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.