Chasing the Chhau

Spiritual experienceThe mask negates the identity of the performer in Chhau

Spiritual experienceThe mask negates the identity of the performer in Chhau  

Rejuvenating an art form that was fast debilitating is not a simple task. Guru ShashadharAcharya is however, not averse to challenges. His single-minded determination to restore to Chhau dance to its former glory and popularity may have less to do with the fact that he is the fifth generation of performers in his family and more with his passion and love for an art that is both mysterious and enrapturing at the same time.

The Seraikella Chhau is a dance form originating from the Eastern part of India under the patronage of the royal family ruling over the erstwhile Singh Bhumi region (Orissa). Its uniqueness stems from the fact that the dancer’s identity is concealed behind a mask. Shashadhar’s initial training was under the tutelage of his father Guru Lingaraj Acharya. He had the privilege to learn Chhau from four other masters including the renowned Guru Natashekhar B.B. Pattnaik and Padmashri S.N. Singh Deo. Under their varied training, he was able to amalgamate various aspects of the dance and refine it for a better performance.

The Seraikella and Mayurbhanj performances of his group at the Bangalore International Arts Festival (BIAF) was a refreshing experience that exemplified the creative genius and skills honed by over four decades of dedication to this art.

The recital began with an instrumental invocation – “Jatraghat” rendered with shehnai, set to Des Raag. It was followed by ShashadharAcharya’s performance – “Raatri”. The raag was set to Yaman on 12 matras, and depicted the “Raatri Sukta” – a hymn in praise of the Goddess of Night. The gracious moves of “Raatri” as she dots the night sky with stars, and casts a veil of sleep and rest on all the tired beings – birds, animals, trees and humans, was a splendid depiction. Shashadhar as “Raatri” effectively showcasing the gentle moves of the feminine character would’ve left the audience wondering about the identity of the performer. This indeed is one of the key aspects of Chhau, explains Guru Shashadhar. “In other dance forms it is evident to the audience that a male or a female dancer is performing a particular character.”

Seraikella Chhau uses the mask and hides the identity of the performer. “It negates the identity the performer holds of the self as being male or female and casts him into the mould of the character being depicted. It is a spiritual experience,” says Shashadhar. There are currently three prime varieties of Chhau, of these the Seraikella Chhau is considered to be the most ancient form of Chhau, the other two being Purulia and Mayurbhanj. The performance was marked with gravity defying moves in the air - energetic and rigorous. Depiction of emotion is an integral part of a narrative performance in dance. Does wearing a mask put a dent to the ability of the audience in understanding the emotions? Shashadhar does not agree. “It is a common idea that eyes are very effective in depicting the various rasas, and rightfully so. However, when this is masked, the senses start exploring other avenues to understand an emotion being depicted. In this exercise the use of the neck becomes prominent. No matter which form of emotion it may be, it involves a corresponding neck movement too. Chhau utilises this to the utmost efficiency. The mask that is worn by the artist already represents a ‘sthaayibhaav’ – static emotion. This static emotion when combined with the right neck movement and aangikabhinaya (postural movements of the limbs) can be equally effective in making the audience understand what is being emoted,” he explains. Seraikella Chhau draws a lot of its inspiration from nature as well as mythology. The accompaniment is usually through shehnai, dhol and nagada instruments. The beats are intoxicating and the audience is in no time captivated by the rhythmic tune set by them. How then did an art so unique and enriching move to oblivion? ShashadharAcharya goes back in time: “Chhau was a dance formed, founded and sustained mainly by the royal family of Seraikella. It was a dance form that combined the features of Gotipua and Paika (this is a form of dance influenced by the animals and birds).”

At its prime, Chhau was an integral part of the annual Chaitra Parv festival begun by the Kings. It was an Akhaada system, and there were eight Akhaadas that were required to perform the Chhau dance during ChaitraParv. Due to the support and royal patronage, Chhau dance flourished and several families learnt and sustained this art form. Other kings who were invited to this festival, borrowed the idea, and adapted it to their local customs and environment, and thus varied forms of Chhau emerged. There are nearly 36 varieties of Chhau dance that are currently documented. After Independence and the subsequent Partition and the division of states, the communities that were practicing Chhau got dislocated and suffered from social negligence and disinterest. Now, only three forms of Chhau survive.”

Guru Shashadhar Acharya has travelled to many countries around the world popularising and creating awareness on the richness of Chhau dance. Guru Acharya is optimistic about the support and encouragement that society and government have together been providing for this unique art form.

“My life is now inextricably linked to the development and propagation of Chhau. I am happy that my son Sanjay has now come forward to carry forward this baton. I am longing to see this art form bask in the same glory it had erstwhile.”

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