Chhau dance, with its martial origin and strenuous body movements, was once a strictly-guarded male domain. Now several all-women troupes are all the rage
There’s a proverb in the Santhali language that goes: ‘When we talk, we sing; when we walk, we dance.’ It suggests how dancing and singing are intrinsic to the Santhal community, which makes up most of West Bengal’s Purulia district. One of the poorest districts of Bengal, Purulia has been ravaged by Maoist insurgency, but even in the worst of times, it has clung steadfastly to its lively tradition of Chhau dance, which, with its vigorous leaps, jumps and somersaults, is an expression of the bir (bravery) rasa.
The word ‘Chhau’ probably comes from chhauni (camp), and the art form was arguably invented to keep foot soldiers war-ready. The martial movements and mock fights subsequently took the shape of dance, becoming popular in the Chota Nagpur Plateau region. Apart from Purulia Chhau, there are two other variants, Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau, which are practised in Odisha and Jharkhand respectively. With stories taken from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, the dance dramas celebrate the triumph of good over evil. In these pandemic times, Chhau has even been used to spread awareness about COVID-19.
A decade or so ago in Purulia, men 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 during the spring festival of gajan parab, dedicated to Shiva. These days, of course, Chhau festivals are held through the year and dancers are called to perform on national and international stages. And, in another development, women dancers have entered this male domain, with all-women troupes sharply on the rise.
In their blood
Mousumi Chowdhury, 23, from Purulia’s Maldi village, is credited with starting the trend. Chhau runs in Mousumi’s blood — her father, Jagannath Chowdhury, is an established Chhau artist and trainer. “I was always interested in Chhau. As a child, when I watched my father perform, the beats would leave me excited.” When Mousumi was in Class IX, she joined her father’s training course on a whim, taking along her sister and a few female friends. In three to four months, they were ready. It helped that at this time, Banglanatak dot com, an NGO working towards the development of marginalised communities in collaboration with the government and international organisations like UNESCO, was conducting Chhau training camps in Purulia. The girls strengthened their skills there. When they performed on stage, they impressed critics and lay audiences alike.
In 2010, Mousumi set up the first all-women Chhau troupe of Purulia, Mitali Chhau Maldi. (Chhau was included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2010.) Inspired by her, about four all-women groups now work in Purulia. While the girls start training early, they continue with their education too: this year, Mousumi finished her Masters in Bengali from Purulia’s Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University. She teaches Chhau at her university, which has a department dedicated to the dance. Over the past 10 years, Mousumi and her troupe have performed all over India, and even in Norway. “Chhau is my life, my identity,” she says.
It wasn’t easy, of course. Detractors were ready with taunts, telling her father, “Your own earnings are not enough, now you need to make your daughter dance too to earn more.” Although removing the mask is a strict no-no in Chhau, Mousumi and the girls had to do that to prove to the audience that they were indeed women. Sudip Bhui, coordinator and head-in-charge of the Chhau department of Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, says, “Women excel at Chhau because they are naturally more flexible and graceful. Caste and gender prejudices might have excluded them for long, but now that they have started off there’s no stopping them.”
In the early 1980s, Ileana Citaristi, an Italian-born Odissi and Chhau dancer, was refused entry on stage to perform the Shiva tandava act at a programme in Baripada, the home of Mayurbhanj Chhau. Only male dancers were allowed to enact the Shiva tandava at that time. Although in the 1960s and 70s, quite a few women had managed to break the barrier and dance Chhau, very few could manage to sustain the journey. In 1994, when Subhashree Mukherjee, then 15, performed the Mahishashuramardini Durga piece at a traditional Chhau akhada in Baripada, purists reacted with mild disapproval while progressives hailed it warmly.
Mukherjee has played a key role in bringing the women Chhau dancers of Odisha to the limelight. She is associated with Project Chhauni, created by the Mayurbhanj administration, which is working hard to revive Chhau, supporting existing artists and enlisting new ones. Recruiting and training women dancers is part of the project. She says, “Women didn’t take up Chhau because of the fear that it would mark them out as rebels and society would disown them. Besides, the use of heavy props like sword and shield in Mayurbhanj Chhau probably made it difficult for women.”
All that has changed. Prakashini Mishra, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, rehearses the vigorous Shiva tandava at a dance school in Baripada. She is one of several girls training to become Chhau practitioners. Prakashini’s foray neither raises eyebrows nor makes her feel like an outsider now. She enjoys the fruits of empowerment that other women have brought into the art at different points in the dance’s journey.
Seraikella in Jharkhand, some 100 km from Baripada, is regarded as the birthplace of Chhau. Under the patronage of the erstwhile royals of Seraikella, Chhau spread to Mayurbhanj and other places.
Bijoy Pratap Singh Deo, prince of Seraikella, was the greatest exponent of Chhau in the early 20th century. He is credited with all the major reforms in the art form, including the introduction of women. A woman artist, Kumari Bani Mujumdar, is said to have accompanied the troupe led by him that toured Europe in the late 1930s. The royal patronage and protection might be one of the reasons why women have been part of Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chhau much before they made a mark in Purulia Chhau.
In all forms of Chhau, the story is narrated through body movements, which makes it physically demanding. Deepali Sahu, 42, a Seraikella-based dancer, says she had to master the martial arts before learning the intricacies of Chhau. Earlier, female roles were performed by male artists. Now it’s the other way round.
The taboos associated with women playing male gods are also vanishing. Malay Kumar Sahu, a Seraikella-based researcher, says women can perform Chhau as long as they remain physically fit. “In the Seraikella area, girls start training at the age of 10 and remain active till about 24. Most of them discontinue after marriage,” says Sahu.
But marriage has not deterred 26-year-old Sunita Mahato of Purulia. She heads an all-women troupe called Bongabari Matangini Hazra Mahila Chhau Nritya Dal. Starting off as a kirtan singer, Mahato later became a Jhumur dancer. Her Jhumur guru trained her in Chhau, which she has been practising for the last three or four years. She got married in 2019. Seeing her dedication, her husband and in-laws encouraged her.
Now that public performances have started again after the lockdown, Mahato is very busy, touring locally and also in neighbouring States. “While men can change in the open, women have to have green rooms. We carry three or four sheets of tarpaulin with us wherever we go so that we can have our own makeshift green room in case the organisers don’t provide us with one. If there’s no toilet, we make one with a partition inside the tent.” The dress-change has to be done fast, with each performer playing multiple characters. As a senior member, Mahato plays the more difficult and artful roles like that of Kartik, Krishna, Mahishashuramardini or Parashurama, leaving the easier ones to the trainees.
In the days following Makar Sankranti, which is celebrated as a harvest festival on January 14-15 in eastern India, as in various parts of the country, Mahato will be performing all night with her troupe. There’s not much money to be made. Even until eight years ago, the usual payment for a troupe for a night-long performance was a few kilos of chickpea and jaggery, two-three bundles of beedi, and ₹10-20. The situation has improved, but remunerations are still not commensurate with the effort. “For me, it’s not a matter of money. My passion for Chhau drives me on,” says Mahato proudly.