FRIDAY REVIEW

Knight on a shining peacock!

MALA KUMAR

BREATHTAKING The Chhau is a rare mask dance performed by the socially and economically deprived classes of people PHOTOS: MURALI KUMAR K, (BEKIW) G.R.N. SOMASHEKHAR.

BREATHTAKING The Chhau is a rare mask dance performed by the socially and economically deprived classes of people PHOTOS: MURALI KUMAR K, (BEKIW) G.R.N. SOMASHEKHAR.  

As a resplendent Karthikeya `fought' a demonic Tarakasura on stage, I kicked myself for the hundredth time that morning for not having done a curtain raiser on this wonderful performance. Why, oh why was the auditorium at PES College of Engineering not packed? Why were Bangaloreans, especially the youth for whom the programme was aimed, not here enjoying this thrilling dance form, I wondered hopelessly.

Curtain raiser, proclamation, announcement... whatever one may call it, a show must be preceded by publicity. On the second day of the two-day South Zone Convention of SPIC MACAY, shehnai players and young men playing the nagra or kettledrums, came on stage to announce the beginning of an ancient dance form. Then came artiste Bhondukalendey hitting hard on his dhol. The energetic beats and the piercing music demanded that everyone get set for the Purulia Chhau dance performed by the Seethalpur Ganesh Chhau Dance Party. And what a show of strength it was!

Purulia is a dry, hilly district in West Bengal near the border of Bihar. The Chhau dance is a rare mask dance performed by the socially and economically deprived classes of people. The first dancer on stage was a rather slim Ganesha. Ganesha's huge, colourful mask included a little trunk. Ganesha strode across the stage and to the astonishment of the uninitiated, leapt up in the air with his bow and arrow. Next came his mythical brother Karthikeya. Flared nostrils painted on the mask together with the trembling torso of the dancer were proof of Skanda's mood for war. The `cho... cho... cho' shouts of the dhol player encouraged the dancer to make daring double somersaults and leaps, unmindful of the rather inadequate stage floor for a dance meant for the open fields. When a colourful `peacock' strutted onto the stage, Karthikeya leapt on him, making SPICMACAY's founder Dr. Kiran Seth murmur in awe: "That's the strongest peacock I've seen!" The IIT Delhi professor founded the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth in 1977 as a non-profit, voluntary, apolitical and participatory student movement.

More dancers came on stage, depicting Shiva, Durga, the demons Tarakasura and Mahishasura. A charming attempt at humour was Durga's lion trying to scratch its ears. Quite a feat (or feet, actually), considering that the lion was played by two dancers under the furry disguise. The dance in fact, brought out the enormous amount of training and synchronised work that goes into its performance. Soon it was time for battle. Durga on her lion, Mahishasura on his buffalo (again played by two men under the disguise) and Karthikeya on his peacock and all the other characters raced towards each other, somersaulting with such ease that the stage looked like it had been taken over by swirling balls of colour.

While the Chhau dance in Purulia goes on all night, at SPICMACAY's convention, the dance lasted just an hour, because dancing during the day on stage is extremely challenging for the performers. The show, sponsored by GMR Group, came to an end with a tableau and a beautiful depiction of good over evil.

Knight on a shining peacock!

Earlier, when the artists from Purulia waited for the auditorium to fill at least a little, I went back stage to catch a glimpse of the efforts that went into keeping this traditional dance alive.

"We perform all night, during the Shivaganjan puja in April-May festival, at private functions and whenever we feel like celebrating," said troupe leader Srinivas Mahato. His ash-covered body and the plastic snake wrapped around his arms told me that he was going to portray Shiva. He has performed at festivals in Germany, Mauritius, Tunisia, Romania and in most cities in India. Most of the dancers are landless farmers or labourers, and perform only at night.

"We'll definitely continue with Purulia Chhau," said Mahato. "And even though our children now go to school, we are sure they will continue the tradition — you see, this is our religion for us, not just a performing art."

The South Zone convention was dedicated to the late K.V.Subbannna, Magsaysay award winner and founder of Ninasam. For information on SPICMACAY's programmes log on to www.spicmacay.com

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