Chhau dance
Chhau danceShutterstock

Behind The Scenes At Chaitra Parva Chhau Of Jharkhand

The male dominated dance, performed with or without masks, is sublime, to say the least. In 2010, UNESCO included Chhau in Heritage Dances

"Italy, America, China, Denmark, Turkey, Mongolia, Germany, France...," says the old man who has stopped us in the square near the Seraikella Palace. He is 77 years old, gets a pension of Rs 2,000 a month from the Department of Culture, teaches at the Sri Kedar Art Centre and, in another era, performed Chhau in the countries whose names he proudly chants.

In a black hovel of a teashop in Garage Chowk, two men are silently scrutinising my partner and me. Finally, one of them drains his plastic cup of tea, drops it on the floor, points to the other and says, "This is my cousin. Chhaudancer. He's been to America, Greece, Bangladesh... Two world-famous things in Seraikella. One is Chhau. The other is laddoo." We try the elaichi-flavoured sev laddoos and they're excellent.

Chhau dancers get ready backstage
Chhau dancers get ready backstage

The cousin will perform in one of the three editions of Seraikella's annual Chaitra Parva Chhau festival -- the modest one in the Palace courtyard, the government-sponsored stadium version, and the one somewhere in between which is held in the grounds near the Shiva temple.

Seraikella, once a princely state, is a largely Oriya-speaking town which was merged with Orissa after Independence but soon found itself part of Bihar, and is now somewhat uncomfortably lodged in Jharkhand. "Our ancestors were Rajputs who came here from Kannauj," says the young looking, T-shirt clad king of Seraikella, Pratap Aditya Singh Deo, when we stroll into the palace to chat with him. "We're one of the longest surviving royal dynasties in India. The clan can be traced back to 1205 AD."

Scaffolding is going up outside for the stage from where the royal couple and their guests will view the performances. The palace has always been closely associated with Chhau and not just as patron. Bijoy Pratap Singh Deo -- the younger brother of a former king -- is a name that recurs. He took an old martial folk form, turned it into a delicate, ballet-like dance with gorgeous, mystique-enhancing masks, and launched Seraikella Chhau on the stages of Europe in the late 1930s. Princes themselves have been legendary performers -- Rajkumar Suddendhra is another royal spoken in hushed tones. The king believes the ritual aspects are still crucial, however. Chhau is not just entertainment. "You'll understand tonight when you see the biggest Chhau ritual, the Jatra Ghat," he says.

A Chhau performance in progress
A Chhau performance in progress

The king's uncle, Prince Braj, spots us wandering around the grounds and invites us into his wing. He lives alone in a once-luxurious suite of rooms which are frozen in time. There are piles of dusty black trunks filled with Chhau costumes, sofas that look like they've been bombed, pigeons roosting in cornices, and a board that says 'Seraikella Chhau Nritya Kala Mandir, 1970, Founder Prince Braj Bhanu Singh Deo'. Standing outside and bearing the royal crest is the Prince's pride -- a Chevy SRV -- which he doesn't drive these days because he can't afford to replace the burnt-out battery. "I'm involved in some property disputes with my family and that takes up all my time. It kills creativity, that sort of thing." He used to dance Chhau but stopped in 1994, when the government labelled him a folk artist.

Later, on the way to the Kharkei river, my host Guru Tapan Kumar Pattnayak, director of the Seraikela Chhau Academy, is telling me that Jatra Ghat is an invocation to Ardhanariswara -- the half Shiva, half Shakti principle. The rituals are meant to wake Shiva from his sleep to play his damru and dance the tandav of creation. Since the music of his damru has no tala, Shakti has to be invoked to bring in the tala.

The Ghatawali

The man who personifies Shakti tonight sits by the moonlit river with an abstracted expression while the other bhagatas pull a red dress with silver piping over his head, slip huge silver bracelets onto his thin wrists, and then, with a marked lack of finesse, start to wind an endless series of decorations, tassels and bands of red cloth around his patient head. A priest chants, there is a generator humming and film cameras rolling, much breaking of coconuts, offerings made to a long pole topped with mango leaves, diyas and incense everywhere, and the growing clamour of a 100-strong crowd, many of them fasting women. The focus of the ritual is a small ghata or pitcher of river water that is plastered to the main bhagata's head -- which is why he is called Ghatawali.

Goat-Sacrifice And Dancing

It is well past midnight when the procession takes off. The Ghatawali either dances in a frenzied trance with his eyes closed, knocking blindly into the other devotees, or all but collapses and is dragged along by the others. Women and children have packed rooftops and balconies to watch. In one lane, a woman is out flat on the ground having a violent and parallel fit, her long hair thrashing about her face. The procession winds its way to the palace, where a baby goat is sacrificed in one clean stroke. It proceeds, with majestic slowness and more halts for goat-sacrifice and dancing, to the Shiva temple, where the pitcher of water is buried. (It will be dug out after a year and divinations made based on how it looks.) As per belief, if the pitcher is dropped along the way, the Ghatawali will turn rakshasa and have to be killed. The fuss that was made over the poor man's head makes sense now.

Minimalist Grace

Chhau itself is almost Far Eastern in its minimalist grace and the atavistic --stomping of the night before recedes when I watch rehearsals at the privately run Trinetra Chhau Dance Centre. Two boys dance a duet -- they appear to be joined by invisible strings so that every movement in one triggers an answering gesture in the other and vice versa. Without masks or costumes their focused self-absorption is evident and wonderful to watch.

At the festival in the Birsa Munda Stadium a couple of nights later, the colour and music take over. Chairs have been laid out facing the temporary stage but some people sit far away on stadium seats to watch, while others sit abreast of the stage, seeming not to care for Chhau as much as staying up all night in the mela-like atmosphere. The performances offer mythology such as in the story of Chandrabhaga, bits of Kalidasa's Meghdoot, and many invocations to nature -- Phool aur Basant, Prajapati, Mayura. Krishna is a favourite and is performed by children whose jerky movements and blind stumbles make me think of a half-baked school play. Guru Tapan plays a fine Ratri (night) in a midnight blue mask which creates a picturesque contrast to the dazzling white get-up of his partner.

It is satisfying to see him on stage after our many conversations about Chhau. Like most people in this town he grew up with the dance and decided -- halfway through a course in dentistry in Muzzafarpur -- to make it his mainstay. As director of the Academy, his achievement appears to have been democratising Chhau -- he speaks proudly of the numbers of children trained, the mask-makers and musicians he arranges stipends for, and how he actively encourages girls to perform in what was till recently a male-only form.

Bala Krishnas on stage
Bala Krishnas on stage

Yet Chhau's sublimity is always described in terms of the bygone greats. "Kedarnath Sahoo," says Guru Tapan, his voice soft. "It cannot be described. The way he used to take on the female form." In the palace, adjacent to where the performances are being held, is a wall lined with black and white portraits of the invariably young and handsome masters of yore. But with the current government-inspired emphasis on numbers and with three competing festivals taking place each year in Seraikella, there seems to be a diffusion of the energies around Chhau. Sadly, it seems unlikely that the children playing tottering Bala Krishnas today will decades from now stop people in the square with a litany of foreign place names.

Outlook Traveller