Behind the mask

Guru Shashadhar Acharya is an expert Chhau teacher, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient, and a fifth generation Chhau dancer   | Photo Credit: 14dfr shashadhar acharya

It was not without a valid reason that the UNESCO declared Chhau dance as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Guru Shashadhar Acharya, an expert Chhau teacher, and a Sangeet Natak Akademi award recipient, a fifth generation Chhau dancer, recently imparted a two-week intensive training in Chhau to eager learners at Raka Maitra’s institution in Singapore. Here he takes a few questions on the dance form:

What is the story of Chhau dance?

The history of Chhau dance is intricately connected with the history of the erstwhile rajahs of Seraikela — the Singh Deo rulers, many of whom were performers and choreographers themselves. In 1205 A.D. a kingdom had been established by the Singh Deos at Porahat. The inhabitants consisted of Adivasis, some of whom were hunters while others were agriculturists. The king brought people of other caste groups to settle in the region. They brought along with them Paikas or warriors. After practising the art of warfare they would entertain themselves by singing and dancing. As early as the 16th Century, Bikram Singh Deo, a descendant of the Porahat rulers, established the State of Seraikela on the banks of the Khai Kei.

What is your story in relation to Chhau?

From early childhood I have been brought up amidst Chhau dancers. My father Lingoraj Acharya was himself a Chhau dancer and my guru. The Acharyas incidentally were brought to Seraikela to be ‘Raj Purohits’ or priests. My other teachers were Guru Kedarnath Sahu, Rajkumar Suddhendra Narayan Singh Deo, B.B. Patnaik, and Guru Bikram Kumbhakar.

Why are masks used in Chhau?

I think Chhau masks were introduced so that you could forget your real identity and get into the role you were portraying. At first these masks were made of leaves, then wood came in, followed by pumpkin skin, then basket and thatmora and bamboo, etc.

Would you nomenclature describe Chhau as a classical dance form and what are the themes commonly used?

Chhau is folk, traditional and contemporary, all combined into one. It is a highly specialised masked dance, where expression is through body-language, where moods and sentiments are shown through limb movements and graceful head and neck movements. It has evolved from a martial art form. The 108 karanas of the Natya Shastra are called upalayas in Chhau. The themes of these dances range from aspects of the natural world, to abstract expressions. ‘Mayur’ dance is a unique creation. ‘Nabik’ portrays a couple navigating through the river of life. Themes have been taken from mythology such as ‘Ratri’ — an incarnation of Durga, symbolising both peace and the terrible — from the 12th adhyay of the Rig Veda. The theme was made contemporary by bringing in the character of ‘Evening’, as a symbol of ‘Bharatiya Nari’ who lights a lamp every evening to welcome ‘Kalrupi Ratri’. The character of ‘Chand’ — moon — was incorporated to show the union of the two.

What is the music of Chhau?

Late Bijay Pratap Singh Deo started the use of Hindustani classical ragas and chhanda. Folk music is also used. A number of instruments such as, shehnai, flute, dhol, khol, maddal, nagada, dhumsa, korka, etc. accompany the dancers.

What do you feel is your contribution?

I have been instrumental in bringing Chhau from the open air performance area to the proscenium stage. I have made the music powerful without changing the rhythm of Chhau.

Do you think Chhau is on the verge of extinction?

The Sangeet Natak Akademi initiated a new project, in 1998, to pump lifeblood into it. Thanks must also be given to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation for declaring Chhau as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Acharya Chhau Nritya Bichitra started by Lingoraj Acharya in 1980, has been selected as one of the training centres by SNA under its project to support Chhau. Pratap Aditya Singh Deo has taken the responsibility of continuing the Chaitra Parva Chhau Festival (held mid-April) at Seraikela, which is gaining in popularity every year.

I have plans to open a centre in Kolkata besides being an Ambassador of Chhau in foreign soils.

What are the different styles of Chhau and how different are they from each other?

There are three distinct schools of Chhau dance forms which are Seraikela, Purulia and Mayurbhanj. Both Seraikela and Purulia use Chhau masks, unlike Mayurbhanj. Purulia Chhau relies on acrobatic movements and drama, while Mayurbhanj Chhau is folk oriented. Seraikela Chhau is classical, subtle and refined like any other classical dance form.

What is its future?

Bijay Pratap Singh Deo is considered the father of modern Seraikela Chhau, as it is he who gave shape to Chhau dance as it is today. Now there is no looking back. Chhau has a very bright future.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 12:41:06 AM |

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