Chhau, the rare mask dances of eastern India are quite unique.
The tribal belt where the tribals and other common people perform Chhau dances is distributed into three adjoining states, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The three forms of Chhau are named after the district or village where they are performed, the Purulia Chhau of Bengal, the Seraikella Chhau of Bihar and the Mayurbhanj Chhau of Orissa. Although they are all known as Chhau, their style differs considerably in terms of their cultural background and their dance characteristics. The Seraikella Chhau and the Purulia Chhau wear masks while Mayurbhanj Chhau does not. The Chhau dancer communicates inner emotions and themes through cadences of body flexion and movements. Chhau’s vigorous martial character made it suitable only for male dancers.
There are two views on how the name derived – from the Sanskrit word ”Chaya” meaning shadow, while the other to justify its martial base, from the local dialect meaning an army camp/hunt/attack stealthily.
Seraikella, a small town in the Singhbhum district of Bihar, is an arid flat land surrounded by low lying hills, which have protected the land from external threats and saved from subjugating to any foreign rule or influence. Seraikella Chhau flourished under royal patronage. The princes were not only patrons but also dancers, teachers and mask-making experts. The Seraikella masks are similar to those used in the Noh play of Japan and the Wayang Wong of Java. The mask in Seraikella Chhau is a vital element, indicating a character or thematic idea in a stylized manner thereby infuses a sense of abstraction. It liberates the dancer on the facial front and helps him focus on the movement of the body.
Seraikella Chhau is danced during the annual Chaitra Parva Festival (April/May)dedicated to Lord Ardhanareshwara as a prayer for abundant harvest. The Performance precedes a series of mandatory rituals.
Having figured people in India itself had hardly seen or heard about this dance form as it was fast disappearing and UNESCO enlisting Chhau under Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2010, I sent a proposal to an event organiser in France to give a breather to this meditative dance form. After watching DVDs and live performances of few groups, I zeroed in on Pandit Gopal Dubey and group (Seraikella Chhau) and was happy to have been part of their successful tour to France and Germany last year.