Long time back so it seems, well actually two years ago, there was a wonderful Chhau performance in Meghdhoot Theater in which the three styles were presented, each with its distinctive orquestra for live music. It was then that I got the glimpse of how all of them came into one family and yet why they were each so different and unique. It is known that every coin has two sides, well in Chhau’s case, it has three.
The first performance was that of Seraikela, and as the dim blue light filled the stage, I began to feel the “hidden”, mysterious, introverted nature of the dance. The body language, sometimes broad and sometimes contained revealed the mood of the character, the tala (rhythm) flowing with calm dhol beats and then suddenly with vigorous strokes, enlivened him and gave me a very strong feeling of that which is not shown, but can be seen; which is not said but can be heard. The dancer in a mask conveyed more than any other facial expression, because his message came from the inside.
Then came my favorite, off course, Mayurbhanj, with its free flowing movements and vibrant energy. Here nothing was contained, but instead softly released: sometimes slowly and sometimes vigorously and swiftly, as a feather dancing in the breeze, delighting in the entrancing cadence of the beat. Even when the faster part started, the dancer maintained his inner lightness as he leaped and turned. He had become Lord Shiva calmly destroying the universe with the blink of an eye.
And thirdly Purulia with its funny looking masks and tremendously enthusiastic dhol players, gave the final thrilling and comical touch to the performance. Aside from the seriously difficult summersaults executed by the artists, the way the story was represented and how the characters moved about, filled the audience with a humoristic, joyful atmosphere.
So there I was: complete, having seen the three sides that made up this huge art form. Each of them with such a different energy, yet complementing each other, fulfilling the different needs that an audience
And well, apart from my own appreciation of the dances, I would like to share a more academical description of the latter. The three representative styles of Chhau are named according to the places where they developed, thus they are known as Seraikela Chhau, Mayurbhanj Chhau and Purulia Chhau. Having many similarities, primarily their martial strain, and consistently their religious rituals, system of music, their theatrical nature and the sources of their stories, the three forms differs stylistically from one another. Despite this, each one has its own charm and aesthetic appeal. The most distinctive aspect differentiating the three styles is the use of mask; Mayurbhanj Chhau does not use masks, whereas Seraikela and Purulia do, however the way it is used in these two styles also differs greatly in terms of their function and appearance.
The most highlighted aspect of Seraikela Chhau are the masks, which are more sophisticated both concept and design wise than those of Purulia. The face depicted in the mask has a neutralized expression, since it is only through the course of dance that it will become expressive according to the different standing postures, gestures, ways of walking and body positioning. In this way, the same mask can express various ranges of emotions altogether in the course of one dance.
Purulia Chhau, uses masks with towering headgears, as a theatrical tool to bring more life to the athletic somersaults, leaps, stamps and iconographic poses that comprise the grammar of the dance. Thus, the mythological characters often represented acquire a “fascinating palpability”.
As mentioned before, Mayurbhanj Chhhau, has discarded the use of masks as opposed to the prior two. This gives more freedom for movement and elaborate personal expression of the characters portrayed. Thus, this style has developed an exquisite utilization of the complete body language and it excels in choreography with movements that are said to be ” visual poetry.”