Photo Essay: Behind the Mask of Chhau

2 years ago | BY Subrata Biswa

Subrata Biswas documents the fading art of chhau in the Purulia district of West Bengal

A young dancer in his costume before a show.

Chhau is a genre of martial dance performed by some tribal communities in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa. Based on its place of origin, this dance form is classified into three subgenres – Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj chhau. In local terms, ‘chhau’ means mask, which most people agree gives the form its name.

A local store selling chhau masks in Charida village in Purulia, West Bengal, India.

Traditionally, chhau is performed mainly at night, during the spring festive season. It’s a strenuous dance form, using continuous limb movements and graceful head and neck gestures to perfectly portray the character’s emotions. The themes for this martial dance are mainly based on folklore and episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Former chhau dancer Sanatan Bauri (60) plays with his grandchildren at home. These days, his age and health don’t allow him to perform, so he prefers to spend time with family instead.

In spite of its universal themes, chhau is confined to being local entertainment, because it lacks state support that other traditional dance forms get. Chhau dancers are born into the art form and it is passed down in families. But now, the younger generation shies away from taking up the dance and its music professionally, as it does not seem lucrative enough to them.

Village children play with chhau masks.
Most artistes are initiated into the art form by virtue of birth, continuing the family tradition. Chhau calls for great athleticism, as it is a martial dance that employs mock combat techniques, the stylized gait of birds and animals and the movements of daily chores that women perform.
A mirror reflects a performer’s face as the make-up comes on before showtime. The performers have to make themselves up as there are no make-up professionals for the job.

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