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.

Image result for bhairava
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.



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.