The Sanskrit treatise on the dramatic arts – Natya Shastra (200 BCE – 200 CE) includes a section on masks as they were considered a natural extension of the performing arts. Masked performances continue to play a significant role in transforming the performers’ identity to that of the character portrayed across ritual, carnival, theatre and dance whether it be the classical, folk or tribal tradition. One such continuing tradition is the ritual martial art dance-drama of Chhau that depicts the epic battles between gods and demons, and enacts morality tales. The dance celebrating the spring festival of Chaitra Parva is customarily performed annually over a period of thirteen days in April in the Eastern states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha.
Characterized by martial art and acrobatic moves that form part of the dramatic performances the origins of Chhau are hard to trace though oral histories and interpretations by scholars pointing to a rooting in ancient tribal war dance traditions. In Seraikela in Jharkhand the ritual performance is highly choreographed and stylised as it was patronized by the local rulers – the erstwhile royal family of the Singh-Deos whose patronage continues to date. While in Purulia in West Bengal the performance has been sustained over the years by the local community themselves as is apparent in the very spontaneity of the acrobatic performance. Governed by individual variants and distinct styles of performances it is in Purulia and in Seraikela where the individually hand crafted over sized masks are donned to depict the mythic attributes of the character being enacted. While In Mayurbhanj in Odisha painted faces and costumes are a substitute for the mask.
It is in the village of Charida located in the Purulia district of West Bengal where over a hundred households comprising about three hundred artisans are dedicated to the craft of mask making for performing troupes from both traditions. The masks are crafted in a close collaboration with the choreographers and performers by the traditional community of Maharanas, Mohapatras and Sutradhars whose knowledge of mask making and its lore has been transmitted orally and through apprenticeship over the generations. Working in their own homes the entire family is involved in the work with each member specialising in different tasks. As the themes performed include those from the Ramayana and Mahabharat, from local myths and legends and regional tales that feature a large cast of characters the artisans skill needs to extend to an in-depth knowledge of not only the themes to be performed but the particular attributes and symbolic iconography associated with each character. Combined with their expertise in the crafting the masks make the dancers instantly recognisable.
The masks whether of gods and goddesses, monsters , demons, heroes, birds, beasts and anthropomorphic representations are all crafted in two distinct parts – the face and the headdress. The faces are modeled in clay in a mould and finished with a small wood spatula – the thapi. Slits for the eye and nose are artfully cut out to ensure that the performer is comfortable in the wearing as the face is completely covered by the mask during the performance. Layered with paper and cloth strips and smoothened with clay the faces are brightly painted with bold outsized features that are theatrically communicative. The headdress also outsized is customized with feathers, beads, pearls, gold and silver tinsel, borders, flowers and all manner of accoutrements to form a frame around the mask. These large highly decorative mask-cum-headdress need to be light, yet have a lithe tensile strength to stand the rigours of the gravity defying action driven performances.
Traditionally performed through the night in an open air arena the space demarcated for the performance – called either Akhada or Asar is first sanctified by ritual offerings to the patron deities ensuring success and setting the stage for the performances that follow. An all male cast of masked dancers perform to the accompaniment of an orchestra of reed pipes (mohuri), bamboo flutes, the Indian oboe (shehnai ) and a variety of drums from the cylindrical ( dhol ) to the large kettle drums (dhumsa/ nagada ). Lit with electrical bulbs and burning torches the audience for the ritual performance has been getting larger each year – both local and tourists.
The dramatic arts of the Chhau dance with their iconic masks are gaining in popularity beyond the borders of the eastern states with the performers extending their repertoire beyond the traditional. As they enact and adapt the stories of Rabindranath Tagore and William Shakespeare to the Chhau style, the mask makers to adapt themselves to creating a visage that suits the character portrayed. As their fame spreads the artisans in Charida are now working through the year, continuing to create masks for performers – old and new while fulfilling orders for innovative decorative purposes as well.
In 2010 Chhau dance – it’s masks, costumes, music and instruments was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. While in the 2014 hit Bollywood action thriller Gundey starring Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra has the protagonist in the climactic scene weaving his way through a dense crowd of worshippers, in the midst of the frenzy the audience is drawn to mask wearing Chhau dancers whose gravity defying movements help define the scene.
First published in the Sunday Herald.