Photo Essay: Behind the Mask of Chhau
Subrata Biswas documents the fading art of chhau in the Purulia district of West Bengal
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.
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.
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.