Though a martial art form, Chhau allows enough room for emotional expression too, says senior exponent of the form Gopal Prasad Dubey

A press conference is more often than not a formal occasion. But Gopal Prasad Dubey, an exponent of the Seraikella form of Chhau, managed to infuse even a press meet with warmth last week at Alliance Francaise. It was an intimate question-and-answer session where the dance teacher not only answered questions with a smile, but also went on to demonstrate and explain the various nuances of this martial art form. Born in Seraikella in Bihar (the place from which this stream of Chhau takes its name), Dubey was initiated into Chhau at the age of nine by his grandfather the Late Shashi Bhushan Dubey. He was an actor in the royal courts of Seraikella, recalls Dubey. Having learnt from the likes of guru Nataikhar Banbihari and guru Kedarnath Sahoo, Dubey's world revolves around Seraikella Chhau, where the dancer performs wearing masks. Then Dubey went on to educate us on the history and intricacies of the form. This dance form was initiated in 1620 by Kumar Bikram Singh I, the third Maharaja Jagannath Singh, who established the Seraikela State, which was merged with Bihar after Independence. Chhau dance is also popular in Orissa and West Bengal, he said. Interestingly, even the word Chhau is interpreted in different ways. The Late Bijay Pratap Singh Deo, considered the architect of Chhau dance of Seraikella school and the brother of the Maharaja of Seraikella, Chhau is a masked dance, the motif of which has been drawn from the mythological picturesque. But some others believe that the word Chhau comes from the word "six" which refers to the forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips and chin. Though Chhau is also based on Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra, the Seraikella stream draws its movements from Paia, which means soldier movements. It also includes the soldier's march, besides drawing from movements of everyday chores, explained Dubey. Another unique characteristic of Seraikella Chhau is that it is performed to not lyrics but to plain rhythm. "No dance number is longer than seven or eight minutes as it's tough to dance for long with the masks on," explained Dubey.That was when his petite student, Urvashi, took centrestage to demonstrate how the mask is worn and how the movements are performed. Draped in a grand, flowing silk robe, she started to perform the Chandra Bhaga, an item where the character plays with the moon. The movements were delicate and gentle. "There are also some vigorous movements in this form," explained Dubey, who received a fellowship to learn modern dance in New York in 1986 from the U.S.-based Asia Cultural Council. He has been invited to teach Seraikella Chhau at the Kansas University, Indiana University of London, Chungung University of Seoul and Armenian College of Greece to name a few. Dubey, who has choreographed many items in his long career, said that Chhau is an "open form" which can be blended with any other form of dance, both modern and traditional. Though Chhau was initially performed only by men, later women like Gayatri Devi, Indrani Rehman, Sharon Lowen, Illiana Chitaristi and Daksha Seth too entered this field encouraging the likes of Urvashi to pursue this form, beamed Dubey. But does one not feel too handicapped when one has to emote through the mask all the time? No, there are masks to depict every emotion, called "sthayi bhava", said Dubey. The movements are choreographed to match the masks. "We also have masks to depict animals and birds." Since the dancer always has to perform through the mask, he will have to be adept at breathing techniques, he added. So every Chhau dancer is first trained in yoga and breathing techniques, said Dubey, who has now settled down in Bangalore. "Only time will tell whether I'll be able to groom many students here or not. I want to bridge the gap between people and Chhau with plenty of workshops, seminars and lecture demonstration," added Dubey who has travelled all over the world and within India teaching Chhau. The Prakrti Cultural Heritage and Research Centre will present a lecture demonstration followed by a Chhau performance at Alliance Francaise this evening at 7 p.m. The performance is open to all.Prakrti Cultural Heritage and Research Centre is at 31, 9th Cross, 3rd Block, 3rd Phase, Banashankari III Stage. Pandit Dubey can be contacted on 26724059/ 9448047122. SHILPA SEBASTIAN R.

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