Dynamic, yet subtle and lyrical but dramatic,the Chhau is the major tradition of dance theatre in India. The Chhau dancer communicates inner emotions and themes through cadences of body flexions, movements and kinetic suggestions. India is regarded high by the entire world for its rich traditions with its deep roots into culture, religion, mythology, yoga and dances. Chhau dance is one such dance that has mesmerised the world. In 2010, the Chhau dance was inscribed in the UNESCOs Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Originated in the eastern India, Chau is a semi classical Indian dance with martial, tribal and folk traditions which make it unique. Chhau means chayya or shadow, image or mask. While many believe that it may have derived from Chhauni which means military camp.
The dance is found in three styles in Purulia Chau of Bengal, the Seraikella Chau of Jharkhand and the Mayurbhanj Chau of Odisha.
The dance is a combination of martial arts, acrobatics and athletics performed in festivals with usually themes from Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. The dance is traditionally performed only by men usually during festivals.
The Chhau dance is mainly performed during the festival of Chaitra Parva and in which the whole community participates whereas in Purulia, Chhau dance is performed during the Sun festival.
The dance is performed by male dancers, at night in an open space, called akhada. With the traditional folk music, the dancers in Chhau dance to rhythmic beats of the variety of drums which accompany the music ensemble including the a cylindrical drum, dhumsa (a large kettle drum) and kharka or chad-chadi. The themes for these dances include local legends, folklore and episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and other abstract themes.
The main difference between the Purulia chhau and Odisha chhau is in the use of the mask. Purulia chhau used the mask in dance, but Odisha Chhau dancers indulge in only facial expressions along with body movements. Traditionally, when the agricultural season ends and the new cycle begins, the Chhau dance is performed in celebration which is usually in mid March. Purulia chhau dancer wear the earthy and theatrical mask which represent the mythological characters. After making the shape of mask with clay, it is coloured and decorated with Shola and other things.
Artists from the Sutradhar community are the only ones who make these masks. The making of a mask goes through various stages. 8-10 layers of soft paper, immersed in diluted glue, are pasted one after another on the mould before the mud mould is dusted with fine ash powder. The facial features are made of clay. A special layer of mud and cloth is applied and the mask is then sun-dried. After this, the mould is polished and the second round of sun drying is done before separating the layers of cloth and paper from the mould. After finishing and drilling of holes for the nose and eyes, the mask is ultimately coloured and ready.
Though it was a dying folk dance, today it is reviving and can be seen in many Bollywood movies.