Sunday December 17, 2017

Knowing Indian traditional theatre: Chhau


Chhau is one of the unique type of performing arts from the Indian traditional theatre where dance and martial arts are used to tell various mythological stories. It is unique in the sense that it is the only art form in the world that uses wooden or earthen masks to depict the characters, not only by face, but also in performance choreography.

The art form originated from the tribal regions of eastern India and has three different schools of performances. The three types of Chhau are from the three regions of Orissa, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. They are known after the names of their regions: Mayurbhanj (Orissa), Saraikela (Jharkhand), Purulia (West Bengal).

All the three forms use similar stories. The storyline is generally related to war legends like Krishna’s chivalry, Mahisasur Mardani, Parshuram’s anger etc. Basically, the story needs to be loud enough. However, the length and detailing of the themes might vary from one region to another. Similarly, the language is tribal and local to the area of performance.

Mayurbhanj Chhau is performed with long epic stories with great detailing. Same is with Purulia Chhau. But in Saraikela, the stories are smaller. Purulia Chhau is very much ritualistic and the performers are from very poor class, without any patronage, unlike the Saraikela variety which is patronised by the elite class.

Saraikela form is almost same as Mayurbhanj, the only difference is use of masks which is not there in Mayurbhanj.

Chhau is a completely tribal art form and, as a result, the music and dance are tribal and folk. The gestures are loud as are the beats of music that come from two musical instruments, Dhamsa and Jhaanjh, used during the performance.

Costumes used in Chhau are minimal. Make-up is limited to painted faces and bodies. As it is a tribal art form, all the colours and other elements used for make-up are locally made from natural products. Body paint, masks are all naturally made, often by the people from the tribe itself.

Apart from the uniqueness of use of masks, the performers also depict the movements of the animals which makes it the only art form in the world to show it. It shows how traditional societies have preserved the local knowledge of observation of their surroundings.

The whole performance takes place in open area and not on stage. The performing area is big and, at times, performers move around, going from one place to another. The rituals are a big part of the performance and the local people are a part of it.

It takes place at the end of Hindi month of Chaitra and continues for 26 days. At the outset, a bamboo is taken and rituals are performed around it. After these rituals, the bamboo is assumed to be a Shivlinga. The Shivalinga is, then, half buried by the celebrating crowd, in the ground.

After the Shivalinga is buried, the chief priest (or the chief worshipper) enters with his whole body painted with red vermillion as he carries a big earthen pitcher (ghada) on his head. The pitcher, a symbol of Shakti (Uma, Durga, Kaali etc.), is kept near the Shivalinga.

The music grows loud as the priest, with his performance, makes people believe that the Goddess has entered his body. He starts to dance frantically, and soon the crowd joins in celebration.

After this part of ritual is over, Vrindavani (the recitation of Krishna’s chivalary), small anecdotes of war, vigour etc. are performed by a group of performers. The duration of performance depends on the length of story. People enjoy the show till it gets over.

Although, Saraikela and Mayurbhanj Chhau have enjoyed the support of royalty, Purulia variety, as stated earlier, was completely supported by the people themselves who struggled but kept the art form alive.

At present, it enjoys the support of the state. Recently, in 2010, Chhau was inscribed in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

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Knowing Indian traditional theatre: Ramleela


Ramleela is one of the most widely performed traditional art forms of north India. It is celebrated with much zeal and fervour in Uttar Pradesh and adjoining areas like Delhi, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and some other states as well. For Delhi, it is one of the biggest attractions and gains lot of media attention with televised Ramleela on the final day of Dussehra celebrations.

As literal in its name, it depicts the ‘leelas’ of Ram, which means a portrayal of Lord Ram’s life. The story is known to almost all of us as it is not only religious but also a part of India’s culture. The story is derived from Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas as well as Valmiki’s Ramayan.

The main language of Ramleela in the north India is Hindi and some of its variations as it travels to different states like Madhya Pardesh, Rajsthan, Bihar and Haryana.

In Indian traditional art forms, dance and music are very integral parts, however, with Ramleela, in its classic form, the dance is not so much prevalent. Music, although, is an integral part of it and is deeply attached to every scene whether as background score or part of the poetic recitation, songs or dohas.

The musical instruments used during the performance are the commonly used instruments from classical music that includes dholak, harmonium, flute and jhaal. Nowadays, electronic equipments are also used. Sound effects are generally produced with the help of computers.

The modern times haven’t had much effect on the makeup and costumes. Traditional and bright costumes are used as per characters’ requirements. There are no special things used in costumes. Makeup is minimalistic and natural. However, for larger productions, the makeup does become extensive to bring realism of portrayal.

It is generally performed in open space on a large platform during Dussehra. The village productions opt for small wooden stages made of planks and bamboos. It is not sophisticated at all. But, with bigger productions, like in Delhi’s Ramleela Maidan, the stage is quite large and robust as it gives a bigger area to the performers during war scenes.

Ramleela starts with invocation to the God. It is performed for a period of ten days. The performance takes place after sunset and goes on till the day’s events have been played out. The ten days have different parts of Ram’s story as it starts with Ram’s childhood and culminates in the killing of Ravana. Every single day has one major attraction to keep audience entertained.

Ravan Dahan in progress as a part of Ramleela finale

On Dussehra, the final day, the actors who are playing the parts of Ram and Lakshman use bow and arrow to shoot the giant Ravana (and several other demons) installations, often filled with fire crackers inside, that bursts out. It reminds the audience of the victory of good over evil as the huge Ravana falls burning to the ground.


Apart from the villages, it is seen losing its significance as the quality is dying down with less people interested in watching the lazy performances without any heart in it. It is a routine in places like Delhi where smaller residential societies have Ramleela committees which delivers pathetic performances.

It has hit such a low that the Ramleela has to borrow vulgar songs from Hindi films as well as local music albums on which the artists dance.

This makes the epic Ramayana just a trivial comedy show where the artists are ridiculed with their own performances.

But all is not lost. Ramleela still survives as an art form all around the world. Productions which have money to support themselves, who have sponsors and pay their artists good, have kept the art alive. They keep the audience in thrall when they perform the known story with conviction that brings catharsis and makes people believe the performances.

Ramleela is just not an art form, it is story of Ram, the greatest king in Hindu mythology who was ideal, just and righteous. He is known as Maryada Purushottam which literally mean ‘the Ideal Man.’ We can learn a lot from his life and the way he dealt with various situations in his life.

From India, Ramleela has travelled across the world with Indian migrants.

It is performed in nations which have Muslim majority, like Indonesia; Buddhist majority, like Thailand; Christian majority, Trinidad as well as Americas and Europe.

Indian diaspora feels connected to their roots with these mythological dramas which have been performed since the time our memory can look back.

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Knowing Indian traditional theatre and its relevance

A performance of Yakshagaan in progress

All the parts of India have its own culture and traditions and have different performing arts. The Indian traditional theatre has preserved the identity, uniqueness as well as the history of the area. These art forms, from whichever area they belong to, have evolved with the times yet are deeply rooted in their past.

Generally they have survived due to their deliverance of values and newness of presentation to the society. They still exist because they have too much to tell to the society. The current generation, as well as governments in respective states, has revived these art forms which were losing their sheen two decades ago.

It is an indispensible part of societal structure. People draw inspiration from local heroes to the folklore and culture-specific stories to present them in a region’s known style of theatre.


Yakshgaan, Ankia Naat, Bhaona, Chhau, Turra Kalangi, Nautanki, Ram Leela, Aalha Udal, Raas Leela are all different styles of taditional theatre in India and they belong to different parts.

Local weather and season along with the culture and tradition prepare the base for traditional theatre. For example the ‘Bhangra’ dance form from Punjab has old actions and movements as it experiences better climate than Kashmir where ‘Bhand Pather’ has very limited movements due to the severe cold conditions.

Local heroes have enriched the traditional theatre. Heroic stories from past are presented with dance and music to the audience today. It not only reminds them of a glory but preserves the art form as well. The traditional theatres have evolved from the historical times, be it oral tradition of storytelling, written texts, mythologies or legends.

Stories they tell

The base of the traditional theatre is the stories they tell. Folktales, stories from epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas are prevalent but at the same time stories of local heroes and legends are also performed. Nowadays, modern day elements as well as achievements of Indians are also added as part of story to pay respect to them. One can easily spot the Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan, Kalpana Chawal and many other heroes from our past being presented on stage, in temples and mandaps across the nation.


The beauty and uniqueness of the traditional art form is they remain local in all aspects. Be it musical instruments, the songs, language or the materials used for stage, it is always the local-made and socially produced.

Bhand People ather
Kashmiri people enjoying ‘Bhand Pather’, a traditional theatre form from Kashmir

The stage is made of local and easily available things like bamboo sticks, planks, wooden cots etc. There are no closed spaces as in modern day proscenium theatre. The stage is made out in open area, be it inside temple premises or in a ground. All the decorations are indigenous and are prepared from natural product. The lighting aspect is not much sophisticated. It just solves the purpose of visibility and does not have much to do with ‘effects’ as such.

Make-up and costumes

The make-up of the artistes are very much rustic and earthen. Only natural and local things are used for makeup. Costumes are chosen as per the requirement of the characters. The colours of the costumes are generally gay and bright in the traditional theatre. Use of red, yellow, green can be observed almost everywhere in all the art or dance forms.


As the art form is traditional, the make rustic, and the music indigenous, the presentation is often dramatic, musical, poetic, and rustic. It carries a smell of the soil. However, the performance (of some art forms along with its preparation) can be highly codified as in strict classical sense, following Bharat Muni’s ‘Natya Shastra’ and its guidelines on stage structure, audience sitting arrangement etc.

At the same time, it can be very loose and semi classical in approach. The performers follow a routine and try to bring newness to the already known stories. As the story is generally known to the audience in traditional theatre so the innovation becomes very essential in presentation. The performance generally starts in nights and goes on till the dawn. There are no time limits and it is highly flexible.


The traditional theatre of India enjoys all the three kinds of patronage: Lokashray, which means dependent on people; Devashray or dependent on temples for funds; Rajyaashray which means the state gives grants to the art form and is the provider.

Different areas have survived on different patronage. Some places have survived without any help from the temple or state and people have kept the art form alive. Purulia Chhau is an example where the performance is ritualistic and rustic because it is performed in a destitute society with no funding from state or temples. At the same time, another variant of Chhau, Saraikela Chhau, is supported by the elite class of the region.


The language used in the performance has to be from the local area. It can’t even be a language rather a dialect of the village. The director adopts the script in the local dialect and artistes perform it in their mother tongue. Language is of the people and for the people. A single language or dialect prevails throughout the play.


The instruments used to create and perform music are local. Music is indispensible from any theatre form. Some of the instruments that are prevalent are: bansuri, manjira, idakkya, chendu, jhanjh, dhamsa, dholak, harmonium, veena, dafli, tabla among many others. The music can be classical or semi classical.

Generally the instrument are region specific and indigenous to that particular area. One interesting bit is the Harmonium, an instrument modified in India from the piano and other smaller versions of it, is integral to almost all the regional traditional theatres in India.

Audience-actor relationship

Actors are always from the village or locality itself. They do all their work in the day and rehearse in the evenings or during a decided time. Normally, the same person does the same part every year till the village or he himself decides to retire from it.

The audience and the actors, normally males even form female roles, are highly bound to each other. If the performer is getting loose at some place, the elder or the person who knows the art can point the mistakes out and correct the during the performance itself.


We mustn’t forget our traditions. These art forms have carried on our collective values and way of life since they took shape. They remind us of the inspirational people and stories which inspire us to achieve more and become ideal human beings.

Nowadays, government is making efforts to make people understand the policies and schemes through the traditional theatre. These art forms are used to educate people on various topics, issues of social importance. One can spot integration of ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’, ‘Beti Padhao’, ‘Sarva Shikha Abhiyaan’ etc during Ram Leelas and nautanki.

The advantage with these art forms is that one can easily make the audience understand what he/she wants to convey. These are easily associable and identifiable with almost all the people as all of us have either watched these performances or listened stories from our parents and grandparents.

Nowadays even advertisers are using these traditional art forms to put their views across. The message reaches to the audience in simpler ways and conveniently than from a TV set or radio. The reason is that these art forms are in their own language and the audience feel themselves to be a part of that larger picture.

With many scholars and government institutions pumping money and mind, the traditional theatre can only go ahead. It not only solves the aforesaid purpose but also takes us close to our roots and asks us to be more responsible towards our fellow beings and society as a whole.

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Chhau masks to ‘awe’ visitors this Durga puja


By NewsGram Staff Writer

Kolkata: The vibrant and stylised masks worn by practitioners of Chhau, the famed tribal martial dance from West Bengal’s Purulia, will adorn deities at a Durga puja here, organisers said on Saturday, hoping the look will “awe” visitors.


One of the biggest festivals of eastern India begins on October 19 and organisers are gearing up to put up their best displays to celebrate the homecoming of Goddess Durga and her family.

Members of the Ajeya Sanghati club in south Kolkata are going with the Chhau dance masks (that extend to several feet) to decorate the deities instead of the elegant shola-pith (sponge wood) ornaments and crowns.

“We are using the colourful masks as the look of our deities. In addition, episodes from the Ramayana will be narrated through giant Chhau masks,” Aparna Bose, a member of the club’s organising committee, said.

The powerful folk dance from Purulia resembles a war, and is characterised by leaps and swift martial art movements.

Many dance numbers are based on episodes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The depiction of birds and animals is a distinctive feature of the masks.

She said around 25 artists from Purulia were in Kolkata to craft the masks and sculptures.

“At the entrance, a Jatayu sculpture standing tall at 45 feet will greet visitors. The rest of the figures and masks are of similar height. The overall feel will be that of a shocking display of colours and we hope it awes visitors,” Bose added.

With inputs from IANS