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

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