Seraikella Chhau exponent Shashadhar Acharya on inspiration coming from home, breath control, and the future of the medium

If a prerequisite to great art is the artiste’s ability to mirror the spirit of his tradition, surroundings, training and time, then the much acclaimed Chhau dancer and guru Shashadhar Acharya has fulfilled the requirements — a virtuoso of not only his very own Seraikella style but others as well. The remarkable Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee (2004) inherited the art from his father, the late Guru Lingaraj Acharya, and later acquired the differing perspectives of the various schools of Seraikella Chhau from Gurus Natashekhar, Kedarnath Sahoo, B.B. Patnaik, Padma Shri S.N. Singh Deo, and Bikram Kumbhakar. Contributing significantly to the evolution and development of Chhau, the exemplary dancer knows how to give distinction to his art through teaching, research and performance.

And this elemental, full-bodied pulse with his firm leg extensions and sweep, lyrical yet powerful execution embellished with intense refinements of his style, was realised at the opening performance “Ratri” of the just concluded National Chhau Dance Festival in Bhubaneswar. Teaching at various institutions apart from his own Acharya Chhau Nrutya Bichitra, New Delhi, and the Triveni Kala Sangam, Shashadhar also heads a project funded by the Sangeet Natak Akademi to train, create and perform Chhau dance. In an interview he speaks of his legacy and art. Excerpts:

You come from a family of traditional performers...

I am the fifth generation of a family involved in this traditional art. In childhood when I used to learn from my father I never thought I would ever be a professional dancer. I pursued this art alongside my studies, even with different gurus .One thing I still cherish is the way I got to see the art at home and the large number of wonderful songs of Chhau that I used to hear from my father, which I can relate with life and the Chhau that I practise today. Secondly, even though I learnt from different gurus, I never imagined I would come into this line. But circumstances forced me to do so. I did my graduation and had studied Law; I am a criminal lawyer. I had practised for a year with the Government and was in three jobs — two with the Central Government and one with the State Government — but I never liked them at all! I only love to dance. So I dance!

How did you begin?

At home. Pitaji used to teach, the way my grandfather, great-grandfather did, and we got to see that at home. Today you have seen my son Subham perform as “Chandrama” with me. Even he sees dancing at home and, like me, started dancing by observing, and I am very happy about it. I never told him to come and learn. He came of his own accord. So the inspiration of following the tradition that comes from home is of great importance. My father never forced me to learn or be a performer. This is a great thing. He said, “If you like to dance go ahead, otherwise leave it.” I said the same thing to my son. He tried for a year and you see that in three years’ time he has became a good performer. He is doing well and is strong technically. To me inspiration should always come from home, and I feel all that for those who have become professional dancers their inspiration must have come from home.

What do you do for your fitness?

Our training for the technique of Chhau is in itself so strong that if you practise and include it in your daily routine, you would never have to do anything additionally to keep fit. Chhau gives one inner strength, not outer, which is exactly like yoga. We don’t want to be pehelwans! We wear a mask and inside it we breathe with tremendous control. If we breathe normally, we can never dance with a mask on. And when we finally have to move to chaugun (quadruple beats) we have to maintain that stamina. It is not that I dance slowly first and then slightly faster, but we have to remember that finally we have to dance chaugun. It is a process in which we live.

But you do have holes in masks…?

Yes, there are — for the eyes — but otherwise very few. But you have to exert a lot of control, which is why our training procedure is so sound. It provides us strength, a good, flexible body, a fine balance. With one raised leg we can cover a huge space. If I trace the diagram of this motion from here to there (demonstrates), you can estimate the few seconds it takes to cross that path. I have started drawing the movements of Chhau angle-wise now and am loving it.

At what age should one start learning?

I believe only after the age of 10, not before. Even I started after 10. One should at least be grown up enough to understand what one is learning!

And the legs should be strong enough....

Of course! In our five-year training programme, for the first two years trainees do not dance at all; they are only devoted to learning techniques, after which preliminary dances are taught. Now students are dancing on the floor. Our Gurus used to take us to the river banks and make us dance on sand to develop balance. Our legs wouldn’t move but they forced us to, which is why our legs are so strong today. People ask me how I am strong enough to work so hard, and what I eat. It’s nothing special, just regular home food — dal, roti, sabzi, nothing more is required. Your body is not built by consuming a kilo of kaju-kishmish today and 4 kgs of milk tomorrow! When I teach about energy I insist that one should not put unnatural stress on the body, like going to the gym. Even at 55, I only stretch naturally. I do not take allopathic medicines. If I have a fever or headache, I dance and my problems disappear. Believe me, it is a treatment. Till date I have no ailments, no blood pressure, spine or knee problems. Why? Because I sleep on the floor. My whole life I have never slept on a cot in order to keep my spine straight.

Do your students follow that?

The six boys you saw dancing today stay with me in my home at Delhi and are taught in the guru-shishya parampara. Even if they don’t, by seeing me sleeping on the floor they would automatically feel, “My Guruji is on the floor, so why should I sleep on a cot?” You should sit straight like this (demonstrates), otherwise your back and spine are bent, and that shows on stage while you are dancing.

How bright is the future of Chhau?

Earlier I saw nothing, but now it is very bright. I go to teach in different universities, as different colleges and universities are incorporating Chhau in their curriculum. After me these students would teach and take the art forward. We are getting lots of programmes and assignments, dancing in almost all festivals; not only Seraikella Chhau, I move forward with all three — Purulia and Mayurbhanj, besides Seraikella. My production “Trimurty” includes all three. I invite the dancers from Purulia and Mayurbhanj to perform together. On the 12th day after my father’s death we brothers took a vow to dance and carry on the legacy of our father even if we have to starve! The four of us left our jobs for the cause of Chhau. Our wives are very considerate, educated and they work gladly to help us dance. Otherwise this progress would not have been possible. Please write this as my samarpan to the kala; people should know of it! We are a unique example of a joint family, very rare these days, and our parent institution is in Seraikella. We all have planned together to take this art forward. This was my promise to my belated father to take his legacy forward. More and more educated and literate people should come into Chhau.