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Chhau dance, also spelled as Chau or Chhau, is a semi classical Indian dance with martial, tribal and folk origins. with origins in the eastern Indian states of Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal. It is found in three styles named after the location where they are performed, ie. the Purulia Chau of Bengal, the Seraikella Chau of Jharkhand, and the Mayurbhanj Chau of Odisha.
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 costumes vary between the styles, with Purulia and Serakeilla using masks to identify the character. The stories enacted by Chhau dancers include those from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Puranas and other Indian literature.
The dance is traditionally an all males troupe, regionally celebrated particularly during spring every year, and may be a syncretic dance form that emerged from a fusion of classical Hindu dances and the traditions of ancient regional tribes. The dance is egalitarian and brings together people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in a festive and religious spirit.
Chhau (Odia: ଛଉ ନୃତ୍ୟ) may be derived from Sanskrit Chāya (shadow, image or mask). Others link it to the Sanskrit root Chadma (disguise), yet others such as Sitakant Mahapatra suggest it is derived from Chhauni (military camp, armor, stealth) in Odia language.
The Chhau dance is mainly performed during festivals in the region of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha, especially the spring festival of Chaitra Parva and in which the whole community participates. The Purulia Chhau dance is celebrated during the Sun festival.
Masks form an integral part of Chhau dance in Purulia and Seraikella styles. The knowledge of dance, music and mask-making is transmitted orally. The Chhau dance found in northern Odisha does not use mask during the dance, but they do when the artists first appear on the stage for introduction to the audience.
The two styles of Chhau dance that use masks, blend within it forms of both dance and martial practices employing mock combat techniques (called khel), stylized gaits of birds and animals (called chalis and topkas) and movements based on the chores of village housewives (called uflis). This form of the Chhau dance, states Mohan Khokar, has no ritual or ceremonial meaning, it is a form of community celebration and entertainment.
The dance is performed by male dancers, at night in an open space, called akhada or asar. The dance is rhythmic and set to traditional folk music, played on the reed pipes mohuri and shehnai. A variety of drums accompany the music ensemble including the dhol (a cylindrical drum), dhumsa (a large kettle drum) and kharka or chad-chadi. The themes for these dances include local legends, folklore and episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and other abstract themes.
The Seraikella Chhau developed in Seraikela, the present day administrative headquarters of the Seraikela Kharsawan district of Jharkhand, the Purulia Chhau in Purulia district of West Bengal and the Mayurbhanj Chhau in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. The most prominent difference among the three subgenres is regarding the use of masks. While, the Seraikela and Purulia subgenres of Chhau use masks during the dance, the Mayurbhanj Chhau uses none.
The Seraikella Chhau's technique and repertoire were developed by the erstwhile nobility of this region who were both its performers and choreographers, and in the modern era people from all backgrounds dance it. The Seraikella Chhau is performed with symbolic masks, and the acting establishes the role the actor is playing. The Purulia Chhau uses extensive masks shaped in the form of the character being played; for example, a lion character has a face mask of lion and body costumes too with the actor walking on all fours. These masks are crafted by potters who make clay images of Hindu gods and goddesses and is primarily sourced from the Purulia district of West Bengal. In the Mayurbhanj Chhau is performed without masks and is technically similar to the Seraikella Chhau.
In 2010 the Chhau dance was inscribed in the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Government of Odisha established a Government Chhau Dance Centre in 1960 in Seraikella and the Mayurbhanj Chhau Nritya Pratisthan at Baripada in 1962. These institutions engage in training involving local gurus, artists, patrons and representatives of Chhau institutions and sponsor performances. The Chaitra Parva festival, significant to the Chhau Dance, is also sponsored by the state government. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has established a National Centre for Chhau Dance at Baripada, Odisha.
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