The traditions of Indian dance and dance dramas are among the most perplexingly complex and varied theatrical cultures of the world. The geographical vastness, different ecological conditions, multiplicity of races and their languages, the complex religious beliefs and ritual practices and equally intricate social structure have all contributed in creating the most colorful panorama of dance and dance drama traditions.
Among the neo classical dance and dance dramas like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali and a few more, Chau, the rare mask dances of eastern India are quite unique.
It is difficult to ascertain the antiquity of these three major forms of Chau but surely this region, as noted by several ancient scriptures, was one of the most arduous area to penetrate by an outsider. The thick forests and the hilly region inhabited by the "hostile tribals" made it impossible for anyone to trespass. The near paucity of written record or incomplete historical account compels us to accept some 'reconstructed' notes that mention about the local and a few Hindu chieftains who gradually established their sovereignty within the small pockets of this region after 12-14 century A.D. and slowly influenced the life and customs of the native tribals. Today layers of these influences accumulated over centuries are discernible in the cultural activities of these tribals. Today layers of these influences accumulated over centuries are discernible in the cultural activities of these tribals.
The tribal belt where the tribals and other common people perform Chau dances is distributed into three adjoining states, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, after the dissolution of the princely states in 1950.
The three forms of Chau are named after the district or village where they are performed, i.e. the Purulia Chau of Bengal, the Seraikella Chau of Bihar and the Mayurbhanj Chau of Orissa. Surprisingly the earlier writers have exercised considerably to understand the origin of the word Chau and to ascertain its classical origin as also they have tried to establish the origin of the word Chau from Sanskrit root word 'Chaya', while others have tried to justify its martial base and the derivation of the word by suggesting that the word Chau is derived from the local dialect meaning an army camp. However, they have overlooked the outcries of the performers or the drummers during performance. Particularly in Purilia, the singer drummer often rushes to the new characters "by shouting "cho... cho...cho..." with excitement, before they enter into the arena. By doing this he infuses the same enthusiasm in the dancer. During the course of the performance also such excitement and outburst of joy are expressed by the singers and other members of orchestra. Similarly this author heard the same utterances by the hunters who assemble at a particular hill top during the annual hunting expeditions on the full moon day in the month of May. While chasing the game exclaim they exclaim "cho... cho...cho..." (a broader pronunciation of Chau), in order to fright the animals or invoke the spirit of animal for easier gain of the game. Most likely it is this word associated with the natives' earliest hunting occupation that is now associated with their dances to express joy and excitement .
Seraikella, a small town in the Singhbhum district Bihar, is an arid flat land surrounded by low lying hills, which have protected her from external threats and saved her from subjugating to any foreign rule. Only as late as 1820 the princely state signed a treaty with British but continued to enjoy freedom including celebration of religious rites. Probably this free state from external influence enabled Seraikella to preserve its uniqueness. It is said that a former king apprehensive about inevitable inflow of outsiders, did not accept the proposal to connect Seraikella with a railway. Today to reach Seraikella one has to arrive at the steel city Tatanagar by taking six hour train ride from Calcutta and then proceed to the town by bus.
The Chau dance in Seraikella and the surrounding villages, including Purulia and Mayurbhanj, are performed as part of the annual festival Chaitra Parva. Throughout India several religious festivities, often followed by dance and dance dramas, are related to the agricultural cycle that coincides with the phase of moon and transition of sun from equinox or one constellation to the next. The completion of one agricultural cycle is marked by the beginning of a new cycle and it is this continuous rhythm of life and creation is celebrated in several ways. The month of Chaitra (March-April) heralds Spring and the new cycle of agriculture. The next 15 days or more, till mid May, the most import time of the year is celebrated as the New Year in many regions, particularly Seraikella, neighboring regions and several parts of India.
In Seraikella, as also in Purulia and Mayurbhanj , minimum a week before the sun's transition on 14th April, elaborate rituals are offered to lord Shiva and His consort Shakti. Unfortunately, due to political and economic situation and the dissolution of princely state, the king who was the chief patron of the rituals, is now unable to carryout the traditional rituals with the traditional pomp and show. At the same time, people's faith in these rituals is diluted due to modernization and education. Such socio-economic and political reasons have reduced the duration of ritual-celebration from 26 to 13 days or just last four days. Three days prior to the sun's transition, i.e. on 10th April, the first ritual Jatraghat is performed. Prior to this day on Tuesday (if 10th April happens to fall on Tuesday itself then on the same afternoon) an auspicious pitcher- Mangalaghat is propitiated by only women. They observe fast and other austerities throughout the day and fall into trance while carrying the pitcher on their heads. Several devotees offer sacrifices of fowls. Remarkably enough after this initiation of the rituals by women, men folk take over completely. Women are avoided in rituals as well as in dance.
Thirteen devotees belonging to socio economically deprived classes and who have been traditionally carrying out these rituals observe fast during the festival days. One of them, who has been regularly carrying this first ritual is dressed in red clothes as woman. His face and the exposed body limbs are also painted with vermilion. 'She' along with a bamboo staff with 13 nodes are sanctified by a priest at the banks of the river Kharkai that flows on north of the town. An earthen pitcher symbolizing womb and fertility, is filled with river water and its mouth is plugged with plantain flower to suggest union of Shiva and Shakti, or the male and female power for the procreation of life. Utmost care is taken while fixing it on the devotee's head. The devotee carrying the auspicious picture is now regarded as Ardhanarishwar, the composite of the two procreative forces. The jubilant crowd follows the staff and the 'ghatavali' (the devotee with the pitcher) in procession, they are accompanied by the strong beating on big kettle drum and Mahuri, a wind instrument and another drum. Before reaching to the main Shiva temple the procession often stops at various junctures where the devotees offer sacrifices for propitiation or as thanks giving. When the procession reaches the palace the king too offers sacrifice while the 'ghatavali' with renewed spirits dances almost in trance. The staff is installed at the Raghunath temple in the palace courtyard and the procession then proceeds to the Shiva temple.
On the next day for the ritual called Vrindavani another devotee is dressed in white and his face is camouflaged with mango leaves and he whisks mango twigs in his hands and pranks around. Children enjoy to play with this devotee who represents Hanuman, the monkey god who sets out to damage Ravan's orchard where Sita, Rama's wife is kept captive by the demon king. On the third day, after Vrindavani , the ritual Gariyabhar is conducted. A devotee dressed in dark clothes carry two pitchers of milk and butter on her shoulder. Accompanied by two other devotees, also dressed as cowherdess, the chief devotee comes in procession with the staff.
On the last day, on 13th April, at late night another devotee dressed completely in black, brings Kalikaghat which is considered inauspicious for the royal members to witness. Since this ritual symbolizes dissolution of life and the end of life cycle, the king who is believed to be the incarnation of, or the representative of life sustainer lord Vishnu, avoids witnessing it. By organizing the Chau performance at the palace arena people's attention is also diverted. The devotee submits the pitcher and the staff at the Shiva temple. The new pitcher is kept at the base of the phallus. the level and condition of the water in the last year's pitcher foretells the nature of the rain fall, crop and general health of people. After this submission the king is invited the temple where a man lies on a wooden plank like a corpse. By mere touch of the king who is considered the sustainer and protector of his subjects, the man comes to life once again. The rhythm of life continues to perpetuate for ever.
Thus from propitiation and installation of the staff till the last rituals, the entire process suggests layers of influences from primitive tribal rites of more refined Hindu beliefs. The rituals also suggests the evolution of life from 'chaos' of the primordial waters to money -primate stage to pastoral or shift cultivation age and the last culmination of life cycle, because according to the Hindu philosophy anything that is born must come to an end only to be resurrected in order to continue the cycle of life. It is this rhythm of life that is celebrated by Chau dances. Unfortunately, their significance or relation to these rituals are now so removed that they have lost the due relevance altogether. Before the royal members took active interest in modifying the Chau dance during 20's and 30's there only existed simple dances that represented wild animals, ghosts (chirkuni) or at the most they introduced 'Bai' or woman and man masks and their dances. The princes educated in universities and having been exposed to the new culture of theatre and cinema in Calcutta, introduced epical and poetic themes in the repertoire. Their flair for Sanskrit, Bengali and Oriya literature, and interest in music and poetry enabled them to introduce lyrical themes. Similarly the introduction of more refined instruments like sitar and Sarangi and others instruments embellished the romantic themes further. The basic dance technique believed to be based on martial art, known as Parikhanda, was also modified gradually. The masks too received complete transformation from its rustic appearance. The king Aditya Pratap Singh Deo after studying the world famous frescoes of Ajanta guided the master craftsman Prasanna Kumar Mohapatra to refashion the masks. On the gentle pastel color of the masks delicate and elongated lines of eyebrows and eyes were marked to match the lyrical body kinetics of this dance. When a well trained dancer adorns these masks that at once become eloquent with emotions transmitted by every twist and turn of the dancer's body.
Though the martial art is believed to be the base of the Chau dance, more than two third of its technique is derived from the gaits and flights of birds and animals, only a few others describe the daily chores of a woman. These two sections signify the early primitive hunting occupation of the native inhabitants and their gradual settled life as they learnt land cultivation. Indeed, it was the choreographic genius of the prince Vijay Pratap Singh Deo who introduced highly suggestive themes and stylized body movements that matched the poet's imagination. The new repairer can be classified into three categories; the first consisting of simple and primary dances, second the solo or duet dances depicting birds, animals, Night ,sea and even human beings of humble origins, like fisherman, boatman, or hunter. beyond the surface meaning these numbers with their unique choreographic concepts and body kinetics convey the deeper and allegorical meanings which may echo higher philosophy of life. For instance, Banabiddha, a short but one of the most poetic dances of the Seraikella Chau repertoire , may provide a glimpse into the high degree of suggestive potential of this form. Apparently it depicts plight of a young deer pierced by an arrow . With the arrow struck into her heart she limps with agonizing pain in the forest. A t a distance she spots the one who has given her this unredeemable sorrows and plunges into deep anguish. She wreathes in pain and drags herself along with unendurable and inexpressible pain of her pierced heart. Beyond this plightful story of a young deer it conveys in figure of dance the languishing pain of a young maiden, who is inexperienced in the ways of the world or uninitiated in the game of love. She is been deceived at the very first encounter, however, she blames no one but herself and her misfortune. Yet another message of non violence towards mute and innocent animals is conveyed through this dance. This unique and matched way of conveying several layers of allegorical meanings with highly sophisticated and stylized body language with face masked have elevated the level of the Seraikella Chau a span above the 'classical' dances.
The last category comprises of more dramatic dances which are inspired by Sanskrit classics like 'Meghdoot'-The Cloud Messenger, written by the great poet dramatist Kalidas, or Bengali poems like 'Bandir Swapna'- Captive's Dream, penned by Rabindranath Tagore. The introduction of several characters and their brief but suggestive 'dialogue' have added element of dream into these dances.
Due to lack of sustained patronage and guidance the Purulia Chau show very little evolvement since its hunting or warfare origin. Performed by the early inhabitants of this arid region, it is almost an antithesis of sophisticated and stylized Seraikella form.
Brief and simple rituals precede the dance performed that are conducted in front of a Shiva temple or the village square. The village head is the patron and he carries a brass pitcher on his head to his house where his wife sprinkles the water of the pitcher on the newly harvested crop. Later, in the month, around 14th of May more elaborate rituals are offered to the sun god. Many devotees observe austerities including piercing their bodies with iron hook. On a high poll they are suspended and whirled round on 'chadak' to suggest the progression of the sun in different constellations throughout the year. Till the early decades of this century these dancers and the form were patronized by the Bagmundi ruler, but due to unproductive land and ever failing rains the ruler could hardly provide necessary support. The performers too were forced to migrate to nearby urban city like Calcutta in search of living.
Since 1961, when this form was first witnessed by an anthropologist in a remote village of Purulia district and their subsequent visits in major cities world over, the locals have formed their own 'parties' in anticipation of a sponsored trip abroad. They have added more 'exciting' combat scenes with more skillful pirouettes and summersault. The costumes specially the headgears have acquired enormous size and jazzy decorations.
Influenced by the more respected Hindu culture the natives adopted the epical themes but they naturally opted for the warfare scenes that would reflect their life of perpetual hardships and conflict with nature itself. Even the characters the noble and heroic characters like Rama and Sita are depicted with forceful gestures.
During the festival time a special flask shaped dancing arena is prepared where several dancing 'parties' assemble to perform. Two or more 'dhamsa' or kettle drum players and equal or more number of drummers accompany the groups. The tune is provided by an Bo like wind instrument called Marui. Unlike Seraikella Chau here the chief drummer sings the introductory song or renders rhythmic passages during the performance. After introduction of a heroic character when he enters the arena he runs to and fro several times in the narrow passage before commencing his dance or dialogue with other characters. On the other hand a demonic character takes several vigorous turns or summersaults and turns to sections of spectators for recognition and applause for his skill and virility. Such skillful acrobatic feats proliferate every year leaving the researcher completely amused for their innovative skills in improvising such exciting sequences.
As you enter Chorida, a small village in Purulia district during Chau season, the village that provides some of the best masks, practically every house and every member of the household is seen occupied in making masks or assembling decorations for headgears. The process of making mask is nearly the same, however, due to thick layers of clay , paper and mud these masks are heavier than the Seraikella masks. Moreover the eyes on these masks are wide open, although the air passage of nostrils is very narrow. The demonic nature of a character is ascertained by the knitted eyebrows and thick hair growth on the face by pasting jute fibers. Thus the variety of masks in this form is equally or more varied than the Seraikella masks even though the thematic content is limited to epical stories.
The royals of Mayurbhanj district of Orissa maintained long and sustained political and marital relation with the Seriakella royal family, the latter sent a Chau master who influenced the dance style in Baripada and nearby villages.
During the Chaitra Parba celebrations the dances in Baripada villages is preceded by elaborate rituals with some modifications in the rituals observed in Seraikella. the noticeable feature of this form is that since the elimination of masks the body kinetics has changed considerably. The wider leg extensions, the flexion of the torso or the subtle jerks of the shoulders to punctuate the rhythmic cycle have all become more pronounced and strenuous. The basic technique, as repeatedly claimed by the writers and scholars , is believed to be derived from the martial art of sword and shield play; although the complex body movements are derived from the phenomenon in nature or animal world or the household chores of a woman. The combination of these units are then employed in the interpretative dances based on the epics. Yet one of the oldest and the most popular item is Shabar or the hunter dance .And this reiterates the relevance of hunting occupation of the early inhabitants in this tribal belt , irrespective of the refinement of the stylization the dances attained in the due course of time.
The patronizing royal family of this form did not take active interest in the development of this form like their counterparts in Seraikella but they encouraged healthy competition among two groups, Dakshin sahi and Uttar sahi , situated on the either sides of the river bank. Today this competitive spirit attracts several Chau groups and thousands of spectators who sit through the night long performance.
The elimination of mask has encouraged many female dancers of the other styles recently to learn this unique body language with strong body kinetics. They have adopted the rudiments of the form and incorporated in their innovative dance choreographs. Such creative efforts have atlas generated audiences' interest in the Chau forms in general, which were considered tribal, folk or semi classical a decade and a half ago. Now after a few years of regular choreographic introduction they are enjoying the respectable place among the other 'classical ' dance styles of India.