Purulia is one of the oldest districts of West Bengal, India which is enriched with culture and heritage. The Chhau Dance is a popular form of tribal dance in Purulia that incorporates elements of martial arts into its movements.
Around 150 years back during the rule of king Madan Mohan Singh Deo of Baghmundi the tradition of making chhau masks started. The Chhau Mask is traditionally associated with this age old dance form of Purulia, where the performers wear masks of various mythological characters and also different animals.
In Purulia Chhau dancers wear large stylised masks while performing and hence the evolving of Chhau Mask making. This dance form is predominantly seen in the states of Odissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand. According to certain literary scholars, the word Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Chhaya’ which essentially means masks, shadow or image while other scholars believe that the word is derived from ‘Chhauni‘ which means military camp.It is found in three styles named after the location where they are performed, i.e. the Mayurbhanj Chau of Odisha, the Purulia Chau of Bengal and the Seraikella Chau of Seraikela & Kharsawan District of Jharkhand.
The dance ranges from celebrating martial arts, acrobatics and athletics performed in festive themes of a folk dance, to a structured dance with religious themes found in Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism .The dancers usually perform on flat ground, with people sitting around them. The dance is accompanied by loud beats by drums and marui. It starts with the beat of the drum followed by an invocation to Lord Ganesha, the Hindu God of Wisdom. In 2010 the Chhau dance was inscribed in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The dancers wear heavy colourful masks and perform their steps with vigor. During the Chau season, Chorida, a small village in Purulia, provides some of the best masks; every house and every member of the household gets involved in making masks or assembling decorations for the headgear. The eyes of the masks are wide open, with a narrow air passage for the nostrils. Knitted eyebrows and thick hair on the face (formed from jute fibers) give the masks a demonic character. Charida is a village of artisans who for generations have been engaged in the making of Chau mask. They are called sutradhars or wood carvers by caste. Surprisingly, these artisans know their Gods and Goddesses and their stories by heart. About 250 artisan families in Charida are involved in this art of mask making. It requires deft hands to create these large masks that are not only used for dance but have demand as collectibles.
Paper, mud, and clay are used to make the Chhau masks. The masks are painted in pastel shades and have a frank, simple, and bold look. The effectiveness, originality, and beauty of the Chhau dance are dependent on the Chhau masks. Each mask represents a character from the epics, the Puranas, and from mythology. The eye- brows, mouth, and eyes are painted to give those special effects and give completeness to the looks of the Chhau dancers.The facial expression of the mask is the reflection of the local culture and perception of the artist. The making of Chau mask is a delicate piece of work from the preparation of mould to rendition of the face and the decoration thereafter each of the steps required distinctive skills. These skills acquired by the artist traditionally from their ancestors in the village of Charida,Purulia.
About Pritam Dutta
Pritam Dutta is an independent photographer who currently lives in Kolkata, India. His early career was as software engineer, but in 2015 he decided to make a change to pursue his true passion for photography. But the curiosity and hunger for learning that had motivated his engineering career did not vanish. Pritam now uses photography as vehicle to understand and help depict issues that puzzle him, and satisfy his passion for learning. Among his most prominent themes are culture, religion and people. His images have now been shown in curated exhibitions and have won numerous awards.