Visual Poetry

showing movements in class
writing with the body

Sunil Kothari, a great dance scholar and critic has described Mayurbhanj Chhau as “visual poetry”.  Would you agree? Well Guruji certainly does, and believe me it’s not very often that he does.  But why does he agree? Every now and then something suddenly inspires him, and he tells me:

“Chhau is an alphabet with which words are written, but in cursive.  The letters are not separated one from the other because the movements never stop completely; there are certain exclamation marks, and comas, and pauses, but rarely a full stop.  Does water ever stop running? Does the wind ever stay still? Just like this, the limbs are used continuously, drawing patterns in the air; patterns that should be composed in the same manner as a sentence: subject, verb and complement (in the case of English for instance).  This way, the different movements, such as ufli, chali, upufli and other grammatical elements of Chhau, should be put together to form a sentence of dance, a paragraph, and finally an inspiring story. But the flow of the letters that make up the words, that make up the sentences and so on, should never be interrupted. Between inhaling and exhaling there is a small gap, but does the process of breathing ever stop?  Even a jump joins immediately with a turn, which then lands in a squat that bounces back into the air, to jump three more times before establishing for a moment in a stretched position called Ada. This is how my uncle, Anant Charan Sai used to compose, this is how I connect the dots of dance, this is the vision he left me.”

I take a breath and marvel at nature, at this wonderful dance I’m learning, at him. After this I realize that this continuity of movement is one the greatest difficulties that new comers encounter when they start learning under Guruji because they can’t identify the movements separately, therefore it is much more difficult to execute them and also to remember the sequences.  However if they are patient enough, their body will start opening up to this overflowing body language, after which joining other kinds of movements will come easily. However, it’s quite amusing to see everybody’s face after Guruji has demonstrated a new sequence in class… you will find all kinds of abhinaya (facial expressions), almost all the Navarasa (nine emotions):

Firstly adbhut (wonder: what was that???), secondly bhayanak (fear: Oh God, how can I do that!), and then others like hasya (laughter: hahaha, nobody can do that!) and the one I usually opt for, vira (heroic: Ok, now show the others what he just did).

But it is necessary to understand this continuous flow of the Mayurbhanj style, because it is a great part of why the dancers look so light and appear to be floating on stage.  Many people misunderstand and think that because it is a masculine martial form it has to be hard, when instead the real strength comes from letting the body relax so that it can be light enough to toss and turn, or leap and drop swiftly.  However, this comes with a proper training and discipline that will make the legs so strong that the effort doesn’t show.  So “Chhau dancers”, start doing your baithaka danda (squating practice) every day!  Guruji used to do 1000 daily.  And it’s also good to practice standing on one leg and writing your name (for starters), with the other one in the air.  After a while you can write phrases or even a whole poem.  That will get your standing leg really solid and ready for all kinds of balance, and then you will definitely be doing justice to the expression: “visual poetry”.

These are some of my Chhau brothers in Rairangpur, even though their movements are not very polished, it’s a small taste of what I was talking about.  It’s a very small portion of the item Kalachakra.

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