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.