. The other noticeable point is the absence of the usage of masks here. In this form of Chhau, the faces are painted and the dance moves also involve facial expressions.
The Purulia Chhau, with the lack of patronage, remained unrefined and holds on to its ancient moves associated with hunting and warfare origin. Although the etymology of the term still remains debated with a section stressing of its origin from the word ‘Chhauni’ while others tracing it back to the Sanskrit word ‘Chhaya’ meaning shadow, with no written document to justify the claims. One more link comes up when we talk of Purulia Chhau. During the performance, the singer and the drummers are often seen to chase the performers shouting “Cho…cho…cho” which again originated from the tribal hunting act in ancient times when the hunters used to chase the animal with similar yells.
It is said that by chasing the performers with the loud yell of “Cho… cho…cho” helps to impart the enthusiasm and thus to kick start the high energetic performance. This yell again can be attributed to the origin of the name of Chhau. Whatever may be the origin of the name the dance form is unique in its own way and the Purulia Chhau is something that is more of vibrant, dynamic and fiery performance.
Chhau is different from other forms of Indian dance in its moves, spacing and treatment. There is a rigorous involvement of body movement ranging from lifting the body away from the ground with somersaults and spiralling turns. There are highly animated gestures accompanied by twirl, pirouette and other extended leg movements. The music forms the backbone of the dance, setting the mood of the exhaustive performance.
It all begins with the beating of drums followed by the invocation of Lord Ganesha and Shiva. The musical prelude peaks with the active beating of Dhol and Dhamsas. This is when the character of Lord Ganesha enters the stage (which is basically the open ground) and then the other characters of Gods, demons, animals and birds follows. The folk-based traditional music of the performance is played with instruments like Drums (Dhol and Dhamsas) and Mahuri (a type of flute or shehnai).
Chhau dance is mostly based on mythological themes with characters from Ramayana, Mahabharata or other Puranas. These are mostly group performances and very few solos or duet performances. The dance dramas portray stories of vice and virtue related to the mythological characters with the final triumph of virtue over vice. Chhau is mainly performed during the Spring festival (or the Sun festival) in certain areas of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. It coincides with the Chaitra Parva and the Charaka festival. With the growing popularity of the dance these days, there are some scattered performances seen during other festivals too.
The dance is considered to be sacred as the performers portray the characters of the Gods or they act on the story of the Gods so they follow a set of sacred rituals before they start. The performance is generally held in open fields after the sun is down. Previously poles were attached with traditional torches (Mashaals) which surrounded the arena to light up the area, these days electric-lights and halogens are often used.
Every dance has a specific set of costumes so does Chhau, with brightly coloured glittery costumes and accessories to match the vibrant masks. Masks are the most important part of the costume as well as the performance of Chhau. It is the preliminary character telling element of the show to set the mood of the performance. Later the skilful performers tactfully handle the massive masks with great efficiency expressing their emotions through their masks and body movements.
These enormous, glaring, evocative vivid masks of Purulia Chhau are made in the previously mentioned small village of Charida. This tiny village within the hilly terrain surrounded by forest is inhabited by a community of skilful artists who earn their living by making these beautiful masks. Chhau masks now form the socio-economic foundation of Charida village. This is a family enterprise and almost 115 families are involved in this business with men, women and children all engaged in their definite part in the mask-making process.
This mask-making community, called the Sutradhars used to live in Bardhaman district of West Bengal. ‘Around 150 years ago the then king of Baghmundi, Madan Modan Singh Deo, brought them to Charida to make new idols of the deities worshipped at his palace.’ Since then they inhabited this area making it an artisan village. Later they moved into the mask-making business. The villagers tend to use the locally available raw materials to make the masks like clay, water, cloth, coal ash, paper, homemade adhesive, colour, varnish, beads, feathers, leaves and flowers. With the growing demand, easy availability and cost-effectiveness the craftsmen have now turned towards plastic decorative materials purchased from Burrabazar area of Kolkata.
Chhau mask is again categorised into two sections, one for home decor while the other for the dance purpose. For the dance again there are different types of masks to portray the characters in the act. The various types of masks are Babu masks, Bir masks, Nari masks, Bhoot masks, animal masks, bird masks. There are again subcategories of these types of masks.
Babu mask includes masks of Gods like Shiva, Narayan, Ganesha, Kartik and Krishna. Bir masks are the demon masks which include Ravana, Mahishasura, Tarakasura, Sumbha, Nisumbha and many more. Nari masks are for the woman character like Goddess Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Sita and more. Bhoot masks are the mask to portray the character of ghosts and spirits. Animal masks are of lions, tigers, boars, buffaloes, mythological character of Bali, Sugriv and more. The bird mask includes peacock, swan, Jatayu (from Ramayana) and more.
In Charida, almost every household and every member takes part in the process of mask making. The work is segregated among the members and they have their definite part to work on. The initial step begins with making the mould with a mixture of mud and clay which is then sun-dried. Then layers of soft paper (no newspaper is used) is pasted on it with the help of adhesive made from refined flour and then it is dusted with fine coal ash powder. Again a layer of mud and cloth is applied before it is sun-dried for the second time. The next step is polishing and drilling holes for the eyes and the nose. Finally, it is painted with bright colours and the headgear is decorated with beads, feathers, jazzy accessories and artificial flowers.
Being in Charida village gave me an insight to Chhau dance and its relation with the quintessential Masks. I was fortunate enough to see the artisans at work, I could speak to them and could gather a lot of information about the process of Mask making. I regret not getting the opportunity to watch the Chhau Dance performance, but to listen to the process of mask making and knowing the substance of Chhau dance gave me a virtual feel dance drama. I could realise how much this tiny village in a small corner is contributing to preserving and propagating this ancient folk culture. Charida is equivalent to Chhau masks and Chhau Masks are to Chhau Dance – an intrinsic part that renders the essence of the character and further infuses life into it.