Stories behind the masks

in Overview
Published on: 13 September 2017

Asha Ponikiewska

Asha Ponikiewska is a Bangalore based multidisciplinary artist who trained in Bharatanatyam, Seraikela Chhau, Yoga and Contemporary dance.


Chhau is a martial art based dance or dance-drama forms of East India. There are three recognized styles of Chhau: Seraikella from the state of Jharakhand, Mayurbhanj from Orissa and Purulia from West Bengal as well as lesser known Kharsawan Chhau, which is awaiting appreciation from wider audience.

Due to lack of proper historical records of the form it is difficult to ascertain how old Chhau dance is. Origin of the name “Chhau” is also a subject of debate among scholars. According to some the word “chhau” comes from “chhauni”, meaning “the cantonment”, which stresses the martial arts background of the dance and its connections with the paikas – soldiers, who might have staged dance performances as a form of entertainment, or to celebrate their victory on a battlefield. Some believe that it comes from the word “chhai” or “chhatak” while others derive it from the word “chaya” meaning “shadow” or “chhabi” meaning “a picture”. The last two interpretations seem to put stress on the visual representation and a special importance to the mask an inseparable element of Seraikela and Purulia Chhau.

All styles of Chhau share common background of martial art exercises known as Parikhanda (“pari” meaning shield and “khanda” meaning sword), which are supposed to prepare the body for the actual dance. The dance technique is based on chaalis and topkas – stylized walks choreographed after a keen observation of nature, e.g. baagh chaali (tiger walk), mayoor chaali (peacock walk), khel – variations of sword play, and ufli – thirty-six movements describing everyday human activities. There is no formal text that set the rules for a Chhau dance, and so the knowledge about this dance form has been transmitted from one generation to another under the guidance of traditional teachers and gurus. It is true that all the three styles are based on similar technique; however, a closer look reveals that there are significant differences in execution of movements, social background of the performers and use of masks.

At present Chhau performances take place throughout the year, but traditionally Chhau forms an important element of Chaitra Parva (Spring Festival)  in the month of Chaitra (March/April). It is a festival devoted to Lord Shiva in his form of Ardhanarishwara, during which Bhaktas or devotees observe various austerities and participate in religious ceremonies. The festival concludes with Chhau performances often in the form of competitions between various dance schools. Schools are grouped together under the name of Uttara Sahi and Dakhina Sahi in case of Mayurbhanj Chhau, and Bazar Sahi and Brahmin Sahi in case of Seraikela Chhau.

Traditionally Chhau is performed by male performers, but from the third decade of twentieth century a few female dancers began to acquire proficiency in this dance form. It is interesting to observe that  performers of Purulia Chhau usually belong to indigenous communities (Mura, Bhumij, Kurmi) and that there is no significant royal patronage for Chhau artists of that region. Mayurbhanj Chhau was supported by the royal family, but it was only in Seraikela Chhau that the members of royal family not only provided patronage  but also participated actively in Chhau performances as dancers and choreographers.

Since independence numerous personalities and institutions have been working towards popularization of Chhau. Sangeet Natak Akademi has been running a special training program for Chhau dancers and in 2010 UNESCO recognized Chhau as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and thus it is expected that a lot of support will be given for promotion of Chhau dance not only in India, but also abroad.

Seraikela Chhau

Out of the three styles of Chhau Seraikela is  most lyrical and stylized, even though some of its pieces retain their martial arts character. Mask is an important aspect of Seraikela Chhau. As the face of the performer is invisible to the audience so emotions are expressed through postures, subtle movements of the neck (griva bheda) and the head (siro bheda) along with body movements. It is said that in the earlier times masks were made of bamboo and gourd, but were later replaced by masks made of papier mache. The masks are relatively light and they cover the entire face of the performer and have small holes for eyes and nostrils which limits vision of the dancers and makes breathing difficult, which is possibly one of the reasons why Seraikela Chhau compositions do not last more than ten minutes. Some masks are suggestive in nature and form lyrical visual representations of characters – Ratri, or night, with her eyes half-closed; ferocious warriors; Hamsa, or swan, with long beak; or beautiful blue-colored face of Krishna. Other masks retain the neutral expression with beautifully stylized eyebrows, which allows skillful dancers to portray various emotions through movements of their limbs.

The royal family of Seraikela has been closely associated with the dance form by providing patronage to the artists, organizing performances and most importantly through active engagement as dancers and choreographers. Kumar Bijay Pratap Singh Deo, younger brother of the former king, is said to have choreographed a number of pieces and  transformed the dance of paikas into lyrical yet evocative form of Seraikela Chhau, which he made famous not only in India but also in Europe. In 1938 he took the first group of Chhau dancers for a tour to Europe, and most probably it was at his insistence that the first two female performers of Chhau joined the tour. This innovation inspired  women dancers like Shogun Bhutani, Rakha Mitra and Roshni Ghosh to perform Seraikela Chhau alongside male dancers. Rajkumar Suddendhra Narayan Singh Deo, a recipient of Padmashree Award, is another eminent Chhau performer from the royal family. Many other artists received accolades for their contribution to the growth of Seraikela Chhau – late Guru Kedar Nath Sahu, Gopal Prasad Dubey and Shyamacharan Pati are also recipients of Padmashree award.

The basic stanza of Seraikela Chhau is known as “dharan”, where feet are turned outwards, with the left foot in front, knees bent and body weight equally distributed on both legs. The right hand holds the sword above the head, while the left one grasps the shield at the abdomen level. It is interesting to note that though traditionally Chhau was performed only by males, eighteen out of thirty-six uflis (basic stylized movements in which only legs are used to depict various daily activities) describe the everyday routine of a housewife. Some of these are: Kharikiba – sweeping the floor, Gobar kudha – picking up dry cow dung, Sari Pinda – wearing a sari, Sindoor Tika – applying sindoor, etc. Instruments used provide loud rhythmical sounds - dhol, a two-headed barrel shaped drum; nagara – a large drum played with a pair of wooden sticks; dhamsa – a large kettle drum; flute; shehnai; jhanj - brass cymbals, the wind instrument – mohuri, as well as few other instruments.

The repertoire of Seraikela Chhau is vast as it comprises of solo choreographies, duets and group dances that derive from the Indian epic - Ramayana and from Mahabharata. Guru Tapan Patnaik claims that there exist a total of 288 dance items but unfortunately many of these have been lost or forgotten. Some of the beautiful dance compositions that one can still see on stage are - 

Ratri, or Night - a playful game of the Night and the Moon when Night tries to put Moon to sleep. It concludes with both characters leaving the stage after a vigorous chase.

Sabar, or Hunter - depicting a hunter waiting for his prey, his joy at the encounter, and sadness at inability to succeed in hunting.

Mayoor, or Peacock - using extremely evocative neck and head movements to represent vanity of the bird.

Astra Danda -   a stylized sequence of martial art movements.

Chandrabhaga - story of a beautiful maiden, Chandrabhaga, and Soorya, the Sun god who fell in love with her. Soorya tried to woo the girl, but she did not reciprocate to his feelings and threw herself in the sea, which left Soorya grief stricken.

Radha Krishna - representing the everlasting play of Krishna and his beloved.

There are many institutes that offer training in Seraikela Chhau, some of the prominent ones are: Acharya Chhau Nrutya Bichitra in Seraikella run by a family of traditional Chhau dancers and headed by Guru Shashadhar Acharya, who also teaches Chhau at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi. Government Chhau Dance Center in Seraikela; Rajkiya Chhau Nrtya Kala Kendra headed by Guru Tapan Patnaik, who recently attempted to revive some of the lesser known choreographies of Seraikela Chhau, and Trinetra Chhau Dance Center in Seraikela that functions under the patronage of Padmashree awardee Gopal Prasad Dubey.

Mayurbhanj Chhau

Mayurbhanj Chhau comes from the Baripada district of Orissa and according to Pradeep Kumar Gan and Dr. Sanjeeb Kumar Mohanty its origins can be traced back to the masked Ram Leela performances of the region, as well as to Seraikela Chhau. During the times of Maharaja Jadunath Bhanja (1823-1863) Ram Leela performances were an important element of Rama Navami festival celebrations in the region. It was then that Madan Singh Babu came to Baripada from Dhalbhum  region and amalgated Chhau music with that of Ram Leela's. It is said that Mayurbhanj Chhau took formal shape during the reign of Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanja Deo (1868-1882) when one of the aids of the Maharaja witnessed a Seraikela Chhau performance and requested the Raja to develop a similar dance form in the region of Baripada. Within a span of three years two Seraikela masters – Upendra Biswal and Banamali Das were brought to the region in order to train dancers belonging to Uttara Sahi and Dakshin Sahi schools respectively. These two Seraikella Chhau artists laid the foundations of what is presently known as Mayurbhanj Chhau. Maharajas supported the development of the dance form by patronizing and organizing dance competitions between these two schools.

In 1912 Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo took special interest in promoting Mayurbhanj Chhau. He and his brother Routrai Saheb and cousin Bada Lal Saheb created a war dance with sixty four dancers. This choreography was presented in Calcutta in front of British King George V and Queen Mary, who  appreciated the dance. Maharaja Pratapa Chandra Bhanja Deo was an important patron for Mayurbhanj Chhau who revived annual dance competitions that took place during the Chhaitra Parva Festival. During his time ustads were sent to observe choreographies of other dance forms, which led to incorporation of new elements in Mayurbhanj Chhau. It was during this period that many important  choreographies were introduced into the existing dance repertoire – Nataraja, Kaliya Daman, Meghaduta and Samudra Mathan in case of Uttara Sahi and Holi, Kiratarjunya, Ras Leela, Bastra Chori for Dakshina Sahi. Maharaja Pratapa Chandra Bhanja Deo introduced Hindustani classical music into the existing Oriya folk music repertoire and lyrical Jhumur  as accompaniment of Mayurbhanj Chhau. Masks are not used in Mayurbhanj Chhau but this is believed to be a new development as there are evidences of use of masks in the nineteenth century.

Techniques of Mayurbhanj Chhau is divided into chalis and topkas as well as thirty-six uflis, however their execution is different from that of Seraikela style. The basic posture of the dance resembles that of tribhangi of Odissi, body weight resting on one leg. Dancers display a high level of command over torso movements, unlike in Seraikela Chhau, where movements of the upper body are rather limited. Mayurbhanj performers use torso movements rather frequently, sometimes in stylized lyrical and fluid way that makes one think of Odissi dancers, in other times using abrupt jerks, which could be seen as folk influences. While Seraikela dancers concentrate more on the movements of legs and hands. According to Natyashastra, movements can be either be lyrical Lasya or vigorous Tandava, similarly Mayurbhanj Chhau movements can be categorized into Kalibhanga – delicate and sophisticated lyrical movements, Hatiyardhara – forceful male movements and Kalikata – neutral combination of the above two. Absence of mask allows greater freedom of movement therefore choreographies include vigorous jumps and group fights using elements from martial exercises of parikhanda. Some of the most prominent and popular choreographies include, Nataraja, traditionally represented by dancers belonging to the Uttara Sahi tradition. A solo piece displaying the glory of Shiva in his form of the Lord of Dance, beginning with complicated poses depicting various stances of Shiva which ends with a vigorous display of tandava. Dandi, performed by Dakshina Sahi, is based on the ceremony of Upanayana – ceremony of the sacred thread. 

Mayurbhanj Chhau drew attention of several foreign women performers, Sharon Lowen and Padmashree Ileana Citaristi among them managed to create a niche for themselves and become successful performers of this dance form. Mayurbhanj Chhau also drew attention of contemporary dancers, such as Santosh Nair and Bharat Sharma who use Chhau vocabulary in contemporary medium. Mayur Art Center in Bhubaneshwar, Mayurbhanj Art Center at Bhubaneshwar and Gurukul Chhau Dance Sangam in New Delhi run by Guru Janmejay Sai Babu and his sons are few of the institutes that offer training in Mayurbhanj Chhau.

Purulia Chhau

Vigorous acrobatic jumps, numerous breathtaking somersaults and energetic shaking of shoulders and torso make Purulia Chhau easily recognizable. Possibly because of this overwhelming masculinity Dr. Ashutosh Bhattacharya, a noted folklorist,described Purulia Chhau as a “tribal war dance”.  Most  performers of Purulia Chhau belong to indigenous communities. Royal family of the region did not take part in its growth , which presumably allowed it to retain the folk characteristics rather than undergo a process of Sanskritisation.

Elaborate masks and  sophisticated headgears add to the allurement of Purulia Chhau. Masks represent various demons and gods of the Hindu pantheon and most of them are produced in the Chodra village in Baghmundi. Purulia Chhau masks are more realistic than those of Seraikela Chhau - masks of demons are either green or red in colour with grotesque facial expressions, mask of Ravana displays his ten heads, Ganesha's mask is endowed with elephant's trunk. It requires a lot of physical strength and skill  to perform acrobatic stunts in these masks as they are  large and heavy. Costumes consist of embroidered jackets and baggy trousers. In Purulia Chhau the dhol player sings an introductory song in praise of Ganesha before the performance and shouts out words of encouragement as if to cajole dancers to perform more spiritedly. Choreographies concentrate around episodes describing various skirmishes involving gods, demons and puranic heroes. Mahishasur Badh; depicting the battle between the demon Mahishasur and goddess Durga and Kiratarjunya; presenting the combat between Arjuna and Lord Shiva in the guise of mountain-dwelling hunter, Kirata. Purulia Chhau artists Gambhir Singh Mura and Nepal Mahato have been awarded the Padmashree by the Government of India.

Adabana Tarun Sangha Chhau Dance Society led by Padmashree awardee Nepal Mahato and his son Subrata Mahato are among numerous troupes performing Purulia Chhau in the villages of Bengal and in festivals organized for the urban audiences.

Kharshawan Chhau

Little has been written about Kharshawan Chhau as this form of Chhau is practically unknown outside the region of Jharakhand. The performers of Kharshawan Chhau do not use masks, but apply colour all over their bodies.




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