Mayurbhanj Chhau’s fight to stay alive

Mayurbhanj Chhau artistes are eagerly looking forward to Chaitra Parva this year, when they will again showcase their much neglected martial dance form

Updated - March 08, 2022 05:28 pm IST

Published - February 24, 2022 05:15 pm IST

Chhau exponent Carolina Prada

Chhau exponent Carolina Prada | Photo Credit: Photo courtesy: Carolina Prada

Much before many of India’s dance forms got global recognition, the unique martial Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj arrested the attention of the then British monarch and, subsequently, of international media.

In 1912, when George V and Queen Mary visited India, Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo, the king of Mayurbhanj (now a district in Odisha), choreographed and presented ‘War Dance’ with 64 Chhau artistes from the palace troupe at the royal couple’s reception in Calcutta. A leading Indian newspaper described it as “a great spectacle.”

Nearly a 100 years later, in 2010, UNESCO added Chhau to its ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

Despite such recognition, over the years the ancient unmasked martial dance tradition has been marginalised, with the government promoting Odissi as the main dance form of the State. Unfazed, Chhau practitioners continue to uphold the tradition with passion and devotion.

Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, bordering Bengal and Jharkhand and known for the Similipal biosphere, was ruled by the Bhanja dynasty from 7th century AD. Besides their good governance and vision for development, the rulers were also great patrons and connoisseurs of the arts. Chhau, which is believed to have derived its name from the chhauni or military camp, evolved from the mock fights and drills that used to be held to keep the soldiers battle-ready.

“Mayurbhanj Chhau is the most vigorous of the three styles of Chhau — the other two being Saraikela of Jharkhand and Purulia of Bengal,” says Odissi exponent Ileana Citaristi, who has also trained in the martial dance form. Italian by birth, she made Odisha her home for the love of her art and for her guru, the legendary Kelucharan Mohapatra.

“The throw of the leg, the movement of the torso, and the jumps are special to Mayurbhanj and are directly drawn from war practices of Odia soldiers, who were popularly known as paikas.”

Almost 140 years ago, Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanja Deo introduced Chhau at the State’s most popular annual festival, Chaitra Parva, hosted inside the palace. The king and the queen would invite royal families of nearby kingdoms to come and watch the performances. It was also the only occasion when common people were allowed to enter the palace.

To encourage the artistes, the king started a competition. While the queen was the patron of the Uttar Sahi (north colony) troupe, the Dakshin Sahi (south colony) was patronised by the king. The artistes would begin rehearsing six months ahead and keep their work a closely guarded secret till the day of the performance. The best dancers were honoured at the festival.

After Independence, when Mayurbhanj was merged into Odisha, Chaitra Parva was not staged for six years. The flourishing army of Chhau artistes and their festival suddenly lost all patronage and support.

Finally, to save the dance form, some of them came together to start the Mayurbhanj Chhau Dance Organisation at Baripada in 1960. It was later renamed Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan. It consisted of members from both the Uttar and Dakshin Sahi troupes, and had the District Collector as its head.

Artistes performing at the Chaitra Parva

Artistes performing at the Chaitra Parva | Photo Credit: Baripada Photo Studio

The palace festival now morphed into a people’s festival. A sprawling field was turned into a stage and named Chhau Padia. From one day, it soon became a two-day event to showcase winners from village-level competitions across the district.

All-women troupes

Once the exclusive domain of men, women entered the field in 1993. They had the support of a few Mayurbhanj Chhau activists, led by the late Laxmi Narayan Das, the well-known documenter of this dance tradition. In recent years, the presentations by all-women troupes at the festival show the expertise they have gained in the martial art form.

“My career in Chhau was launched by my Odissi guru, Kelucharan Mohapatra, when I presented a solo in 1976 at Baripada, which eventually encouraged young women to train in it,” recalls Sharon Lowen, the Delhi-based American exponent of Odissi, Manipuri and Chhau. In fact, three dancers of foreign origin — Sharon (America), Ileana (Italy) and Carolina Prada (Columbia) — have contributed immensely to the promotion of Mayurbhanj Chhau, particularly among women practitioners.

Has Mayurbhanj Chhau been marginalised? “This kind of apathy is faced by all dance forms that are termed ‘folk’,” says Subhasree Mukherjee, the chief coordinator of Project Chhauni. “The artistes get very low remuneration, few performance opportunities, and hardly any recognition in comparison to those pursuing classical forms.” Project Chhauni, an initiative of the Mayurbhanj district administration, was launched in 2016 for the documentation and promotion of the dance style. “Mayurbhanj Chhau cannot be bracketed as just folk dance. Its grammar, history and repertoire are as rich as that of classical forms,” says Subhasree.

Blend of folk and classical

Ileana agrees. She talks of the dance’s technique as a fine blend of folk and classical elements. Even its music combines the flavour of folk, Hindustani and Odissi music.

Well-known scholar and former secretary of Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, the late Dhirendra Nath Patnaik, who has penned the only comprehensive book on Mayurbhanj Chhau, has written about the Hindustani ragas used in the dance, especially in ‘Kailash Leela’, one of the popular choreographies, which includes nine ragas.

A survey conducted by Project Chhauni about four years ago listed 212 Chhau organisations and around 12,000 artistes across the district. The survey report also revealed how in the absence of proper documentation several precious pieces of choreographies have been lost. Also, most of the troupes do not have instruments to practice or proper costumes for performances. The younger generation, although keen to learn the dance form, is not sure about taking it up as a profession. The report states that Mayurbhanj Chhau is being kept alive with the support of local organisations and that there is absolutely no government support beyond Baripada.

The highly trained and professional artistes from the Uttar and Dakshin Sahi troupes are not invited to perform at the popular Konark dance festival. And the annual cultural calendar of the Odisha Tourism Department does not highlight the 140-year-old Chaitra Parva.

Says Lokanath Das, who is popularly known as Shambhu for playing Shiva and has won the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, “I want to go back in time when kings patronised us. I am pained to see Mayurbhanj losing its cultural identity due to prolonged negligence.”

Sharon wants the Odisha government to introduce Chhau in schools as part of physical and arts training. “This will ensure a steady income for practitioners. Grants should be given to dedicated gurus and artistes to come up with new choreographies even while preserving the ones created by past masters,” she says.

The news of the district administration’s decision to hold the Chaitra Parva, cancelled for two years, in mid-April this year is being welcomed by the practitioners, who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The Bhubaneshwar-based journalist writes on art and culture.

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