CHHAU DANCE A glorious heritage

The tribal martial dance form of eastern India, Chhau, has been enthralling audience for generations with it’s bright colourful exuberance and strong acrobatical performances

Chhau, which means mask, is a semiclassical Indian dance with martial, tribal and folk origins practiced in the eastern States of India like Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand. Some even believe that it is derived from the local Oriya word Chho which means expressing or doing something with gestures while others also trace its lineage to the word Chhauka, meaning the ability to make sudden unexpected attack.

Long ago, this dance was performed by the military of the local kingdom in their leisure time. The themes included their heroic deeds and traditional folklore. They performed this dance for their own entertainment as well as to encourage their battalion as it was performed in their camps (locally known as Chhauni). In recent past, the tribal people in the region performed it in an effort to please the Sun God. In course of time, it has developed its own rules and grammar.

These days Chhau dance is performed during the Chaitra Parva festivals in the summer months. It’s classified in three subgenres – Seraikella Chhau, Purulia Chhau and Mayurbhanj Chhau. The Purulia Chhau and Seraikella Chhau are more popular than Mayurbhanj because of their vigour. While masks are used in the first two kinds, they are not used in Mayurbhanj.


The dancers match outfits with the masks they wear to enact characters from mythological stories and other historic events. Over the years, Charida village in Purulia district, West Bengal has dedicated itself towards making these custom masks and has become Chhau hub of the region. Almost every single villager is involved in the mask-making process and the main road of the village has shops lined with hundreds of different kinds of Chhau masks, which are sold to dance troupes, associations, collectors and tourists.

The villagers are also known for making the headgear that goes with the masks. While performing, mask movements done by the dancers express anger, while shoulder and chest movements indicate joy, depression, courage, etc. Jumping in the air is another movement, which serves as a gesture of attack during the enactment of a war scene.


The themes of these dances range from aspects of the natural world to completely abstract expressions. ‘Mayur’ or ‘Peacock’ dance is a unique creation whereas ‘Nabik’ portrays a couple navigating through the river of life. Several themes have been taken from mythology like Rig Veda.

Usually, there are three types of characters – gods and goddesses, demons or monsters and animals in Chhau dance. When depicting the divine, the colour red is a prominent aspect of clothing with elaborate costume, jewellery and headgear. It also includes a few extra set of limbs along with trademark weapons that a particular god or goddess was known for wielding.

Demons, while elaborately dressed, are likely to have painted faces as a signature of evil. Special suits are made to depict an animal or a monster along with appropriate masks.

Over the years, Chhau costumes have evolved to printed or embroidered designs instead of just bright and bold colours. Silk is the most commonly used material for costumes, followed by cotton. The male dancers wear brightly coloured dhotis (flared bottoms) with a matching kurta on top. Female dancers, or male dancers depicting female characters, are also known to wear colourful saris.

There is live background score played on Mahuri and various types of drums. The music appropriately reflects various moods which the dancers so impressively interpret. It begins with the beating of drums to invoke Lord Ganesha (the elephant-headed Hindu god of success). Following that, a host of drummers and musicians start beating the Dhol and the Dhamsa. As the music fades, the dancer portraying Lord Ganesha takes center stage followed by other performers.


Elements of the dance form have evolved and the dances have become faster and more acrobatic, costumes jazzier and masks more dramatic. Older masters of the art complain that the dance has lost some of its subtlety in adapting to a younger generation influenced by popular media.

But the greatest threat to the dance is the economic reality of dancers. Purulia is still one of the most impoverished parts of the country. Each year, farmers either take a loan or sell paddy to fund Chhau performances. A dancer makes about `120 per performance which is not enough for survival. What the dancers of Chhau lack in funding and infrastructure, they make up for in passion. As one of the dancer says, “Even if food gets scarce, our houses need renovation, the tradition of dancing Chhau cannot stop or become extinct, else we will become empty soul-less people.”

Text: Anupam Chanda

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