Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The many faces of Chau

The tribal belt where the tribals and other common people perform Chau dances is distributed into three adjoining states, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, after the dissolution of the princely states in 1950. The three forms of Chau are named after the district or village where they are performed, i.e. the Purulia Chau of Bengal, the Seraikella Chau of Bihar and the Mayurbhanj Chau of Orissa. Surprisingly the earlier writers have exercised considerably to understand the origin of the word Chau and to ascertain its classical origin as also they have tried to establish the origin of the word Chau from Sanskrit root word ''Chaya'', while others have tried to justify its martial base and the derivation of the word by suggesting that the word Chau is derived from the local dialect meaning an army camp.
However, they have overlooked the outcries of the performers or the drummers during performance. Particularly in Purulia, the singer drummer often rushes to the new characters "by shouting "cho... cho...cho..." with excitement, before they enter into the arena. By doing this he infuses the same enthusiasm in the dancer. During the course of the performance also such excitement and outburst of joy are expressed by the singers and other members of orchestra. Similarly this author heard the same utterances by the hunters who assemble at a particular hill top during the annual hunting expeditions on the full moon day in the month of May. While chasing the game exclaim they exclaim "cho... cho...cho..." (A broader pronunciation of Chau), in order to fright the animals or invoke the spirit of animal for easier gain of the game. Most likely it is this word associated with the natives' earliest hunting occupation that is now associated with their dances to express joy and excitement...
A generic name usually points to the root character of the class it denotes. The character, even after any degree of evolvement, remains an integral part of the class either overtly or as an underlying base. And if various styles of dances known as chhau are analyzed, it is found that they all have martial strains. The word 'chhau', now obsolete, means to attack stealthily. The basic steps and gaits of Seraikelaa and Mayurbhanj styles of chhau not only are practiced holding a sword and a shield, the rudimentary dance are known as ruk-maar-naaclia (meaning the dance of attack and defense) in Mayurbhanj and phari-khandaa-khela (meaning the play with the sword and shield) in Seraikelaa. In Asanapaat, a village in Orissa one can find a dance called paaikaali, that is unmistakably the mother of chhau because the leg extensions are exactly like that of chhau and they perform a kind of attack and defense dance almost like ruk-maar-naacha. The musical instruments used in paaikaali are exactly the same as those of chhau.
In Orissa the soldiers were being called paaika-s. Therefore, chhau in its origin was unmistakably a weapon-dance or a war dance. Even the use of masks in Seraikelaa Chhau and Purulia Chhau, and in their less evolved folk versions, does not disprove the assumption, but rather strengthens it. Otto Bihalji-merin in his Mask of the World writes, "A mask dance is often preliminary for war. The dancers portray in pantomime the actions they plan, sneaking up to the enemy, javelin throwing, close combat and finally victory. This serves as a magic spell, as physical exercise, as spiritual preparation, and at the same time as conquest of fear through the anticipation of victory. The helmets of classical antiquity were also masks of fear and magical protection. Greek helmets had fixed visors with eyeholes. During the bloody gladiatorial combats in the Roman arenas the swordsman (hoplomachus) confronted with the net man (retiarius) wore a helmet a wire-netting visor to protect his face."
Chhau then in its formative period in a primitive culture was not only a war dance but also a ritual meant for spiritual preparation, and at the same time as the conquest of conquest of fear, through the anticipation of victory. May be because of this, the religious associations and rituals connected with the three styles of evolved chhau have so many similarities. Another very significant similarity among the three styles is that the dances as well as the rituals connected with them culminates in a festival on the last day of the lunar month of Chaitra, corresponding to April 12th. The deities worshipped in the religious rituals are Shiva and Shakti. This leads us to believe that the tantric cult has greatly influenced chhau during its formative period. NIC Purulia District Centre

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