Thursday December 13, 2018

Knowing Indian traditional theatre: Chhau

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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

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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.

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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.

Relevance

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.