One life, one dance

Towards the end of our dance practice today, while preparing once again the item, Shivanu Kruti, “the masterpiece of Lord Shiva”, Guruji spoke about Guru Sambhunath Jena, the best exponent of Mahadev dance.  “It takes a lot of practice to embody the energy of Lord Shiva, in fact a whole lifetime, at least”, he said as he demonstrated one more chamac (thrilling movement of the shoulders that I am supposed to incorporate from now on) while doing the walk of eight steps, finishing in dharan.  As he was walking he was grinning, as if remembering something,  and with a chuckle he started saying, “Sambhunath Jena would stand on one toe and do Urdhasana…”


“ON ONE TOE! ON ONE TOE, GURUJI!!??” I interrupted, completely amazed at the possibility.  He continued laughing and added, ” in our time, such gurus, ek dance karne ke liye peda hue the.” They came into this world to do just one dance, to embody one energy, to BE chhau, to BE Lord Shiva, Krishna….  “The king used to give them everything of course, they had good food, ghee, mutton, chicken, all the rice they could have.  They were completely under his care, and he gave them the best because he expected the best from them.  The dancers were his pride and possession, his most precious offering to beloved Ambika Devi.”  As a result,  the best dancers believed in their calling, they accepted their fate of becoming Gods on stage, following a long process of training and initiation into one character. So how did they know, who was fit for such greatness?


The olden Gurus would study their disciples to see what kind of energies moved through them. This way,  they would know what style to train them in, and hopefully what character they could one day come to be.  In Chhau there are three ways in which the energy and therefore movement expresses itself.   They correspond to three states in nature.  The Kalibhanga, is the softest quality, and literally means to bend the softest end of a spring.  It corresponds to the Lasya Bhava mentioned in the Natya Shastra.  The Hathiyardhara is the hardest quality that originates from the intention of holding a weapon to strike.  It is compared to the thickest part of the trunk of a tree.  In the Natya Shastra it is described as the Tandava bhava.  The Kalikata Hathiyardhara, unites the latter two qualities.  It means to cut the softest end of a spring with a weapon.  A dancer fit for the kalibhanga style would have to be extremely supple, and flexible with the capacity to bend and twist gracefully.  He would also be trained in the female movements, to embody the female characters.  The hathiyardhara dancer would be the warrior par excellence, able to wield agilely the sword and to hold a 6 kilo shield with no distress.  They could take on characters such as Parashuram, Ekalavya, Ranga Panda or Hanuman.  The Kalikata Hathiyardhara dancer endured the challenge of being as supple as a grass stem, and as strong as a sequoia tree trunk.  Only these kind of  dancers had the honor of imbibing Lord Shiva.

…This tradition goes on in theory…  It is very hard to understand what it means to give your life to the force of one “character”.  What Guru, what student is ready to accept that nowadays?

On one toe…. I tried standing on all my toes as in a ballet demi-point…. I couldn’t get my leg all the way up before loosing my balance.  GREAT! A new challenge! At least to achieve a demi-point in this lifetime.

It’s been around eight years since I first learnt the complete Nataraj item by Guru Trilochan Mohanto, who had learned this from Sri Hari Naik, one of the best Nataraj exponents.  Before this, Guruji had already composed a version of the dance for me, but he wanted me to learn the traditional item which was performed in Mayurbhanj.  So he sent me on my first trip to the homeland of Chhau in the village of Rairangpur…. and my journey with Him began.

How many times have I worn my tiger kamar band, decked in Rudraksham with trilochan on my forehead?  …Not enough…one lifetime.  Am I worthy of it? Only he will know.

IMG_6330 (2)So while coming back home on my scooty, traversing through the long D.N.D Flyway coming back from Noida, a prayer came into my mind:

Dance me once again my Lord and as many more times as you want… Dance me as a soloist and dance me in a group; dance me in world famous theaters and in school annual day programs; dance me for the rasikas and for the oblivious; dance me my Lord, for the connoisseurs and for the layman; in this land and other lands; inside and outside…Dance me.  Dance until I can’t remember my name; dance until these ghungroos echo on the slopes of Himalaya; dance….until Devi herself looks lovingly at me through the corner of her eye and knows that I am her beloved.




Chaitra Parva, the celebration of Shiva and Shakti.

Chaitra is a month of the Hindu calendar that coincides with the Gregorian month of April. In this time, a festival called Chaitra Parva is observed in Baripada, the capital of the Mayurbhanj district in Odisha.

It starts three days prior to the date of Maha Bisuba Sankranti, a celebration set with the solar cycle that falls on 14th April and marks the beginning of a new year. During this season many crops are sown and hence it is an auspicious time for fertility and prosperity rituals. It is also the time when the most important festival attached to the Chhau dance occurs and some would even say this event is its raison d’être. Even though the festival and the dance originated in different time frames, their essence and nature are so deeply interconnected that one cannot exclude the other. In fact we could say that it was because of this festival and the platform it presented, that the dance sprung from mainly having martial characteristics to becoming a performing art involving folk and mythological elements and themes. Though some believe that the dance was actually a product of the festival, most cannot discard its martial origin, “according to which Chhau was used as a military exercise to keep soldiers agile and fit in preparation for war.” (Discover India pg. 11). Be that as it may, both the dance and the festival have an intrinsic motive of pleasing Lord Shiva, or Bhairab

Chaitra Parva 2017
Lord Shiva

and they are connected to the cycles and movements of nature to a great extent. Furthermore, the dance owes much of its process of evolution to this spring celebration. Together, they have taken a journey from the past to the present and remain a struggling, but living tradition.

The Journey

The Parva has been observed around areas of the Mayurbhanj district since the time of the royal regime. The exact dates of its origin are unknown, but it is believed to have started around the time of Jadunath Bhanj Deo i.e. 1822 (Biswal 63). However it was not exactly what today we call Chhau what accompanied the festival then, it was another dance called the Ram Navami Nata. Some believe this form could have also been one of the sources from where Chhau drew elements of movement, interpretation or music. Furthermore, the performance of Chhau replaced this dance form and the Maharajas of the Bhanj Dynasty became its patrons and caretakers starting from King Krushna Chandra Bhanj Deo.

Image result for KRUSHNA chandra bhanj deo

The attachment of the dance with the festival established a regime that dictated the way Chhau dance should be practiced throughout the year starting from the time of Dussehera. “This was the season for the commencement of the akhada practice (training in the arena) (Blank 127). Two troupes were formed to compete against each other during Chaitra Parva: Uttar Sahi (Northern troupe – sponsored by the Queen) and Dakhina Sahi (Southern troupe – sponsored by the King).

Each troupe had its own akhada (training arena) and a shrine to Bhairab somewhere in the outskirts of Baripada.

In the akhada they performed strenuous exercises and they would train secretly there to  choreograph different dance pieces. During the two nights of the Parva, they would compete against each other showcasing their dance creations.  It is said that the king would not allow them to go out of the palace during the preparation period which was around six months.  Guruji says that even some of the dancers were appointed their own “bodyguards” to make sure they would not indulge in drinking or women.

In the Shrine to Bhairab, they conducted rituals that constituted the religious and spiritual aspect of their physical practice.

It is fortunate to say that nowadays these religious proceedings are still observed. The traditional importance of the festival and the belief of its auspiciousness lives on. Even the ghata tradition and the observances of the Bhaktas remain.


However, unlike how it used to be, presently it is not the King who sponsors the event, but the District Administration and it is organized by Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratishthan and its two Sahis. Also it is not held at the palace, but in the Chhau pendal, an outdoors cement stage built for the festival.

Previously, much dedication and effort was put into the training and the face off was intense. The monetary situation of the ruler in charge would dictate what the prizes would be. Therefore in some years the winners received only sweets while in others they aspired to get the Talcher cup or a medal. (Discover India 27/ Ghadai 47-48). Currently the competition per se is not so intense and the training not secretive. The prizes are awards, honorable mentions and certificates as well as token compensations if any.

Thus, the motivation for performing is mainly the commitment of keeping the tradition.

The parva is an inherent part of life in Baripada. Everyone enjoys the celebrations. The troupes put great effort into their costumes and nowadays leading dancers from both of the Sahis are trying to compose or re choreograph items. They are not very ambitious towards putting up “a perfect show” since coordination, stage presence and the quality of the movements could be improved. However the rituals are done with utmost care and the dancers of the Sahis operate as a family making sure that everyone is looked after and well. Also a lot of skill, thought and hard work is put into the making of the costumes and makeup especially.

The living tradition of the Chaitra Parva is undisputedly an essential part of the Chhau tradition. The history of the festival and the dance is interconnected and their essence which is to please the Deity is one and the same. However, for the connoisseur, Mayurbhanj Chhau as an art Form extends beyond the context and format of the festival. For the sake of the future of the style, we cannot look at it only through the frame of this local custom. If we were to classify the dance according to how it is presented at Chaitra Parva, we would agree that it is primarily a folk dance. In this context exclusively there wouldn’t need to be much scope for change, evolution or development of the form. But considering it was a genre that once was the pride and glory of a kingdom and a state, I believe it should not remain stagnant. Moreover, its unleashed and unbounded potential are demanding sensible changes such the ones other classical dance forms have undergone, where their style and technique has reached an immense degree of precision, refinement and aesthetic appeal. In light of this, I’m not suggesting that Chhau should follow the protocols of classical dance, but that its process of evolution should be encouraged and for this it is necessary to address some elements of the festival differently and also to go beyond its framework. The Maharajas promoted and nurtured the existence of this dance genre, considering it their prized possession. In fact, “when Maharaja Pratap Chandra Bhanj Deo was dethroned in 1948, he advised the Chou dancers to leave their art entirely”, “feeling that without proper financial assistance, the Chou would only resemble a shadow of itself.” In other words, instead of seeing it in a declined state, he preferred it to end. This, however, would have been a great loss for the idiosincracy of Mayurbhanj and its people, its warrior history and artistic culture, and personally I’m deeply grateful to the Gurus and the people who took it upon themselves, such as Anant Charan Sai, to guard and pass on the tradition. However, nowadays it is not enough to keep the art alive, but to bring it back up to the level it once had. From there, it can lead the natural course of evolution that living traditions follow, in which deeply rooted practices preserve their essence and are yet open to coincide with the needs of the present time.







Tradiciones, Transiciones y Bailarines de Chhau

Actualmente el término “bailarín de Chhau” tiene amplias formas de entenderse puesto que los que aprenden o representan este género de danza, abordan su práctica, interpretación y su enseñanza desde diferentes ángulos, intereses y métodos.  Personalmente no tomo esta denominación como algo ligero, por el contrario, es un término cargado de significados e imágenes de palacios, bosques, saltos que se suspenden en el aire, espadas, ríos, el Señor Bhairav1, heroismo y las muchas otras cosas que vienen con esta tradición de raíces profundas.  De hecho creo que es un título que se llega a merecer después de comprometerse con el estilo y reafirmar este compromiso con amor, tiempo y práctica (como sucede con todas las artes).  Es como un sadhana, una práctica espiritual, en la cual el ejercicio físico y el movimiento son una parte de la disciplina y los rituales, la devoción y la tradición lo complementan.

En mi camino con esta danza y en mi ávido intento de poder decir que soy “bailarina de Chhau”, he descubierto que es esencial ahondar en las raíces del lugar de origen del estilo que practico, Mayurbhanj.  También que es necesario vivir su cultura y sus festividades desde adentro, particularmente el festival Chaitra Parva2.  He sido afortunada de escuchar a Guruji (Guru Janmejoy Sai Babu) contándome las muchas historias del festival en tiempos antiguos: como visitaban un lugar secreto alejado del pueblo para hacer oraciones y un voto ante el dios Bhairav;

Puja (oración ritual) a la deidad del Chhau, Lord Bhairav, en el templo de Uttar Sahi a la afueras del pueblo. (Loknath Das y el sacerdote. Derecha a izquierda)

cómo danzaban toda la noche; cómo siendo uno de los principales bailarines, participaba en casi todas las danzas; cómo los mejores maestros de cada Sahi3 se retaban unos a otros; cómo los de Uttar Sahi presentaban la pieza de danza Nataraj y los de Dakhina Sahi respondían con

Guru Shri Hari Nayak como Nataraj (Nataraj: The Cosmic Dancer)  Bailarín de Uttar Sahi. Premio SNA en 1988.Article

Mahadev; cómo la danza Navagraha se medía con Dashavatar4,; y cómo solían practicar durante meses casi que en secreto, con una integridad y una devoción inquebrantable hacia su rey, su dios y su ética guerrera.  No obstante, también le escucho decir que “el festival ya no es como antes”.  Este cambio inevitable comenzó desde el momento en que la realeza dejó de patrocinar el arte. Como consecuencia, la danza ha enfrentado dificultades y recaidas que la han llevado includo a ser catalogada por la UNESCO como “un arte de gran valor cultural en peligro de desaparecer” .  Sin embargo, aunque es verdad que es difícil encontrar el tipo de bailarines que habían en la época de la monarquía, que mucha parte del público e incluso de los artistas lo toman como un festival folclórico5, y local y que la danza se encuentra en un nivel de calidad muy inferior al que una vez tuvo, considero que un “bailarín de Chhau” debe honrar la tradición del Chaitra Parva que ha acompañado la danza durante 200 años.

Guru Sambhunath Jhena as Mahadev
Guru Sambhunath Jhena como Mahadev.

Siendo una bailarina de Chhau de Mayurbhanj pero viviendo en Delhi, percibo que la ciudad y el medio de la danza clásica demandan ciertas modificaciones y cambios en la interpretación de la danza que en mi opinión son positivos.  Esto nos dirije a un periodo de transición en el que este arte toma múltiples dimensiones y desde mi punto de vista no se puede decir que es sólo una danza folclórica.  ¿Acaso hay otros estilos folclóricos pasando por una situación similar?  Creo que esto le sucede al Chhau y en particular al estilo de Mayurbhanj porque no es un género limitado por sólo mudras, golpes con los pies o movimientos circulares en grupo y al mismo tiempo tiene una técnica variada, codíficada e interesante que puede incluir elementos clásicos incluso como los mudras.  También permite la representación de muchos temas, emociones y personajes.

Por estas razones considero firmemente que es importante que los académicos, críticos, artistas y expertos reconozcan que el Chhau es un género en expansión, que ha salido de su contexto original y que está pasando por un periodo de transición muy valioso e interesante.  Sin embargo, al intentar preservar la danza y su patrimonio, no podemos desapegarnos de sus raíces locales.  Más aún, no podemos permanecer ignorantes ante algunas de las cualidades intrínsicas y las tradiciones que se preservan en su tierra natal.  Para tener una visión más completa de la danza, siento la necesidad de conocerlas y de ver las diferencias con las que se vive y se presenta la danza en diferentes contextos.  He sido afortunada de que Guruji me inspire con las historias de cómo solía ser la danza y cómo los maestros antiguos eran casi seres con poderes sobrenaturales que podían sentarse en la rama de un árbol de un salto.   Él me ha transmitido estas visiones de épocas memorables y bailarines legendarios y yo confío en que estos tiempos pueden revivir.  De hecho, creo que no han muerto.

Danza Dandi (Dandi: The Dance of the Wandering Ascetic) Su postura es profunda.  !Mira cómo se dobla!

Por lo tanto, mi búsqueda actual consiste en encontrar un eslabón entre esta tradición perdida aparentemente, lo que he aprendido con Guruji, su situación presente en las áreas rurales y su interpretación modificada, contemporánea, y hasta abstracta en las grandes ciudades o los eventos clásicos y culturales.  El primer paso que tomo para ir en esta dirección es viajar a su tierra de origen y vivir el Chaitra Parva desde adentro gracias a mis anfitriones de la escuela de norte y en especial a uno de sus principales artisitas, Loknath Das y Madhusmita Das y su familia con quien me hospedé durante 7 días.  He estado ya tres veces en el festival.  En una ocasión incluso presentamos dos danzas con el hijo de Guruji, Rakesh y otros chicos del grupo Gurukul Chhau Dance Sangam.

Chaitra Parva 2012
GCDS en el Chaitra Parva 2012. Carolina Prada, Rakesh Sai Babu, Sunil Mehra en Martial Art

Fue un sueño hecho realidad el poder danzar en ese escenario tan lleno de grandes leyendas.  Sin embargo esta vez fue una bendición danzar siendo parte de la escuela del norte, siguiendo su estilo como cualquier otra “chica de Baripada”.17904322_162093720981785_5152151004771814878_n Quisiera contarles acerca de este emocionante viaje…


1. Bhairav es una de la formas terroríficas (grandiosas, que causan terror) del Señor Shiva. Es el padre de la danza Chhau.

2.Chaitra Parva es el festival de la primavera que se celebra el 11, 12, 13 de abril con  danza Chhau .

3.Sahi se refiere a los grupos o escuelas de danza. Hay dos: Uttar Sahi – la escuela del norte y Dakhina Sahi – la escuela del sur.

4.Nataraj y Mahadev son diferentes piezas de danza que representan al dios Shiva. Navagraha es una danza acerca de los nueve planetas. Dashavatar es una pieza que representa las 10 encarnaciones del dios Vishnu.

5. Las palabras  “solo una danza folclórica” no tienen la intención de ser peyorativas.  Según el diccionario Merriam-Webster, se llama folclórico a una danza que “se origina como un ritual y tiene las características de un pueblo o un país y que se transmite de generación en generación.”  Esto es parcialmente verdad para el Chhau porque a pesar de que hay muchos rituales ligados a él, su naturaleza no es puramente ritual.  Wikipedia expone que una característica de las danzas folclóricas es que “no están destinadas o diseñadas para ser presentadas ante un público o que posteriormente pueden adaptarse para un escenario.  Esto no se aplica al Chhau puesto que floreció en las cortes de los reyes de Mayurbhanj y luego la tradición del Chaitra Parva reafirma que es un arte escénico.  El siguiente artículo cataloga diferentes tipos de danzas folclóricas.  Según él, el Chhau sería una danza tradicional o una danza de la corte que tiene orígenes o caracteríticas folclóricas.  Definitivamente agregaría “danza marcial” a la descripción, al igual que “con inlfuencias clásicas y todavía en proceso de evolución.” What is Folk Dance

Traditions, Transitions and Chhau Dancers

Nowadays the term “Chhau dancer” is used in many different ways because people approach the dance, its practice, its performance and even its teaching from many different angles, attitudes and methods.  For me the term is not a light one, but on the contrary a heavy word loaded with images of palaces, forests, air-suspended jumps, swords, rivers, Lord Bhairav1, heroism and the many more things that come with this deeply rooted tradition.  In fact, I believe it is a title that one eventually gains after committing to the style and reaffirming it with love, time and practice (like all arts).  It is like a sadhana, a spiritual practice, where physical exercise and movement is one part of the discipline, and rituals, devotion and traditions complement it.

On my avid path to be able to call myself a Chhau dancer I have discovered that it is essential to dwell into the roots of the birthplace of the style I practice, Mayurbhanj, and to live its culture and its festivities from the inside, particularly the Chaitra Parva2. I have been very fortunate to have Guruji (Guru Janmejoy Sai Babu) tell me the many stories about how the festival used to happen.  How they would visit their secret place to perform Puja and offer a vow to Lord Bhairav;

Puja (prayer ritual) to the deity of Chhau, Lord Bhairav, in the secluded place of Uttar Sahi. (Loknath Das, senior dancer and the priest. Right to left)

how they used to dance throughout the night; how as a leading dancer he would take part in most of the repertoire; how the best gurus from each Sahi3 would challenge each other; how Uttar Sahi would present Nataraj and Dakhina Sahi would respond with

Guru Shri Hari Nayak as Nataraj (Nataraj: The Cosmic Dancer)  Dancer from Uttar Sahi.  SNA Awardee 1988.Article

Mahadev; how Navagraha was rivaled with Dashavatar4,; and how the dancers would practice for months in secret, with an unbending thoroughness and devotion to Patron, Deity and to their warrior ethos. However he has also told me in a sad note, that in Mayurbhanj “the parva is not what it once was”.  This change has been inevitable, because since the withdrawal of the royal patronage it has had pittfalls that have even lead to it be classifyed as “a dying art form of immense cultural value” by UNESCO. Still, though it is true that we cannot find the type of dancers there once was during the royal administration, that many of the viewers as well as the artists see it only as a folk5,, local festival and that the dance finds itself struggling to live up to the standards it once had, I believe it is a Chhau dancer’s duty to honor the Chaitra Parva tradition that has been part of the dance for around 200 years.

Guru Sambhunath Jhena as Mahadev
Guru Sambhunath Jhena as Mahadev.

As a Mayurbhanj Chhau dancer staying in Delhi, I see how the city and the needs of the classical milieu demand certain modifications and changes that in my opinion are positive.  This is also leading the way to a transition period where the dance is taking multiple dimensions and in my view it can no longer be said that it is only a folk dance.  Are other folk dances in similar situations?  I reckon this happens with Chhau and in particular with the Mayurbhanj style because it is dance that is not bounded by mudras, footwork or circular group movements and yet it has a rich, codified and interesting technique that can include classical elements while at the same time giving scope to the representation of various themes, moods and characters.

For the above stated reasons I strongly consider that it is necessary for connoisseurs, critics, artists and scholars to acknowledge that it is an art form in expansion, that it has come out from its context of origin and is going through a highly important and interesting transition period.  However, in an attempt to preserve the dance and its heritage, we cannot detach ourselves from its local roots. Moreover, we should not remain oblivious to some of the intrinsic qualities and traditions of the dance which are preserved only in its native land.  To have a more complete vision of the dance I feel the need to be aware of them and to know the difference between how the dance is experienced and presented in different contexts.  I’ve been lucky to have Guruji inspire me with the stories of how the dance used to be and how the great gurus were almost like supernatural beings who could jump and sit on the branch of a tree.  He has transferred these visions of glorious times and mesmerizing dancers to me, and I believe they can live again.

A dancer in the item Dandi (Dandi: The Dance of the Wandering Ascetic) His sitting stance is deep.  Look at how he is bending!

As a matter of fact, they are not dead. Therefore my current search is to find a link between this apparently long lost tradition that I have been learning from Guruji, its current situation in the rural locations and its contemporary, abstract and even modified representation in the big cities and cultural or classical  venues.

The first step in this search is to go to its homeland and live the Chaitra Parva as an insider thanks to the welcoming reception of my hosts from Uttar Sahi, especially one of its Senior artists Loknath Das and to Madhusmita Das and her family with whom I stayed for 7 days. I have witnessed the festival twice already and on one occasion I was part of it with Guruji’s son Rakesh Sai Babu and a few of us from Gurukul Chhau Dance Sangam group.

Chaitra Parva 2012
GCDS in Chaitra Parva 2012. Carolina Prada, Rakesh Sai Babu, Sunil Mehra. in Martial Art

It was a dream come true dancing finally on that stage, however this time it was a blessing to dance with the group of Uttar Sahi, following their style, just like another “Baripada girl”.17904322_162093720981785_5152151004771814878_n Let me tell you about that exciting journey…


1. Bhairav is one of Lord Shiva’s terrific (mighty, great, causing terror) forms. He is the deity to which Chhau dancers pay tribute.

2.Chaitra Parva is the festival of Spring celebrated on 11, 12, 13 April with Chhau Dance.

3.Sahi refers to the troupe of dancers. There are two: Uttar Sahi – the Northern troupe and Dakhina Sahi – the Southern troupe.

4.Nataraj and Mahadev are different items that depict Lord Shiva. Navagraha is an item about the nine planets. Dashavatar is an item showing the 10 incarnations of the God Vishnu.

5.The words “only a folk dance” are not meant to be pejorative. According to Merriam-Webster a folk dance is “a dance that originates as ritual among and is characteristic of the common people of a country and that is transmitted from generation to generation.” This is partly true for Chhau dance, since it has many rituals that are attached to it, however its nature is not purely ritualistic. Wikipedia lists that one characteristic of folk dances is that they are “dances not generally designed for public performance or the stage, though they may later be arranged and set for stage performances.” This is not the case with Chhau since it flourished in the courts of the kings and the Chaitra Parva tradition reaffirms it is a performing art. The article I will link you to has some clear ways to categorize different types of folk dances. According to it Chhau could be a traditional dance, or a court dance with folk origins or characteristics. I would definitely add “martial dance” to the description as well as “influenced by classical elements and still evolving.”What is Folk Dance

Encendiendo una luz sobre los orígenes

“Libre del conflicto de los sentidos, el cuerpo redondeado y flexible se sumió en la cadencia lenta y majestuosa de la danza cósmica.”

Swami Prajnyananda

Photo by: Juan Carlos Castrillon

Los estudiosos no han llegado a un acuerdo común acerca de los orígenes exactos del Chhow, un nombre genérico atribuido a una familia de tres danzas que tienen una raíz común pero estilos diferentes.  Sin embargo, los especialistas han podido extraer algunas teorías acerca de su origen.

No es simple rastrear el origen basado en datos de un arte o una ciencia india.  No puede ser unidimensional puesto que en esta cultura las realidades humanas y divinas están profundamente entrelazadas.  Encontraremos que la gente acepta lo histórico y lo mitológico conjuntamente como una muestra del nexo entre lo humano y lo divino (Svoboda 37,38). Ante esta visión bifásica, los estudiosos extraen dos fuentes para el nacimiento de esta danza: una fuente marcial y una fuente religiosa. Guruji (mi maestro – Guru – y a quien siempre me debo dirigir con la palabra que denota respeto: ji) tiene una forma muy especial de unir ambas teorias en una historia mitológica.  “En realidad el Chhow comienza a existir desde el tiempo del Mahabhárata..” me dice, “y el gran guerrero Arjuna fue el primer bailarín de Chhow.  Él lo aprendió de Chitrasena, un rey de los Gandharva que le enseñó a cantar y bailar.  También lo aprendió de la danzarina celestial – apsara – Urvashi a quien vio danzar en la corte de su padre, Indra.  Una noche Urvashi se le insinuó a Arjuna quien no tuvo más remedio que recharzarla puesto que la consideraba como su madre.  Ella le puso una maldición en la que lo condenaba a convertirse en eunuco.  Esta maldición tuvo también consecuencias positivas más adelante cuando en el año decimotercero de su exilio los Padavas tuvieron que vivir en el anonimato ocultándose de los Kauravas.  Arjuna se convirtió entonces en un transexual llamado Brihannala quien le enseñaba danza y artes a Uttara, la hija del rey Virata en el reino de Matsya. Siendo un guerrero, Arjuna combinó de forma perfecta el lenguaje marcial y el vigor con la suavidad y la expresión lírica al tener un cuerpo femenino.”

Judith Blank también intuye de forma interesante que los orígenes marciales y religiosos están entrecruzados al decir en su tesis:”Se cree que el Chou se originó a partir de las enseñanzas de Bhairab.  Es una forma de danza ligada al arte de la guerra.  El pueblo Kshatriya lo llevaba a cabo como parte de su entrenamiento para convertirse en guerreros aristocráticos.”  Kala Bhairav es una manifestación del señor Shiva quien a su vez es el rey de la danza en su aspecto como Nataraj, y el señor de las artes marciales y el yoga.  Aquí encontramos nuevamente una conexión inseparable entre las motivaciones humanas y los rituales religiosos y es por esto que la danza Chhow al ser la más alta expresión de la cultura guerrera se practicaba como parte de un voto hacia el dios Bhairav.

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Imagen de Kala Bhairav en Kopan Durbar Square en Kathmandu, Nepal.  Tomado de No es una coincidencia que Él lleve una espada y un escudo y adopte una de las posiciones más notorias del Chhau de Mayurbhanj: Adda.

Guruji retoma su versión de la historia y encuentra otra conexión entre la danza, la deidad y lo marcial en otro relato del Mahabhárata (Libro 3, Vana Parva): la historia de cuando Arjuna se encamina hacia los himalayas para hacer austeridades y obtener el arma celestial del señor Shiva llamada Pasupatastra. “En su trayecto los otros sabios vieron a este guerrero armado de piel morena vestido con harapos y se sentó en una postura para meditar.  Ellos se sorprendieron y rápidamente se le acercaron para deternerlo diciendo ‘Este no es un lugar para las armas hijo mío.  ¡Este es un lugar para meditar y hacer penitencia! Este es un lugar de paz.  ¡O dejas tus armas, o te vas a otro lugar!’ Arjuna los escuchó, pero no les prestó atención.  Hizo una figura de barro en forma de linga  y se sentó frente a ella en meditación profunda…”

Todas estas referencias anteriores sustentan que hay una presencia inseparable entre la dimension divina y los asuntos humanos (Svoboda 37).  Al mismo tiempo nos recuerdan que  para la cultura india las artes y en particular el  Natya (danza/teatro) tienen un origen divino. No obstante, no aportan luz y claridad acerca de detalles tales como fechas, lugares y fuentes.  Por lo tanto, para tratar de explicar el nacimiento y el proceso de evolución de esta danza, los estudiosos han defendido una de las dos fuentes mencionadas anteriormente.  Un grupo de eruditos que incluye a D.N Pattnaik y a Sri G.C Mohanta,sostiene que este estilo se origina a partir de los movimientos marciales que ejecutaban los ejércitos de nobles conformados por militantes provenientes de las tribus (Biswal 2-5).  El otro grupo argumenta que antes de ser una danza guerrera, durante su desarrollo se llevaba a cabo como un ritual religioso y una práctica de preparación espiritual en honor a las deidades Shiva y Shakti (Biswal 5).

Personalmente sigo tanto la intuición de Judith como la de mi Guru, así como la línea de pensamiento del Dr. Svoboda, que unifican ambas teorias acerca del origen de esta danza.  De hecho, esta cualidad incluyente la ha convertido en una danza marcial ligada a rituales religiosos particulares en lugar de ser sólo una práctica marcial con fines de ataque y defensa.


Svoboda, Robert E. Life, Health and Longevity. Bombai: Penguin Books,  1992: 37-39.

Biswal, Kanhu Charan.  An introduction to Chhau Dance of Mayurbhanj.  Orissa: Subra         Pratik Prakashan, 1998: 2-5.

Blank, Judith.  The Story of the Chou Dance of the Former Mayurbhanj State, Orissa.  (A Dissertation in Candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy).  Illinois: Department of Anthropology, 1973: 102.

Light on the Origins

“Free from the conflict of the senses, the body pliable and rounded, engaged in the slow majestic cadence of the cosmic dance”

Swami Prajnyananda

Photo by: Juan Carlos Castrillon

The exact information about the origins of Chhow, a generic name given to a family of three stylistically varying dances that have a common root, has not been academically agreed upon by scholars.  In spite of this, they have been able to coincide in appointing possible sources.  Tracing the factual origin of an Indian art or science is never simple, or one-dimensional, for human and divine realities are deeply intertwined.  We will find that the historical and the mythical are acknowledged together as a bond between humanity and divinity. (Svoboda 37,38) Thus scholars find themselves with two sources for this dance form: a martial origin and a religious origin. Guruji has a very special way of blending both together with a  mythological story.  “Actually Chhow comes into existence during the Mahabharat time…” he says, “and the great warrior Arjuna was the first Chhow dancer.  He first learned the art from Chitrasena, a Gandharva king who taught him song and dance and also from watching the celestial apsara Urvashi dancing in the court of his father, Indra. One night Urvashi offered herself to Arjuna who considered her as his mother, so the apsara cursed him to become a eunuch for having rejected her.  Later however, the curse proved to be a blessing during  the 13th year of exile of the Pandavas while living in disguise. Arjuna then assumed the name Brihannala, a transgender, who taught dance and fine arts to King Virata’s daughter Uttara, the princess of the Kingdom of Matsya. As Arjuna was a warrior, he combined perfectly the martial language and vigour with the softness and lyrical expression of the feminine embodiment.”  Judith Blank (1973) also has an interesting way to acknowledge both the religious and the martial origin by stating in her dissertation that “The Chou dance is believed to have originated from Bhairab’s teachings; it is a form of dancing akin to the art of warfare.  The Kshatriya Peoples performed it as part of their training in being aristocratic warriors.” Kala Bhairav is a fierce manifestation of Lord Shiva, who is the lord of dance (Nataraja), yoga and martial arts.  Here we find once again an inseparable connection between human motives and religious observance, where Chhow dance as the highest expression of the Kshatriya (warrior) culture, is performed as part of a vow to lord Bhairav.

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Image of Kala Bhairav in Kopan Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Taken from Coincidentally enough, he holds a sword and shield and stands in one of the most important postures of Chhau: Adda

Guruji returns to his version of the story and illustrates this link through another tale from the Mahabharat (Book 3,  Vana Parva): the tale of where Arjuna sets out to the Himalayas to perform penance and obtain the celestial weapon Pasupatastra from Lord Shiva himself. “As he went to the Himalayas, the other sages saw the dark warrior, dressed in rags carrying his weapons and sit down in a posture ready for penance.They were surprised and hurriedly went before him, trying to stop him. ‘This is not a place for weapons, my son! This is place for performing meditation and penance! This is a place of peace. Either leave your weapons or go somewhere else!’ Arjuna heard them, but he did not heed to any of them. He made a linga out of the mud and sat before it, deep in meditation….”

These prior references sustain the inseparable presence of the divine dimension in human affairs (Svoboda 37) and remind us once again that Natya (dance/drama) comes from the gods. However, they don’t shed much light on details such as dates, places and actual sources. Therefore scholars who have tried to explain the birth and process of evolution of this dance form, have supported one of the two sources mentioned previously.  One group of scholars, including D.N Pattnaik and Sri G.C Mohanta, maintain that the dance originates from the martial movements executed by the armies of feudatory chiefs that were constituted by tribal militia (Biswal 2-5). The other group avails that before being a war dance, in its formative period, it was executed as a religious ritual and a spiritual preparation practice in honor of the deities Shiva and Shakti (Biswal 5).

Personally, I follow the line of thought stated before by both Dr. Svoboda and Judith Blank, where both theories are linked with one another. In fact, it is this inclusive quality that has made Chhau a ritualistic martial dance and not only a martial practice with attack and defense purposes.

Works Cited:

Svoboda, Robert E. Life, Health and Longevity. Mumbai: Penguin Books,  1992: 37-39.

Biswal, Kanhu Charan.  An introduction to Chhau Dance of Mayurbhanj.  Orissa: Subra         Pratik Prakashan, 1998: 2-5.

Blank, Judith.  The Story of the Chou Dance of the Former Mayurbhanj State, Orissa.  (A Dissertation in Candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy).  Illinois: Department of Anthropology, 1973: 102.


Chhau or Chhow?

Either one is correct.  In Delhi especially people will write it as Chhau and pronounce it in the same way.   The actual spelling that I found in Hindi most recently is छउ, which could be transcribed and pronounced as Chhu.  This would actually be closer to the Odiya pronunciation of Chhow where the sound is much more narrow.  However, it certainly puzzles me why the Hindi spelling is not छऔ (Chhau), or even छओ (Chho).  All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. The pronunciation of a particular vowel sound or consonant sound can change gradually across successive generations. A change in pronunciation might initially take place only in one particular geographic location and remain local.  In this particular field it is very difficult to keep track of how phonetical change occured since there is not much written record related to the dance and the tradition has been mainly oral.  We can even say that the different pronunciations are irrelevant or not important enough to debate upon them.  However, for me it is just another indicator of the lack of connection and communication between the homeland of this dance (Mayurbhanj) and the capital, the writers/scholars and the actual dancers,  the theoretical and the practical.


Nataraj: The Cosmic Dancer

“…This was the Ananda-Tandava, the dance of bliss.  Shiva struck a whole series of poses to stir the imagination.  He finally froze.  This final pose contained the wisdom of the Vedas.  What had not been realized by priests and ascetics after performing hundreds of rituals, was realized by that one pose.” – Devdutt Patnaik, Seven Secrets of Shiva

As the Lord of Dance, the King of Dancers, Lord Shiva is the ultimate teacher.   He teaches through dance because words are too literal to capture the essence of the formless; it can be heard and read, it entices the senses, arouses the emotions of the viewers and invites the mind to analyze it intellectually.  “In this process, tools to deconstruct Maya are passed on.”  However, how many of us dancers really meditate on his teachings, really trust his liberating blows?  When we go up on stage,  how can we experience Lord Shiva as a live entity, as the energy itself that keeps the planets revolving?  How to forget ourselves, forget our fears, and stand unshakable on one leg? This traditional item can be the door that leads to a path of realization that invites the practitioner to dissolve and become as fluid as water and as vigorous as fire.

The item consists of three different moments that ultimately reveal the nature of the deity, and act as a metaphor for the neverhlf-danza-marcial-chhau-3 ending phenomenon of creation and destruction in the universe.  The first portion known as “sthai” depicts a series of poses, or asanas in which Lord Shiva stands to witness the cosmos, dwelling in his infinite, meditating self. Between pose and pose, he shifts through space with ondulating movements that give account to his fluctuating identity: the one who can become water, ever flowing, giving the substance for birth and washing away with death.  The gestures of the hands in each asana communicate qualities, states of mind, elements and the reassuring blessings that invite us not to fear.  His stance is generally on one leg, disclosing the balanced, calm and composed state of the self, where he is comfortable, again free from fear.

The dance then follows to represent the story when a group of Mimansikas (those who yearn to understand the meaning of life) were performing rituals in the forest and Shiva walked past them.  Seeing such an oblivious state of bliss, they were distracted, blamed him, and feared him, for he was so content and blissful that he did not seek wealth, power, or even knowledge.  In Shiva, they saw a threat to all they greedily aspired for and so they decided to destroy him.  Consequently, they used their knowledge to invoke creatures from the fire: first came a tiger, then a serpent and finally a dwarf demon.  Shiva feared none, but instead defeated each and ultimately ripped the demon apart, hence starting to dance.

Third eye opensIn the item, this part starts when The Dancer sits down to meditate, and with the upbeat change of the music is shown to have been disturbed by a demonic entity.  This demon is precisely our ego, the fear of the Mimansikas, our pride, or greed and ambition, even for spiritual attainment. As of that moment, Shiva unleashes the fire of his third eye to burn and destroy our attachments and petty illusions. The demon is elusive, hard to catch, so He chases him around the stage, until with a swift jump he stands on his back.   This forceful dancing is known as Tandava, demanding attention through realization, evoking thought and img_4279provoking consciousness.  After having ripped out the insides of the demon, he proceeds to throw him at each of the four corners of the world.  This is enlightenment, thus the dance of bliss starts.

The last part of the dance, known as Nataki, is supossed to disclose the mesmerizing ecstasy in which Nataraja lingers.  Once again, this is the chance for the Dancer to let go.  I imagine his form expanding, the locks of his hair flowing through the universe, his hands juggling planets.  By the time I finish my last round of paltas, just about to take the chouk stance and turn quickly and taking up that final pose. The mastery lies in holding it a little after the music has finished, so that iShiva's dance of blisss can unfold its mysteries in stillness. The most mystifying thing is that the dance really begins after having finished.

The music for this traditional item of the Northern School (Uttar Sahi) follows a 12 beat pattern in the sthai part, then a 7 beat in the antara and 16 beats in the Nataki. One of its best exponents was Guru Sri Hari Nayak.

On the white hill tops of eternity, he reveals his infinite soul behind a peaceful veil of fire.  Blissful just to be, he witnesses the unfathomable deepness and watches over us in compassionate silence.  “Oh Lord Shiva, do not hurt your feet by dancing on the rocky slopes of Himalayas, instead, come and dance in my heart.”

Perspectives of Chhau by a Performing Artist – By Sharon Lowen

Jumping ShivaSharon Lowen-1982

Sharon Lowen has dedicated her life to presenting and promoting excellence in Indian performing arts. She is hailed today as one of the leading international performing artists of three forms of Indian dance: Odissi, Chhau and Manipuri.  in Mayurbhanj Chhau she was trained by theSangeet Natak Academy Awardee (1975), Late Guru Krishna Chandra Naik.

She was the first woman soloist, responsible for introducing Mayurbhanj Chhau to the United States at the 1978 Asian Dance Festival in Hawaii and later at the Olympic Arts Festival of Masks in Los Angeles and is singularly responsible for getting Chhau presented on Doordarshan’ s National Broadcasts.

I feel fortunate and grateful to be able to share her article from the book Chhau Dance of Mayurbhanj, written by Sitakant Mahapatra, published in October 1993 by Vidyapuri, Cuttack, Orissa.

great teachers
Priceless Photo: Guru Madan Mohan Lenka, Guru Krushna Chandra Naik, Guru Sri Hari Nayak, Sharon Lowen 1976 Baripada, Mayurbhanj District, Orissa