Shashadhar Acharya interviewed by Shreya Kumar, a student of LSR College, DU (2005)

Definition of Chhau Dance and the word meaning of Chhau

In the opinion of some people “Chhau” is a dialect which means six faces, Viz. fore head, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips and chin and a mask bears the six parts of the face. The word “Chhau” ordinarily means mask and because the dance is performed by use of mask, it is called “Chhau Dance”.

According to yet another school of thought the word “Chhau” has been derived from the Sanskrit word “Chhabi” which means image or picture. Several others say that as the dance is characterized by variety it is called Chhau dance and therefore the word meaning of “Chhau” is Chhabila in Sanskrit and fancy or picturesque in English.

According to new theories Chhau is concocted pronunciation of the word Chhauni (Military Barrack or Cantonment). In his views, the militia man (Paikas) staged and performed in Chhauni (cantonments) for amusement during leisure time and enjoy their success or victory in battle field, so the people called it as “Chhauni dance”, Which in course of time has changed to Chhau dance by mispronunciation.

Characteristics

Martial movements, strong rhythmic statements and dynamic use of space are characteristic of Chhau. The dance is an excellent culmination of enormous vitality and virility. Chhau dance is an expression of a mood, state or condition. The dancers wear elaborate masks and costumes and depict stories from mythology, history, regional folklore, romance and nature. Martial movements, strong rhythmic folk tunes and beautifully crafted masks with elaborate headdresses are characteristic of Chhau. The masks are usually made by the dancers themselves and are crafted from clay.

Three styles of Chhau exist, originating from the three different regions of Seraikela (Bihar), Purulia (West Bengal), and Mayurbhanj (Orissa).

Seraikella Chhau

In Seraikela Chhau, the mask in the center of attraction, Vachikabhinaya is absent and so are the elements of speech. There is greater scope for expression through mime and body language. Different Bhavas (Moods) and Rasas (sentiments) are exquisitely expressed through the movements of the limbs in Chhau. The Seraikela Chhau has evolved from a distinct martial art called “Pharikhanda” play of (sword and shield) and has a few distinguished manners of execution. The style, posture, movements and footwork confirms it as a positive martial art form bestowed with grace.

In this dance form the mask covers the face exerting the dancers to express his Bhava (Mood) and Rasa (sentiments) through body movements like Siro Bhedo (Head gesture) and Griba Bhedo (neck gesture) leaving no room for “Dristi Bhedo” (eye movements and glances).

Mayurbhanj Chhau

Chhau is usually considered to be a mask dance. However, the dance performed in Mayurbhanj, Orissa, does not use any distinctive masks and the face also remains quite immobile. The movements are quite vigorous maintaining the basic spirit and style of chhau dance.

Mayurbhanj Chhau seems to be closely related to Seraikela chhau. Seraikela and Mayurbhanj were princely states and their rulers extended enthusiastic patronage.
The Mayurbhanj Chhau is a beautiful mosaic comprising elements from folk, martial and classical art. The dancer uses basic steps “Topkas”, Ufils, Chali.

Mayurbhanj Chhau has become popular as a medium of choreography, with its wide range of postures and movements that adapt well to modern as well as traditional treatment.

Purulia or Manbhum Chhau

This is perhaps the best-known style of Chhau largely due to it energetic and dramatic characteristics.
A performance of Purulia Chhau lasts the whole nightlong. The artistes are only men, even for the role of female characters. In Purulia Chhau the message is that good triumphs over evil. The episodes are mainly those of battles. The war is between the gods and asuras as the tales are derived from the epics and the Puranas. There are no secular themes or narratives from social contexts in Purulia Chhau.

Purulia masks with towering headgears have a very dramatic influence. The vigorous aspects of Purulia Chhau are based on a series of Asura masks having a fierce countenance and are painted bright green and red. In general the range of colour is used to symbolize characters in framework and giving it a classical touch.

Interview with Shashadhar Acharya by Shreya Kumar

Dance style: Chhau (Seraikella and Mayurbhanj)
Gurus: I represent the fifth generation in a family of traditional performers hence my guru is my father, Guru Lingaraj Acharya, Guru Natashekhar B.B. Pattanaik, Padmashree S.N. Singh Deo, Guru Kedar Nath Sahoo, Guru Bikram Kumbhakar.

The literal meaning of Chhau is Mukhota that is Mask- (the need to hide from the enemy). And also to get into the character of the mask one is wearing

About Chhau
Each Indian dance form has its own origin, some are from temples, some are from the court of the kings, Chhau has originated from the cantonment of the kings army “Chavani”. It is a dance, which depicts the happiness of the soldiers. As a consequence of spiritual manifestation the names of Natyashastra, Shiva and other Gods was associated with it. Chhau originated in Orissa and before independence it spread over three areas Bihar-Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal; and hence the three forms of Chhau are named after the district they are originated from. Baripada in Orissa gave birth to Mayurbhanj; Seraikella was a district in Jharkhand gave birth to Seraikella Chhau and similarly Purulia in West Bengal.
The King of Seraikella not only made his four sons learn Chhau but also invited the other kings to come and participate in the Chhau festival called “Chaitraparva” during Baisakh. This helped in spreading this dance form and also brought the appreciation and patronage.

Technique –
The gestures came from the sculptures and were defined and named more precisely when the understanding of the Natya Shastras grew.
Chhau is basically a martial art form which derives its technique purely from the skills of the warriors known as “Yuddha Kala” which involves attack and defence techniques along with the inspiration from animal movement like the flight of the Garuda bird or the “Bhramari” that is the circular movement used when approaching the enemy. Thus technically it is very different from other classical styles.
It is performed open air even now and to the beats of the “dhol” and “Nagara” that provides the strong vibrant rhythm. The powerful beats were matched by the high pitch instrument called Mohiri in earlier times. The jarring notes of the Mohiri could not last and in the 19th century was replaced by the either Shehnai or the Flute.