TBI Blogs: How the 800-Year-Old Dance Form of Chau Is Being Kept Alive in West Bengal

Chau is a tribal dance in Bengal that has achieved the status of a classical dance, thanks to foresight of its passionate artistes.

It is that time of the year when winter has not yet started its nipping. The excitement of Durga Puja is in the cool air and villagers have gathered around the pandal for a performance that has been two weeks in the making.

It starts with a bang, literally. The first artiste that enters is the character of Ganesha, his moves in sync with the drum beats. Others join him, to the accompaniment of traditional percussions and pipes,  their energetic movements faster than the eye can follow. But the dramatic, unmoving feral mask-faces imprint themselves on the viewer’s mind.

This is the 800-year-old dance, drama and acrobatics of Chau. The performance with the sophisticated masks is the Purulia variation of Chau. The elaborate masks distinguish the Purulia Chau from other forms of the dance performed in Odisha and Jharkand.

Chaou, Milaap Fellowship
Mask makers in Purulia.
Image Courtesy: Saumalya Ghosh

Like the dance form, the masks are created by artisan families. Traditionally made of terracotta, they are today made of a mixture of mud, sand and paper. The masks are painted and adorned, depending on the character they portray. Today, Chau mainly depicts various stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas.

Ajit Chandra Mahato, a 45-year-old postgraduate in Bengali, works as a high school teacher in a local government school in the small village of Kharjhuri, Purulia. Chau has been a part of his family for the last 70 years. He even runs a NGO that supports Purulia Chau dancers.

His father, Durjodhan Mahato was an eminent Chau performer who started around 30 groups in Purulia and performed in 1,800 shows in his lifetime.

Thanks to the work of artistes like Durjodhan, in the last 20 years, Chau has been recognised as a classical Indian dance form.

Performers practicing before the show (Image by Saumalya Ghosh)
Performers practicing before the show
Image Courtesy: Saumalya Ghosh

But in all the 70 years, Mahato says, there has never been a full-time performer. All artistes can dedicate themselves to the art only part-time, but this has never stopped them.

All performers in Ajit’s troupe hold full-time jobs and they make sure to together every day to practise. “Chau requires a years of discipline and training. It is a dance which involves a range of body movements. We practise in my house after work every evening,” he says.

“In my childhood, there was hardly any recognition given to Chau. Determined to find a way out, Chau performers started other businesses to financially sustain the dance. Education was encouraged, so we could learn with time. Today, we can celebrate keeping the dance alive, through thick and thin,” he explains.

It was this ability to grow, Ajit suggests, that helped the dance form gather the support that it has. Even politicians are taking note of the transformative potential of the dance. “The state government is now very supportive of Chau groups. We are asked to create social awareness programs through Chau, in various districts of Bengal,” he says.

For the dancers, state support has meant double the number of performances, a monthly pension and a union of performers.

Purulia Chou practised by the countryside (Image by Saumalya Ghosh)
Purulia Chou practised by the countryside.
Image Courtesy: Saumalya Ghosh

“Earlier, we performed for only four months during festivals. Now we do festivals as well as state-sponsored awareness dances for over eight months,” Ajit says.

The dance itself has synthesised modern elements. The traditional drums and flute are today accompanied by guitars and pianos. Before strictly a male dance, women have also started performing in the last five years.

“We have learnt from the mainstream and tried to use it as much possible. Earlier, we didn’t have speakers, so the performers needed to be very loud. But now, we arrange for speakers in all our performances. They vibrate the air with the narrations and let us focus on movement,” he said.

The transformation of Chau, moulded by education and global influences, has given a new energy and vibrance to the dance in Purulia.

Purulia Chaou performed near the Durga Pandal (Image by Saumalya Ghosh)
Purulia Chau performed near the Durga Pandal (Image by Saumalya Ghosh)

Want to cover inspiring stories of change and make a substantial difference in the social sphere? Then click here to join the Milaap Fellowship Program. 

About the author: Mouli Chatterjee is a Fellow with Milaap, working with Milaap’s partners and borrowers, bringing back true stories of change, hope, and resilience from Bengal.

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