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Origin, propagation and status of Chhau Nritya

Mail News Service

Saraikela, Dec. 18: “The first and foremost trial of a culture is to imbibe life with dreams and colors. Through literature and the arts, the prestige of the state is expressed. Chhau dance is an artistic unity preserved and developed with jealous care by people whose treasure it is.”  Chhau is the name of several dance-drama forms in eastern India including the states of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. Jharkhand is the creation of many nurturfed dreams, struggles, virtual wars and determinations. Jharkhand may have crossed its nascent stage and stepped into the formative years of youth but traditions of the land are inherent in the blood of the people where culture is the predominant flavor and has lived emphatically through centuries beyond the realms of recorded history.

Jharkhand is a land ensconced amidst hills, hillocks, streams and rivers. It lies wrapped in many tales among them being Singhbhum surrounded by hills and hillocks, among them being the province (now district) that boasts of Sodhoi Kola or 16 art forms whose derivative now stands as Saraikela. Thick with forest covers, the place was initially known as Saleghutu. Among the early recorded chapters, the first to set up an estate here was Budha Vikram Singh who came from Porahat in 1645.

Three legendary dance Gurus Upendra Biswal, Banabali Das and Rajendra Pattanayak ushered in the Chhau tradition in the royal court of Saraikela. Later, Banabali Das shifted to Mayurbhanj and started his own form of Chhau which came to be known later as the Mayurbhanj Shaili of Chhau Nritya. While Guru Upendra Biswal continued to propagate his Chhau Shaili in Saraikela, Guru Rajendra Pattanayak moved over to Ichagarh where another school of Chhau expression developed. It came to be known as Manbhum or Purulia Shaili. Though each style or Shaili developed with constant experimentations in facial and physical expressions, beats or talas and layas with matching movements as essential ingredients of story narratives, the three schools of Chhau learning that originated imn the land of Sodhoi Kola gained momentum and recognition widely between the period 1910 and 1920.

The link between rituals and the Chhau dances calls for more research to determine

precisely the evolution of dances in association with traditional rituals in practice. It may perhaps be probable that the three elements of Chhau tradition, namely the dance movements, the martial elements and the rituals, evolved and existed separately in their own contexts to fulfill their respective, specific needs. At some point, the three elements came together leading to the emergence of Chhau. This has been the pattern of the evolution of many forms of dance and drama in various theatrical traditions. Chhau dance forms of Seraikela follows the basic principles of Hindu dance which have evolved a technique of their own, inspired by its own concepts and ideas. The Hindu dance elements are ascribed as representations of cosmic rhythm. Lord Shiva is the cosmic dancer Whose gestures and postures is representative of  the universe, Whose speech

is the sum of all languages, Whose dress and costumes are the moon and stars. On the

one hand it is close to classical dance tradition with it many styles while on the other,

it has links with the folk and tribal dances of the regions. Chhau is also greatly

Influenced by the martial arts and has a strong ritualistic context.

The Saraikela and Purulia Chhau Nritya performers wear masks but the Mayurbhanj Chhau is depicted without masks.

To recapitulate, at the turn of the last century the basis of political and artistic authority in Saraikela was the royal family, headed by the Raja himself. He was the head of state, the protector of religion and in Saraikela, he was the chief patron of Chhau dance. During the annual celebration of Chaitra Parv, the dances were performed as a competition among town dance groupsin which the Raja was the judge. As such, he was the ultimate artistic authority and dance groups were awarded banners according to his judgment. Conversely, Chhau was an index of his own prestige; neighboring Rajas and foreign dignitaries were treated with special Nritya Durbars and were also the Saraikela Raja’s guests during Chaitra Parv. With time, the Raja became known – developed a ‘good name’ – for his cultivation of the arts, and Chhau represented and constituted the prestige of his state.

In the ‘30’s, the initiative to modernize Chhau came from Raja Aditya Pratap Singh Deo’s artistic younger brother, Bijay Pratap Singh Deo, who gathered advice and aid both from the best talents in Saraikela and from renowned ‘outsiders’ such as Uday Shankar. Once Chhau was taken abroad to Europe, the scope of Saraikela’s name and fame widened. Within India, Chhau was performed before the leading politicians of the time, from Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru as well as in the august presence of leading art creators such as Tagore and Uday Shankar. Through these performances, perhaps, Bijay Pratap Singh Deo’s dream of representing that the inhabitants of the feudatory states had important contributions to make to the cultural life of India was realized.

After Indian Independence in 1947, Saraikela merged first with the state of Odisha (then Orissa), but later became a part of Bihar. This led to serious repercussions as the predominantly Odiya people in Saraikela desperately attempted to re-merge with Odisha. These attempts were not successful, and the former Princely State of Saraikela remained a sub-division in Bihar State, administered by Bihar Government officers. As a result of these changes, the former locus of authority in Saraikela, the Singh Deo family lost the political basis of their power.

The Singh Deos’ role as the exclusive patrons of Chhau was also challenged, as the Bihar Government set up its own training center for Chhau dance and began to sponsor local religious festivals and rituals such as Chaitra Parv and Durga Pooja. Initially, the response of the royal family was not to abandon their own involvement, but to continue to patronize both Chhau and local religious festivals independently. This resulted in simultaneous celebrations for many of these festivals in Saraikela.

However, the Bihar Government’s patronage of Chhau and local festivals did not, among local townspeople, lend prestige to the it as the royal patronage of Chhau had increased the prestige of the Saraikela Raja. Chhau was an ‘Odiya’ art form, how could it be patronized by others? In this sense, the Bihar Government’s patronage of Chhau was interpreted as a self-conscious and futile attempt to transfer public loyalty to Bihar. Thus even though the Bihar Government took over the symbols of the ‘old regime’s prestige,’ it was not a successful takeover. Chhau and Chaitra Parv did not support the ideology of the Democratic Bihar Government in the same way as it had supported the old Saraikela kingdom.

All  these changes led to the current split in artistic and political authority in Saraikela. At present, the Jharkhand Government officials are not considered artistic authorities, nor do they have any intention to be seen as such. Yet they are recognized as important, politically motivated patrons. On the other hand, members of the Singh Deo family are still respected for their artistry, but they have lost all political power. The patronage of Chhau was further altered after the death of Raja Aditya Pratap Singh Deo in 1969. Since the new Raja of Saraikela was not interested in promoting Chhau dance, leaving this activity primarily to his uncle, S. N Singh Deo and his brother, B.B. Singh Deo. The Chhau artists themselves have become politicians of a sort, lobbying for their own best interests. Individuality, in the sense of original artistic expression, may be admired in Chhau, but in the sense of self-promotion, it is not.

Moreover, Chhau’s rise to fame in the 30’s and 40’s was generated by a certain key. Highly talented individuals, foremost among them being Raja Aditya Pratap Singh Deo, Bijay Pratap Singh Deo, Suvendra Narayan Singh Deo, Hirendra Pratap Singh Deo, Banbihari Pattanayak and Kedar Nath Sahu formed this key factor. In particular, it was Bijay Pratap Singh Deo’s association with the young dancer Suvendra which may be interpreted as the ‘charismatic underpinning’ of the dance; both are remembered as geniuses who modernized Chhau and brought it into limelight. Most of the dances performed today were composed by Bijay Pratap Singh Deo; after he left Saraikela, no one of a similar stature has come along. In addition, he created an aesthetic model for Chhau based on serious study, meditation, discussion and disciplined practice. Such a foundation allowed it to be performed with pride by a corps of dancers including the Raja’s own sons, before the best audiences in India.

Yet, Bijay Pratap Singh Deo revolutionized Chhau not just by changing its technique or method of practice and performance, but by bringing the dance into a worldwide framework. This was in the political context of Saraikela as an Independent Princely State, and it was as such that the dance is said to have achieved the pinnacle of its artistry. His association with the dance terminated soon after Independence, coinciding with the changeover in Saraikela from an Independent Princely State to a sub-division in the Indian Democracy. It was at this time that the authoritative structure for Chhau which he had built began to crumble, as Chhau lost both its political integrity and its chief artistic mentor. In the years since Indian Independence, both the artistic and political arena in which Chhau must operate have changed drastically. Chhau dancers must compete with at least five other recognized and established dance forms in India and the question of ‘folk’ vs. ‘classical’ becomes problematic. Moreover, a dancer is now a professional who earns money from performing and teaching. Currently the authoritative basis of a dance form derives not from association with a particular raja or kingdom, but from a clear relationship with texts of Ancient India such as the Natya Shastra and from the proficiency of individual dancers. In addition, today’s dancers are highly skilled, articulate, practiced individuals who have learned how to promote themselves successfully.

Another recent development is that dance in India has become a platform for politics on a larger scale, and ‘Festival Diplomacy’ comes into play as the Festival of India is celebrated in the United States, France and Russia. As a result of these festivals, opportunities for dancers to perform abroad have multiplied, increasing the competition to impress the right politicians and officials responsible for choosing the artists to represent India. To appeal successfully for both performance opportunities abroad and financial support for training programs at home, authority must now be consciously ‘created’; whereas earlier it was encapsulated in a single festival : Chaitra Parv, in a single place : the Saraikela Raja’s court.

The creation of cultural authority is an ongoing struggle in Saraikela. Chhau is still not recognized on par with the other classical dance forms and a designation of ‘folk’ is not acceptable to most Saraikela dancers. Furthermore, in recent years, the problems in Saraikela have frustrated funding agencies and tour promoters alike. This raises a question on the survival of Chhau. By tracing the trajectory of Chhau’s developmentit has been notedthat the process involved in such a creation involves the role of historical interpretation, the dependency on key, ‘charismatic’ individuals, the association with religious rituals, the complicating tendencies of contradictions between ideal concepts of the artist and the real, everyday problems they face and the need for recognition according to a widely acknowledged scheme of classification.

For Saraikela Chhau, the issue now is not to prove that it is an Odissi art form, as it was in the ‘50’s, but to show that it is a sophisticated, ‘classical’ Indian dance. This struggle is rooted in Saraikela residents’ perception of themselves as being not just inhabitants of a small town in the hinterlands of southern Jharkhand, but of a former independent Princely State with a long history of cultural achievements. And Chhau as a dance masterminded by local charismatic individuals is the prestige of their culture: and as such, is vested with an inherent authority which they seek to have recognized throughout India and the world.

However the Saraikela Chhau has been approved by UNESCO in the year 2010 as intangible Heritage of India. To understand the sources of this ambiguity, one input looks at this problem not merely as an academic controversy over classification, but as a product of the interacting spheres of individual personalities, the technical form itself, and the existing socio-cultural hierarchies.

To conclude, it is inevitable to quote Chhau Nritya Shaili exponent, Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee and Padma Shri Gopal Prasad Dubey who observed, “I am very glad to learn that Sangeet Natak Akademi is promoting Chhau to various parts of India and abroad to regain its original fame and popularity.”

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