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Last week, I had the opportunity to witness a tribal dance from West Bengal (state in eastern India). The dance and the associated music had great vibrations attached to them.This dance form is known as Chhau.
Chhau is a famous tribal dance form found in the eastern part of India, in the states of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa. The particular dance that I watched comes from the tribes of West Bengal and is called the Purulia Chhau, getting its name from the district where the dance is famous - Purulia.
The word Chhau is said to be derived from the Sanskrit word - Chhaya which means shadow. There is also a reference of the word being derived from Chhauni, which means military camp, which is quite probable as the dance form involves martial practices and movements.
Purulia Chhau is a dance-drams which is inspired from stories from epics. The costumes of the dancers are the major attraction in this art form, which include masks and head gear. It is noteworthy to observe that all dancers are men, who play the role of a female too and it cannot be easily noticed, thanks to the masks and the costume.
Intricately designed masks that speak for the characters, dazzling costumes that attract your attention, rhythmic drum beating that give cosmic vibrations define this form of dance. With faces covered by masks, dancers emote using their movements and steps, which tell you the story enacted by them in the form of a dance.
The dance is usually performed in the night in open air. With the night grows the momentum of the dance and the excitement of the audience. The dance usually begins with an invocation to Lord Ganesha followed by movements that depict the story. In a Chhau dance, stories which portray good vs evil with a climax where good triumphs over the evil are danced.
The particular dance that I watched depicted the story of Mahishasur Mardhini.
Story of Mahishasur Mardhini:
Mahisha in Sanskrit means buffalo. Mahishasur is a cruel demon who can take the form of human or buffalo at will on account of his father who was the king of ashuras (demons) and mother who was cursed to become a water buffalo. The terrorizing demon Mahishasur started invading the heaven and won over the king of gods - Indra, driving all the gods out of heaven.
Mahishasur's invincibility scared the gods. They decided to create a nemesis in the form of a young woman, as Mahishasur cannot be defeated by any man. Goddess Durga comes to the rescue of the Gods and creates an army to fight the evil demon. She destroys the army of Mahishasur in 9 days and kills the demon himself on the tenth day. The ten days are celebrated as Dusshera across all parts of India, with the tenth day celebrated as Durga Pooja.
Pictures taken by me during the dance drama can be found below.