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Updated: January 17, 2013 18:07 IST

Tradition unmasked

Anjana Rajan
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Shagun Butani.
Shagun Butani.

A two-day programme in New Delhi that displays different aspects of Seraikella Chhau

Not for nothing is India constantly referred to as a land of innumerable colours and a limitless appetite for celebration. Tough as it may be, life — whether in the waterless deserts or the snowbound mountainous regions or the vast sun-washed plains — is traditionally celebrated. Those who grow up in India, especially in those areas less affected by urbanisation and the globalising of taste, take for granted that everyday objects are decorative, that garments are elaborately woven, embroidered and dyed, that food is as much a ritual as a necessity and that prayer is also performance.

With so many traditions of visual and performing arts and rituals abounding, it is natural some are better known than others. Take Chhau, the dance form from India’s Eastern region of West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand. The term Chhau covers the three forms known by the place names of Purulia (West Bengal), Seraikella (Jharkhand) and Mayurbhanj (Odisha). The first two are masked dance forms. While Chhau dance has significant martial associations, its movement vocabulary is also rooted in everyday physical actions, points out Shashadhar Acharya, well known exponent and guru of Seraikella Chhau

This Friday and Saturday, Delhiites will get to see a composite programme that seeks to unravel the relatively unfamiliar art of Seraikella Chhau. The programme, titled “Unmasking the Tradition: The Story of Seraikella Chhau”, takes place at the India International Centre.

The programme aims to “put forth all the elements of Seraikella Chhau: its technique and performance and the role of the community in its evolution and preservation through lectures, demonstrations and interactions,” says Shagun Butani, whose Sudhaaya Foundation is organising the event.

“Though all three forms seem to have stemmed from a common root, they have evolved differently. Each is perceptibly different in technique and the manner in which this is used in the performative element. Furthermore, each form has its own story of growth, evolution and survival within the parent communities. It is because Chhau is so inseparably entwined with the customs, religious beliefs and living traditions of the people of these regions that it was selected by UNESCO in 2010 to be in its list of elements that represent the intangible cultural heritage,” says Shagun.

Shagun, trained in Seraikella Chhau by Shashadhar Acharya, is recognised as among the very few women performers of Seraikella Chhau in the country.

Interacting with traditional Chhau artistes over the years and aware both of its beauty as a performing art and its relationship with the living culture as well as the problems faced by its hereditary practitioners, Shagun wishes to heighten awareness among urban audiences.

Shashadhar Acharya will lead the demonstrations along with other senior artistes from Seraikella, including Guru Jai Narayan Samal, Gopal Dubey, Tapan Pattnaik and Brijendra Pattnaik. Senior mask makers like Kanai Lal Maharana and Sushant Mahapatra will also participate.

“Unmasking the Tradition: The Story of Seraikella Chhau” takes place at the India International Centre, New Delhi, January 18 and 19, from 10.30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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