Chhau dance, with its martial origin and strenuous physique actions, was as soon as a strictly-guarded male area. Now a number of all-women troupes are all the fashion

There’s a proverb within the Santhali language that goes: ‘After we discuss, we sing; once we stroll, we dance.’ It suggests how dancing and singing are intrinsic to the Santhal group, which makes up most of West Bengal’s Purulia district. One of many poorest districts of Bengal, Purulia has been ravaged by Maoist insurgency, however even within the worst of occasions, it has clung steadfastly to its energetic custom of Chhau dance, which, with its vigorous leaps, jumps and somersaults, is an expression of the bir (bravery) rasa.

The phrase ‘Chhau’ most likely comes from chhauni (camp), and the artwork type was arguably invented to maintain foot troopers war-ready. The martial actions and mock fights subsequently took the form of dance, turning into well-liked within the Chota Nagpur Plateau area. Aside from Purulia Chhau, there are two different variants, Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau, that are practised in Odisha and Jharkhand respectively. With tales taken from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, the dance dramas rejoice the triumph of fine over evil. In these pandemic occasions, Chhau has even been used to unfold consciousness about COVID-19.

A finished mask being transported on a motorcycle in Charida

A completed masks being transported on a motorbike in Charida
| Picture Credit score:
Banglanatak dot com

A decade or so in the past in Purulia, males decked in dazzling costumes and larger-than-life masks would dance to the intoxicating rhythm of dhol, dhamsa, madol, shehnai, and flute at night-long performances in the course of the spring pageant of gajan parab, devoted to Shiva. As of late, after all, Chhau festivals are held by way of the 12 months and dancers are known as to carry out on nationwide and worldwide phases. And, in one other improvement, girls dancers have entered this male area, with all-women troupes sharply on the rise.

Of their blood

Mousumi Chowdhury, 23, from Purulia’s Maldi village, is credited with beginning the pattern. Chhau runs in Mousumi’s blood — her father, Jagannath Chowdhury, is a longtime Chhau artist and coach. “I used to be at all times occupied with Chhau. As a toddler, once I watched my father carry out, the beats would depart me excited.” When Mousumi was in Class IX, she joined her father’s coaching course on a whim, taking alongside her sister and some feminine mates. In three to 4 months, they have been prepared. It helped that right now, Banglanatak dot com, an NGO working in direction of the event of marginalised communities in collaboration with the federal government and worldwide organisations like UNESCO, was conducting Chhau coaching camps in Purulia. The ladies strengthened their abilities there. After they carried out on stage, they impressed critics and lay audiences alike.


In 2010, Mousumi arrange the primary all-women Chhau troupe of Purulia, Mitali Chhau Maldi. (Chhau was included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage listing in 2010.) Impressed by her, about 4 all-women teams now work in Purulia. Whereas the women begin coaching early, they proceed with their schooling too: this 12 months, Mousumi completed her Masters in Bengali from Purulia’s Sidho-Kanho-Birsha College. She teaches Chhau at her college, which has a division devoted to the dance. Over the previous 10 years, Mousumi and her troupe have carried out throughout India, and even in Norway. “Chhau is my life, my id,” she says.

A Seraikella Chhau dancer gets ready to don the mask before a performance

A Seraikella Chhau dancer will get able to don the masks earlier than a efficiency
| Picture Credit score:
Murali Kumar K

It wasn’t simple, after all. Detractors have been prepared with taunts, telling her father, “Your individual earnings will not be sufficient, now that you must make your daughter dance too to earn extra.” Though eradicating the masks is a strict no-no in Chhau, Mousumi and the women had to do this to show to the viewers that they have been certainly girls. Sudip Bhui, coordinator and head-in-charge of the Chhau division of Sidho-Kanho-Birsha College, says, “Ladies excel at Chhau as a result of they’re naturally extra versatile and sleek. Caste and gender prejudices may need excluded them for lengthy, however now that they’ve began off there’s no stopping them.”

Rebellious girls

Within the early 1980s, Ileana Citaristi, an Italian-born Odissi and Chhau dancer, was refused entry on stage to carry out the Shiva tandava act at a programme in Baripada, the house of Mayurbhanj Chhau. Solely male dancers have been allowed to enact the Shiva tandava at the moment. Though within the 1960s and 70s, fairly a couple of girls had managed to interrupt the barrier and dance Chhau, only a few might handle to maintain the journey. In 1994, when Subhashree Mukherjee, then 15, carried out the Mahishashuramardini Durga piece at a conventional Chhau akhada in Baripada, purists reacted with gentle disapproval whereas progressives hailed it warmly.

Mukherjee has performed a key function in bringing the ladies Chhau dancers of Odisha to the limelight. She is related to Undertaking Chhauni, created by the Mayurbhanj administration, which is working exhausting to revive Chhau, supporting current artists and enlisting new ones. Recruiting and coaching girls dancers is a part of the mission. She says, “Ladies didn’t take up Chhau due to the worry that it might mark them out as rebels and society would disown them. Moreover, the usage of heavy props like sword and defend in Mayurbhanj Chhau most likely made it troublesome for girls.”

Artists from Jharkhand perform at a mela in Haryana

Artists from Jharkhand carry out at a mela in Haryana
| Picture Credit score: Rajeev Bhatt

All that has modified. Prakashini Mishra, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, rehearses the vigorous Shiva tandava at a dance faculty in Baripada. She is considered one of a number of ladies coaching to grow to be Chhau practitioners. Prakashini’s foray neither raises eyebrows nor makes her really feel like an outsider now. She enjoys the fruits of empowerment that different girls have introduced into the artwork at totally different factors within the dance’s journey.

Seraikella in Jharkhand, some 100 km from Baripada, is considered the birthplace of Chhau. Underneath the patronage of the erstwhile royals of Seraikella, Chhau unfold to Mayurbhanj and different locations.

Bijoy Pratap Singh Deo, prince of Seraikella, was the best exponent of Chhau within the early 20th century. He’s credited with all the main reforms within the artwork type, together with the introduction of girls. A lady artist, Kumari Bani Mujumdar, is alleged to have accompanied the troupe led by him that toured Europe within the late 1930s. The royal patronage and safety could be one of many the explanation why girls have been a part of Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau a lot earlier than they made a mark in Purulia Chhau.

In all types of Chhau, the story is narrated by way of physique actions, which makes it bodily demanding. Deepali Sahu, 42, a Seraikella-based dancer, says she needed to grasp the martial arts earlier than studying the intricacies of Chhau. Earlier, feminine roles have been carried out by male artists. Now it’s the opposite approach spherical.

Vanishing taboos

The taboos related to girls taking part in male gods are additionally vanishing. Malay Kumar Sahu, a Seraikella-based researcher, says girls can carry out Chhau so long as they continue to be bodily match. “Within the Seraikella space, ladies begin coaching on the age of 10 and stay energetic until about 24. Most of them discontinue after marriage,” says Sahu.

However marriage has not deterred 26-year-old Sunita Mahato of Purulia. She heads an all-women troupe known as Bongabari Matangini Hazra Mahila Chhau Nritya Dal. Beginning off as a kirtan singer, Mahato later grew to become a Jhumur dancer. Her Jhumur guru educated her in Chhau, which she has been practising for the final three or 4 years. She bought married in 2019. Seeing her dedication, her husband and in-laws inspired her.

26 year old Sunita Mahato dressed as Kartik

Now that public performances have began once more after the lockdown, Mahato may be very busy, touring domestically and in addition in neighbouring States. “Whereas males can change within the open, girls need to have inexperienced rooms. We feature three or 4 sheets of tarpaulin with us wherever we go in order that we will have our personal makeshift inexperienced room in case the organisers don’t present us with one. If there’s no bathroom, we make one with a partition contained in the tent.” The dress-change must be finished quick, with every performer taking part in a number of characters. As a senior member, Mahato performs the tougher and suave roles like that of Kartik, Krishna, Mahishashuramardini or Parashurama, leaving the better ones to the trainees.

Within the days following Makar Sankranti, which is widely known as a harvest pageant on January 14-15 in jap India, as in varied components of the nation, Mahato will likely be performing all evening along with her troupe. There’s not a lot cash to be made. Even till eight years in the past, the same old fee for a troupe for a night-long efficiency was a couple of kilos of chickpea and jaggery, two-three bundles of beedi, and ₹10-20. The scenario has improved, however remunerations are nonetheless not commensurate with the trouble. “For me, it’s not a matter of cash. My ardour for Chhau drives me on,” says Mahato proudly.

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