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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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;

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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

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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.

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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…

FOOTNOTES:

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