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Chhau Dance: The rich cultural tapestry of Eastern India

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Chhau dance is a semi-classical Indian dance with martial, tribal and folk traditions, with origins in eastern India. And Mayurbhanj Chhau (Odisha) and Purulia Chhau (West Bengal) are the more well known sub-genres and integrate martial, acrobatic and athletic styles to celebrate the religious themes. But It is sad how the beauty and distinctiveness of Chhau dance are often overlooked because of the other dance forms like Bharat Natyam and Kathak which are popular among the people of India.Chhau artists have always tried to tell the most important historical stories to the people through their form of art and keep the tradition alive for generations to come.

Struggle of the dancers to keep Chhau traditions alive in India:

Carolina Prada is one of the few female soloists of this generation to research, choreograph and perform at a professional level in Mayurbhanj Chhau. Prada has also received critical acclaim for her performances in national and international dance festivals.Since most of the Indians didn’t know about this form of dance,she explained how there were some boundaries in the beginning as she attempted to pursue a professional career in the field. She said how it has been a a challenge because chhau dance don’t get as much exposure as the other dance forms. And its pure form has never been recognised well, as it is often taken as something complementary to contemporary dance or just mixed with other styles or acrobatic movements.

2 3 The North-Eastern Chronicle

Historical Stories told by artists through Chhau dance:

The stories that are told through this particular dance form are something that sets chhau apart from other classical dance forms. A Delhi-based Mayurbhanj Chhau dancer called Sunil Mehra has also made a statement regarding Chhau .
“Its creativity lies in its origin. What makes it more interesting and beautiful is that an artist who performs [folk-style] Chhau Dance tells all the movements of a layman’s normal routine. Isn’t it so simple yet so imaginative?” Mehra said.
He was fascinated by the strength and expression required in each movement taken by the dancer while performing the dance. These beautiful art form explains how the fishermen go to the sea and catch fish or how farmers cultivate crops during harvest season. And sometimes it represents ancient traditions such as wife-choosing ceremonies or a male’s extravagant mating dance to win over his fiancé.

Indian mythology and Chhau :

The most famous topics to perform this art are often based on mythological stories. They present it in the form of mini dance dramas portraying the characters of Ramayan and Mahabharat or any other mini dance dramas based on the characters of the goddess Durga, Lord Shiva or Garuda Vahana. West Bengal, where large, elaborately designed masks and headgear are a characteristic part of the performance, this is popular as Purulia Chhau among the audience.The beautiful and unique designs have also put Purulia Chhau dance on UNESCO’s list of world heritage dances. And it was featured in a big way in the hit Bollywood film Barfi (2012) which is truly a proud moment for each and every struggling artist from this platform.

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Chhau dance breaking Stereotypes:

Chhau dance was once taught only to male dancers hailing from families of orthodox artists or from the regional clique. However, the male rampart of Chhau was dissented by women. In the year 2003, when a workshop on the Seraikela Chhau became a turning point of the entire dance form. Male bastion has been stormed by women and hundreds of girls from the city made a beeline for the workshop to learn Chhau under the aegis of Guru Shyama Charan Pati. Pati also mentioned how Chhau was performed by soldiers and it was a type of martial art that women were strictly forbidden to practice.

Gopal Prasad Dubey Chandrabhaga 0 1 The North-Eastern Chronicle

History has witnessed how women have bludgeoned in all segments of classical and non classical dance forms by breaking the stereotypes that were made by society. With the help of social media and UNESCO’s recognition, now the East Indians are seeing a revival in the popularity of Chhau, and that will hopefully be the preservation of this rich tradition for many generations.

Visual by: Manas J Saikia

Article by Uddipana Chowdhury, The North-Eastern Chronicle

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