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
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 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.
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.
PAST TO PRESENT
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 none other than the sheer 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.