On the Chhau of Purulia: Interview with Roma Chatterjee

On the Chhau of Purulia: Interview with Roma Chatterjee

in Interview
Published on: 09 March 2017
Interview conducted with Professor Roma Chatterji in Delhi in 2015

http://www.sahapedia.org/mahabharata-the-critical-editionAshutosh Bhattacharya was actually one of the first scholars to work on Purulia Chhau. He did in fact spend a lot of time and effort thinking about the etymology of the word Chhau. 'Chho' is the way he wrote it down in his text and he took it back to references to 'Chhauni', military encampments, and tried to draw a link between a particular context where the dance was perhaps performed as well as the form of dance. So this idea of a martial dance is something that he I think was one of the early ones to throw in.


Now there aren’t that many scholars after him who worked on any one of the Chhau dances in the way that the world refers to this dance form. Most of the practitioners in all three areas call it 'Chhau' including Purulia. The three areas are Mayurbhanj, Seraikela, Purulia, all of these were kingdoms that had a very strong Adivasi base where the kings themselves or the chiefs till very recently would have been Adivasis who died out over a very long period of time, and through an interface with Hinduism would have also taken on features of Sankritisation, as Srinivas might have put it, or maybe even Rajputisation. So they were clearly as Surajit Sinha, the anthropologist who worked a lot especially in Purulia, though he didn’t work on the Chhau dancers, but on other forms.


Now what is really interesting over there is that you can see that there is something in common that the dance forms of these three regions have, though there are stylistically also very many interesting differences. One is that there are particular kinds of dance gaits and postures, called the 'chhauk'. I am not a dancer myself but I have read everything that has been written on the Chhau dance, and you can see that there is a particular kind of grammar that they all have in common, though the way that this grammar is then manifested and rendered in these forms is very, very different.


Now the Mayurbhanj is the only one of the three Chhau dance forms that does not use a mask. The other two, Seraikela and Purulia—Purulia is now in West Bengal and Seraikela is in Jharkhand, Mayurbhanj is in Orissa—have had very different trajectories in post-independence India. So you could see over time that the patrons of the dance also had a very big influence on the way that this dance developed. So given the Seraikela form you will find that the kings also took on abstract themes. So they have dance compositions which are based actually on mental states and solitude, or sometimes a part of nature. There could be a self-conscious sort of orientation, the kind of aesthetics that we associate with ancient dramatists like Kalidasa. I also have the feeling this was because the patrons also were quite learned in some of these textual traditions and aesthetics. Seraikela is also one of the more lyrical forms of the Chhau, I feel, which uses the kind of disjointedness that comes with this play on the body while the facial expression is fixed.


Now Purulia Chhau in a sense took a somewhat different route. I was fortunate enough actually to do my fieldwork and since I did anthropological fieldwork I actually lived in this village which had a very important guru for Chhau dance, Gambhir Singh Mura. Now that was his home village for more than a year. So I was there for a year and a half. And so I got to know that team very well, and I am not a dancer but I was able to watch some of the best dancing in that whole Purulia region. Baghmundi, which is the thana with Charida Falls, is also famous for actually being culturally very rich. So it has its own variation of the Chhau dance and also particular musical forms, the songs that are an important part of the Chhau dance, the Chhau nache jhumur.  And there have been several other very, very significant dancers even before Gambhir Singh Mura. This would be just a little prior to independence. People like Madhu Bhat who was not an Adivasi. Gambhir Singh Mura is a Bhumij and this dance really comes to fruition in the way that we know it today under the patronage of Bhumij kings.


The kings of Baghmundi were very significant but the patronage doesn’t go back very far. So I have a feeling again that this dance form crystallizes fairly recently. Say 160 years, maybe even less, it is very difficult to say, and I am going by oral history here, which I was fortunate enough to be able to get, anecdotal evidence from other people who were living in this village. So they take the route back to three kings before the present one.


Now of course the direct line has become extinct. There was a cousin who had taken over. He was a Congress MLA at that point, say about 35 years ago in the '80s when I was doing my fieldwork in Purulia. Actually there was an ossuary. The bones would come to Jhalda of the Baghmundi kings, the village where I did my fieldwork which was also the only village where masks were made for Purulia Chhau. And actually the mask makers also had migration histories: the kings would actually ask them to come, giving them land in this village to settle precisely to make masks for the Chhau dance as well as murtis for pujas like the Bhadon Puja and others. So you can see that there was also a living memory of kings taking on customs which they may not have had originally, customs from dominant castes around the rest of Bengal and Purulia, a kind of Hinduisation going on, if you like that word. But it was also then that the dance was taking on a certain crystallization. So themes were now being composed around stories from the Puranas, from the Ramayana specially, where these masks too were definitely divided into types. You could see then that different steps were being codified, different chaals and bhaavs. So you have a poshu chaal for the animal gait, for the different kinds of animal figures that are part of this composition. You have the godly gaits that I have written about, as well as the more human gaits for rishis, munis, adivasis. After all Shiva also appears as an Adivasi in some of the stories in the sacred texts, like the one where Arjuna is being tested (Kairata Parva in Book Three of the Mahabharata).


And now these then also plug in interestingly and take on a very contemporary feel when you think about the politics around Chota Nagpur and the coming into being of the state of Jharkhand, of which Purulia is not an important region, but after all they are culturally contiguous. So again and again these are being reinvented locally in terms of current political and cultural interests. So in that way the Chhau, I would say, are very living forms. so many of the other dance forms in these areas really were very rich in the forms of music and dance they had, but unfortunately over the years there are very few left, but Chhau is one of those that has managed to retain its living quality and its vibrancy.


And I think precisely because of this, and maybe because of the kind of patronage they got from the kings in the pre-independence period, from the local forms over here they were able to absorb these different kinds of influence and come up with a very rich composite whole. So you have had different strands from the kind of interface that these regions developed with everything that came from the outside, influences of sacred texts, other kinds of aesthetic influences, because some of these musical forms actually take the form of raags. They are definitely self-consciously playing with different rasas. So you could see that there is an aesthetics which would also link it up with other kinds of dramatic forms in other parts of India. Now how much of this was self-conscious or came along with the kind of appreciation of the particular dance forms that the patrons as well as the dancers worked with is difficult to say. I would say that it must have happened through a very long process of osmosis. But one thing I should say is that I think it is very important to look at the aesthetics of these forms, rather than just think about these as tribal dance forms and I know Ashutosh Bhattacharjee has had a very large role to play in trying to exoticise them. Mask dance, definitely the Other, non-Hindu, with a veneer of Hinduism.


It is a ittle difficult to say that about Seraikela but these were also kings who went through a long process of Rajputisation as did other kings in this region. So it is an interesting region because it is so hybrid. But I would say it is important to remember that the kings were highly cultivated, the people are still highly cultivated. So if you go these places even now you will see that the kind of knowledge the local people have about their own cultural forms is phenomenal, and it is not so official. And no amount of television or film watching or the intervention of other media seems to have affected it. There will be changes that adapt to these other forms but somewhere along the line people are conscious about the structural compositions, the grammar of these forms. And it doesn’t seem to me that these are dying arts. So I think some of it is is also because of the patrons who are I think highly cultivated people.


So you could see at one time that these were very, very poor because I had actually gone back to look at whatever is left of their palaces, and there wasn’t a huge gulf. These were not rich zamindaris. These were very poor and in fact as much susceptible if not to leprosy, definitely to tuberculosis which is pretty much endemic here as it is in any other parts of India. And they died out because of poverty amongst other things but you could see that the kind of cultural sophistication that is still there must have come about because of the very highly developed sense of aesthetics that they have, which is why these forms took the particular colouration that they had, and continue to be very vibrant now because otherwise I think they would have died out. Once this community participation had died out, they would have died out.


So that is a little bit of the history. So I think some of the history can be recovered. I mean it has also been done for the Seraikela Chhau, because I think the rajas were also able to write in Bangla and in Oriya and in other languages, so they actually have written up things and there has been research. But unfortunately Purulia Chhau has come up with a lot of, I would say, unfounded myths which tend to exoticise these as Adivasi and tribal.


Now interestingly what has happened as a result is that this very idea of what it means to be an Adivasi, to be a peasant has been reflected in the dance as well. So the dance is responding to these modern myths generated I have to say first by folklorists like Ashutosh Bhattacharjee and then later on by journalists, by other scholars. They tend to be a little unthinking in the way that they use words like Adivasi. What would it mean in a place like Chota Nagpur which has seen such a very porous connection, so many different Adivasi groups with such different histories. The Santhals self-consciously close themselves off from other mainstream Hindu movements, caste movements, cultural movements etc. The Bhumij did not. They in fact adopted Kshatriya models. So I have this argument in my book, Writing Identities, which also deals with the Chhau dance, that they were very open to the outside but I think allowed it them also to mould whatever was available in the building up of a court culture.


So if you compare all these three regions, unfortunately as the Mayurbhanj Chhau is travelling to other parts of India taking on a great amount of classicization I would say when I see it being performed in Delhi through the Krishna Leela or through the Ram Leela that is performed every year, so many steps from the Mayurbhanj Chhau that I can see, as it is becoming more and more refined, you will see it is being danced less and less in Mayurbhanj itself and this I have heard from scholars of Orissa who have worked in Orissa. I myself have never seen Mayurbhanj in Orissa, not that I have visited Orissa that much. You still see Seraikela artists coming regularly all over. You do see Mayurbhanj artists but you can see something is happening, it doesn’t have the same vibrancy any more. And I have a feeling it is because it has become detached. I don’t want to romanticise roots but it is this way of living incorporation of novelty or outside influences that has made the Chhau dance what it is today, given it its vibrancy, as it has also changed it.


We may not find all these changes aesthetically appealing to us but I still feel that there will be enough great choreographers, great dancers who will be able to do something creative with them.


And so maybe I should now move to some of those issues right now. So some sense of the history I would say we really need to go back to where the more innovative things in these three different dance forms developed. I know for Purulia, Baghmundi was very important. Now this is obviously in contrast to the levels of poverty that exist today and probably existed even then, because this was a tiny little zamindari. But its cultural import was I think far in excess of its material base. So it was an interesting inversion where these kings in fact used to invite great singers and great dancers from all over the Purulia region. So they are really quite famous. There were three kings in the pre-independence era who were important for the Chhau dance.


In the first case it was just beginning with the two great patrons were Hridaynath and Madan Mohan Singh Deo. Now both of these were still remembered by people who were old men at the time I was doing fieldwork. (I don’t know what old means because none of them had birth dates, so there was no documentary evidence; they looked old but I don’t believe that they could have been more than in their early '70s because the mortality rate was still fairly low. This is a very poor area subject to endemic drought, so you had to be exceptionally healthy to have lived to your 70s). So you could see that it was very much in historic memory that not only were the Bhumij kings becoming Kshatriafied, but equally the Chhau dance was taking on a form by which these kings, as a part of claiming to be Kshatriya, would not only invite a family of Brahmins which could give them that Kshatriya status but they also then tried to create a court culture.


Now interestingly the kinds of forms that they patronized were things from this region. They patronized certain forms of music. They patronized certain forms of dance. Chhau dance was one of these, the Naachni was the other. Now you can see that there is a court culture in which the way these dance takes shape, makes sense. They were often associated with certain ritual occasions, such as the time when the agricultural season starts, and so was the locale. The first dance would have still been held in an important Shiva temple or some other temple. Then of course it could move to other places. But then the ritual sphere and the courtly sphere are often inextricably connected. After all the king would have also received his abhishek in that famous temple which is still a very important local pilgrimage site in Baghmundi where as part of homage, as part of the ritual oblation, all dancers from the region come and perform at least one item, one pala over there, Lahoria Shiv murti and others. I am sure similar things must have happened in Seraikela. In fact there are books on it which tell you of some temple where the king was also the patron and so on.


So I feel it is important to look at these because they also tell us something about the aesthetics of the dance, what does dance do for them.


If we now to come to the second point, the popularity that these dance forms have achieved in post-independence India, I think it is largely also because of the discourse that tends to see Adivasi culture as an exotic other to the Indian mainstream, whatever you want to call it. Now what has happened interestingly is that this exoticisation has been taken up as a theme by many of these dance forms themselves, where not only do you have interesting compositions around the theme of what it means to be an Adivasi but equally other kinds of popular dramatic elements. I know that of the last 20 years, since I did my fieldwork in 1980-85 and was in very close contact with this part of Purulia, Baghmundi, and it was self-consciously chosen because it was such a rich cultural area. The village where I did my fieldwork was the only village where the masks were made and it had three very famous dancers, one was a Mahato, one a Bhumij and one actually was a Bhat, Bhangan, who were the helpers of the Brahmins who came to legitimise the king. So one came from a group that were also mask makers. These are Bengali, they are called Bengali, Bahri jaat, Bengali caste. The others are groups. See now the word jaat doesn’t distinguish between tribe or caste; that is the word you use for a group, a community, however you want to call it. The other two are from jaats that preceded the Bengalis and I have their migration histories.


Lal Mahato, very famous also as a composer of the Jhumur songs as well as Gambhir Singh Mura, a Bhumij who would have been part of the same group to which the kings belonged, Bhumij, but also received the first Padma Shri for Purulia Chhau. There is one other after him named Pal Mahato, not from his village but Gambhir Singh Mura was his guru as well.


Now what happens post-independence is that Gambhir Singh himself was very conservative. He was unlettered himself. But he always felt that if the authentication of any of their dances could not be found in the sacred texts—he said shastra—he said if it is not in the shastras, how do we know what chaal, what bhaav, what move to give to these dances? So even when he composed—and he was constantly being asked by government officials, well-meaning folklorists, Why don’t you dance on themes that are more contemporary, like Adivasi themes? So he said, I could also make up themes like Santhals with their agricultural activities, women singing compositions on Sidhu Kanhu, the great revolutionary leaders of the some of the tribal movements there, Birsa Munda etc. though Birsa Munda is not so important in Purulia. But Sidhu Kanhu definitely was. He would say, But look where are these stories in the shastras? How would I know how to depict them? Where would be the authentication? Now this is very interesting for someone who is unlettered, who had never read any of these things himself or who actually has no interactions with people who are learned in these shastras.


But I will just give you this example. While I was doing fieldwork one day there was a huge discussion. I was also sitting in one of the murti-maker's shops where a lot of this gossip takes place—and most of our field work is done through gossip anyway—about where this word Harijan comes from, no, the word Adivasi. 'Adivasi, Adivasi'. And so they consulted the Brahmin who is lettered, I mean who knew enough Sanskrit, he said, Look this word was invented by Gandhiji, of course he meant Harijan, you won’t find it being mentioned there. So then the whole activity was around, is this word a translation of something that we can find in the shastras. Now you couldn’t get more structuralist than this could you? You think these are recent inventions. So then they sort of deconstructed what Adivasi means. First, inhabitant. Now what would be the symbol that you would use to demarcate, identify the first inhabitant. And then they came to the decision that it would have to be the stone. And the stone comes from the menhirs. Now in Charida the stone menhirs are not vertical, they are horizontal. So the stone actually might not be engraved but the stones actually demarcate the place where an important set of bones has been interred. So people would be telling you that this is where Raja Hridaynath was interred, this is where Raja Madan Mohan was interred. Then you ask what happens after that. After that they became Kshatriyas, they were cremated, we don’t get their bones any more. And that is how your bones go back to your ancestral village.


So Gambhir Singh Mura’s bones would have gone back to where his ancestral village was, his father’s village, this was his mother’s village. His father died when he was very young. He was also a famous dancer, Jipa Singh Mura in the Baghmundi court, but never grew up in that court.


So then they decided that stones would be the symbol of the Adivasi. Then they came back to going back to some of the Purans and there was one Puran only available in the village and so they consulted that and you know the Purans always begin with stories about the way the world and cosmos come to be, and the way the significant groups come to be, they go up to make up the world as we know it and the cosmos as we know it including the world of the gods. So then they came to the story of Surabhi gaay who has been stolen by the Kshatriya king Jamadagni and of course she is asked to defend herself by her protector, her rishi. And then of course she stamps her feet four times and these four different autochthonous warriors emerge. He said that, Look, all of us must have emerged from these and he says that there is reference to one caste group called Pashan. Now Pashan means stone in Sanskrit. So obviously then that must be where we emerged from. So they composed their version of the Adivasi story, it really was a claim out of this myth. So interestingly even so the word 'Adivasi' then was translated into something that could be their name and meaningful within the universe of the shastras and then composed by it.


Of course there are other groups and interestingly in the last 15-20 years you find that with the boom of new media and specially with the CD/video revolution and now with the computer revolution that this kind of cinematic technology is quite cheap. So you find people at fairly low cost can actually buy video documentation equipment to make them very cheap video clips on music videos, but equally dance videos on the Chhau dance in Purulia. And you find this happening all over India but what you find is that it has also led to very interesting changes in the dance form. I think it was already there, say about 20 years ago just before this video boom, because now a lot of the Chhau dance is available also through video clips, so it has allowed for a lot of new things to emerge in the dance form. Now I would say the form already allowed it but already you had a kind of dramatisation through voiceovers. See it is a dance form, so there was no conversation, it was a dance drama. But in the last 20 years—and I think this was just before the video boom in Purulia—the dance form took a significant change. I am sure the mask made a huge change and made the Chhau dance what it was, the introduction of this voiceover speech. So the mask remains, that has become the kind of marker of the Chhau, it has to be masked. You might introduce lots of different musical forms etc but the mask doesn’t go. You have introduced whole new genres of new masks to refer to human beings and I could tell you a little about that as well.


But in the dance form by introducing speech, even if the actors aren’t speaking, remember the lips are closed, you have little holes for the eyes, little nostrils to breathe in but you can’t be heard much and their bodily gestures are very much those that require the face to be still, only one expression. So everything is done through the body. I am sure the Greek actors with their masks also, the acting styles would have been very different. So what it is and even if it has a lot more social themes, dowry, not just important Adivasi historical themes but other themes as well.


The last one I saw and this was on video, was interestingly on Phoolan Devi, where a lot of the Draupadi type motifs are coming in. And not through the main story but through motifs like the vastraharan, the shaming of the woman, and the woman becoming a goddess through her shaming, through her disrobing where she reveals herself. Now that itself is a very structural motif that you see associated with goddess stories all over south India for sure, because Alfred Hiltbeitel and David Shulman have worked on them so we know, but maybe in other parts of India as well. So interestingly again, even when you have a secular story, it gets transformed into something else. Now why should the Phoolan Devi story be so important?  Now interestingly—and you can see that there is something about oral memory that keeps things going whereas something written may fade away—I remember when I was doing fieldwork, and this would have been in 1982, there was such a huge buzz in the village one morning. Everyone the night before had gone and they travelled quite far away, this was somewhere close to Giriti which is quite a few hours' from Charida and transport by no means was efficient then. So they all sat on tractors and things like that and went. There are very few tractors available, the plots are too small to actually allow them to use mechanisation much. And they are poor. But they hired buses, tractors and so on, and pushed off to see this jatra on Phoolan Devi. And this was by some troupe in Calcutta and there was a huge buzz. Everyone was very excited about how this woman becomes a dacoit, and it was very much the Draupadi myth being transformed.


Now, interestingly, I hadn’t seen the jatra myself, I had gone home and gone to sleep, didn’t even know many of them were going, but I could see so many of the echoes of what I had heard people telling me about that jatra so many years before, in this particular video of the Phoolan Devi story in the Chhau dance. So again now of course there is the Sidhu Kanhu story, there are even stories on the Kargil war. But again interestingly whatever stories are picked up, they will be transformed in terms of the dominant mythic stories that are already available to the Chhau dancers. So I would say that while there has been a lot of change, the change has also gone about by introducing formal elements into the dance, so I know now when they dance particular stories around Durga especially, elements of the Nachni naach are formalised in it, which wouldn’t have happened earlier. Though already you could see a kind of circle rolls, you introduce a non-storiable theme through the naach ... and the word used for these dancers were densar (dancer); nachuwad is what a Chhau dancer is called. These are these people who do these jatra type of dances, Bollywoodisation, hip-swinging, the kinds of twirling of the hands which is not part of the Chhau at all. It doesn’t have elaborate mudras, but in Bengal I think it comes to the jatra through this Khemta naach, what you call Baiji naaches, maybe a kind of influence from the Kathak type of naach is entering. Now those people are called densars. Now there was a Densar Patho Bachu who lived in the village, I asked all men but I think maybe they were what we would call transsexuals now. It is interesting how they come to be incorporated into the dance form. Now densar comes from the word dancer. Now increasingly that particular form was just put in for light relief, so these would be the people doing the arti around Ganesh—the first episode always has some dance by a dancer taking on Ganesh’s form to dance only because that is the vandana, the salutation to the deity, and Ganesh is the god of beginnings and so all the dances, any dance will begin with the Ganesh vandana especially. Always Ganesh, none of the other deities. So they would be doing the arti around Ganesh, or you might introduce a court scene where they would be doing this, or they would become gopis in a Krishna Leela scene. And I asked one of them, the only densar I ever met, 'Where did you learn, who was your guru?' So he said, ‘I am self-taught’. And he told me, 'Look, I have watched films, and so I have really trained myself.' And of course the others used to laugh at him a bit, I am sure it was because he was different.


But already you could see there was a place for something else entering. Since then other things have entered through the voiceover, greater jatra-like elements, but interestingly also there is this other feminine dance form called the naachni, which is supposed to be a dance based on the raas leela very much like Kathak, but which comes maybe from the courtesan culture of Bengal as well, which entered the theatrical space of 19th-century Calcutta jatra. It has now found a place even in godly themes, like some of Durga’s steps, especially when she is dancing themes from the Devi Mahatmya like in that particular episode when she is defeating the two rakshasas (Shumbha and Nishumbha), but where actually she comes as a seductress, they want to marry her. So the way that the seduction scene is played out is through the introduction of the naachni naach. So it is interesting how some of these mythic themes are getting greater and greater elaboration, whereas the dance palas were very short and therefore very rapid, very vibrant, very energetic, and of course it is difficult to see those early ones. One place where I got the clue of this was not only my own village, Charida, but also that documentary by Ritwik Ghatak, which still had dancers Lal Mahato and so on mentioned. So you could see there has been a slight change in values: that the poshu chaal was very important, many of the more martial forms like the asura chaal, all the very martial godly chaals and so on, but equally now some of these others. So Durga is just stately when she is killing the asura, but she also takes on some of these seductive elements.


With Shumbha and Nishumbha, the two asuras, she first comes in as a seductress and then of course takes on this very martial role and kills them. Now I saw this episode in Purulia many years ago and then again in Delhi at the IGNCA when they had a Chhau dance festival. Interestingly, so many steps of the Naachni dancers that I have seen, in Purulia again, have now been incorporated now, to become part of the general code now of the Chhau dance. So I can see its vibrancy also comes from the fact that it can take all these different influences, can take so many musical incorporations. I remember already when I was there, 'Raghupati Raghava Rajaram', was a very important theme tune. Not sung, but played on the instruments. So they introduced new instruments like the cornet. Now they even have a keyboard. Now how does this all square with the dhamsha, the kettledrum's deep sound, or with the dhol? Interestingly it is through the stories. So I think the musical changes go with the introduction of some of these other aspects of the stories. So in some ways I think there is a very self-conscious knowledge about what can fit. So it is not just a random introduction of novelty for novelty sake. There is a way in which the aesthetics also enable this incorporation at certain places. If you introduce the flute—and I am not saying the flute isn’t an instrument already available here, it will be when you are doing things with the primordial hunter themes, including Krishna who could be an Adivasi hunter. Or when you introduce the horn, it will be in certain themes... but when I ask, 'Okay, this is clearly from outside, where did it come from?' 'No, no, we used to have this, it was called the shingha, it was always there.' Now this was clearly a horn, and I even know that there was some French musician who liked their dance form very much. When they went to Paris they were gifted this. So I very well know that it wasn’t the shingha but you can see there is a way in which even eunuchs can be incorporated into the grammar over here and stories may follow.


So there is a way in which there is this continuity and change—such a clichéd kind of utterance when you think about it. But if you think of what it could mean, there is a way in which you can give it a Chhau colouration but make it something new. The voiceover was introduced only with certain kinds of stories, Sidhu Kahnu as well as social themes—dowry deaths and women’s exploitation and stories like that.


Now that has been given further elaboration when you now make the Chhau for the video. Where obviously you can take it to other scenarios, you don’t just need one place, so you can show it against different backdrops. It has allowed some kind of change. Now I don’t think it has influenced the steps that much anymore, but I noticed it certainly brought in many more different kinds of musical backgrounds. So what I tried to do is, I got a whole collection of video clips on the dances that I had already seen, and these were pretty much traditional dances as well as the new ones. In the new ones you can see there is a greater sub-specialization in the different kinds of acoustical affects: you will have a special voiceover only to bring in demonic laughter to show the Pakistani soldiers—they are after all the asuras in that. So it allows a greater elaboration of music, some of it seems to be more successfully adapted to the form, others I feel will die out. They jarred a bit.


But in other ways you can see there is a greater elaboration of the masks. It was already there when I was doing fieldwork and I can see that even more now, the faces would be divided into three types. The asuras, the demonic masks, snarling faces where you have the teeth being shown as fangs, but it is one solid white mask. The gods never have mouths open. They always smile like Ram. You remember the Ram in the Sagar TV serial, his enigmatic smile, because remember Ram is also a deity, shouldn’t be showing too many human emotions. So all the gods had this sort of semi-divine kind of smile. And you had human figures. Now not too many but rishis, munis, Shiva coming down as this Adivasi hunter to test Arjuna, those kinds of stories, where you showed not just frowns and wrinkles on the forehead, but also little vertical black marks to show that these are human teeth.


So you could already see that at the level of the masks some notion of realism was creeping in, to show certain features. Now clearly that has been extended a bit, now not just with the masks (there is not that much change happening at the mask level), but by bringing in more realistic elements. Again realism after all has to fit into the code of a performance. So here I would say the kind of realism comes from the jatra code rather than from film, not Bollywood I would say. Or maybe if it comes from Tollywood, Bengali films, it will come via jatra which I still think had a very, very major role in the way that it shaped the aesthetics of much of our films. It would be jatra in Bengal, it would be again some kind of popular dramatic mode (elsewhere), because remember all these tend to mediate that gulf between folk and popular. So the urban, popular, they can be mediated by all these electronic media but equally then they impinge on the folk. So I would say it is through things like jatra—the same melodramatic gestures, modes of speaking etc.


Maybe I will end with this, that there were interesting innovations in the mask now but in a way that is detached from the dance and the story, because now masks have become curios. So you could make tiny masks and already when I was there in the early '80s, some people were making small masks of Santhals, Santhal–Santhali, a male and a female to be sold as objects. And they were very cheap. Now what was interesting is already those tiny masks were providing a new aesthetics to create the Adivasi dance mask, for the character of Shiva who comes disguised as Kirata, the hunter in the Mahabharat to test Arjuna before Arjuna is given that gift of weapons by his father Indra to fight the great Kurukshetra war. Now this is a very popular episode and this pala was actually composed by Gambhir Singh in Charida itself, it was very popular. Now over time you found that this small Santhal curio mask was expanded to become the Adivasi mask with these teeth, human teeth. So it is interesting how from the curios something went from being a dance mask to becoming a curio which folklorists have lambasted as being the worst kind of tourist culture which is leading to the destruction of folk culture everywhere. Without refining too much of a point on it I would say that cultures should be able to withstand it and incorporate it creatively as it happened here.


Another interesting feature I found two or three years ago, I mean there are so many craft melas now in Delhi including ones in Chittaranjan Park where the temples feel it is their duty to encourage the folk arts of Bengal. They are the new patrons, because these are after all the local population that have made these temples what they are now, and they invite mask makers from Purulia town. Now I met somebody whom I have I think seen being born, now a young man in his early 30s and his son who had come. They belonged to the family of mask makers that I had already been working with in Purulia. They are now composing masks. Tukhichashi is one theme, which looked a bit like a Navaho Indian, which don’t have stories as yet or a mask based on a Kathakali dancer’s face. So I asked him about these. So he said, 'Oh! This one is still waiting for a story to be composed on it.' He said, 'This of course would be part of the Krishna Leela because this is a Krishna mask. So this workshop culture, this culture of circulation now there, folk artists from different parts of the country either come for workshops or they come to the crafts museum or Dilli Haat. So there is a new kind of borrowing happening precisely because the state is now the patron, and the aesthetics that the patron has let loose has created these new kinds of opportunities which I would say people are now responding to in extremely interesting ways.


So I am really waiting to see what happens next with the Chhau dancers. It is by no means being destroyed, not in Purulia, definitely not. And its latest avatar is Adis in the form of these video clips which are really, really popular. Not just in Purulia itself but I would say even in neighbouring districts. My first encounter with such CDs was in Medinipur which is where I am doing fieldwork right now. Interestingly they are very famous for their scroll paintings but very few people outside the cosmopolitan cities like Delhi have even seen one of those scrolls, certainly not people in Medinipur, but people are watching these video clips on dances all the time. And my taxi driver told me this when he heard I had worked in Purulia. He said, 'Have you seen these?' So I went and watched some, and then of course I went back to Purulia and I interviewed some of the people in the studios, the makers of these video clips and it was very interesting because often these are little jhuggi-jhopris, shacks, where they are being made. I also interviewed the first person to actually produce one of these and interestingly enough he turned out to be the younger brother of the person who was my local guardian. She was a geography teacher in the local women’s college there and I used to stay in her house whenever I came to Purulia town on my way back to Calcutta and then on to Delhi. So I used to come by bus from my village, stay the night in her house and she was my first contact in Purulia. She in fact had taken me to Charida. She was a geographer and so she was in charge of their National Service Scheme programme on reforestation. So she took me in and that is how I got my first contact. ​Her younger brother I don’t think had studied much after school, so she set him up. He used to live with her and so she set him up with equipment, sound equipment and later on video equipment to make marriage videos. Now he sort of evolved from making marriage videos, he saw the potential to actually make videos on things like the dance forms there and then he realised that this was really important because people loved it. So he is not making this anymore, he in fact invested in very expensive equipment and recently he has even been editing feature films in Bengali because the labour charges and everything are cheaper in Purulia, you find that people from Tollygunge film studios in Kolkata are even coming down to edit films there, or even shoot because Purulia is a favourite place for shooting films, initially by Bengali filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, they have all shot there but now even international film makers. So he is still making video films.


And I met one or two others who are on a smaller scale. So it is as if I can see something evolving over the last 30-40 years from the time in my 20s when I was a researcher to now. And forms that are really moving in very, very vibrant ways while others are dying out. And we have this story of loss but in other cases we have this story of, I would say, vibrancy, creativity, change, some of which may look ugly to us, but actually—I don’t know—not if you know the dance form enough.