Chhau dance is a popular form of tribal dance that integrates martial arts into its movements. The majestic performance is a must watch at least once in your life…


Listed in UNESCO’s world heritage list of dances, the Chhau Dance belongs to the people residing in the eastern parts of India. It is a tribal martial dance known for its vigour and vitality, predominantly practised in the states of Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal. There is not much difference in the dance forms in these different geographic locations; they are mostly characterised by the look and dance style. The folk dancers use sword, bow, or shield which demonstrates the dancer’s dexterity. The dance brings together people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds in a festive and religious spirit.

Chhau’s Origin
The Chhau Dance is believed to have many origins. Perhaps, it has originated from the martial dance Phari Khanda Khela which involves playing with a sword and shield. Some even believe that the word ‘Chhau’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Chhaya’ meaning ‘shadow or image’ and it is therefore performed to influence Sun God. Chhau also means ‘mask’ because the dance is performed by wearing a mask. The narrative of Dance includes the depiction of birds, animals and other epic characters. There is another interpretation from Oriya language, where the meaning of three colloquial terms gives the perfect interpretation: ‘Chhauka’ – the quality of attacking stealthily; ‘Chhari’ – an armour and ‘Chhauni’ – military camp.The Chhau Dance is usually performed during important ceremonies – Gajan and the Sun Festival. Mostly, these dances are performed on the floor and the performers recreate a magical enactment for the audience as they sit in a circle or a semi-circle around them to watch the performance. As the dance is considered to be sacred, the participants take a bath and perform certain holy rituals before the performance starts. The dance mostly happens at night in an open area which is lit by fire poles called ‘mashaals.’

The dancers wear a mask and different moods are shown through various body movements. The costume and music are an important part of the performance. The rhythms are traditional and various musical instruments are used but drums are considered as an important part of the performance. The dance begins with the invocation to Lord Ganesha by beating the traditional drums. The dance starts with the impersonation of Lord Ganesha along with other mythical and natural characters like other Gods, demons, animals and birds.

The Chhau can be described as a colourful dance with various bright colourful costumes being used. The style and variety of the costume of the dancers largely depends upon the characters being portrayed by them. Different colours are used by the dancers playing the roles of Gods and for those playing the roles of demons. Goddess Kali has a black costume. In order to create a distinct identity, the characters of animals and birds use suitable type of masks and costumes.

purulia-chhauDifferent Styles
The dance is found in three different styles named after the location where they are performed. The styles are –
Purulia Chau of Bengal – This is known for its energetic and dramatic characteristics. Asura masks are used that have fierce countenance and are painted bright green and red.
Seraikella Chau of Jharkhand – The dancers cover their face with mask and emphasize on expressing their Rasa (sentiments) and Bhav (mood) through body movements. There is no emphasis on Drishti Bhedo (movements of the eye and glances).
Mayurbhanj Chau of Odisha – This is different from other dance forms as it is performed without masks and has highly evolved techniques of its own.
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 and sponsor performances. The Chaitra Parva festival, significant to the Chhau Dance, is also sponsored by the Odisha State Government. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has established a National Centre for Chhau Dance at Baripada, Odisha.
In 2010, the Chhau Dance was inscribed in the UNESCO‘s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Chhau Dance and Research Centre
With an aim to re-establish this age-old art, ‘The Chhau Dance and Research Centre’ was inaugurated at Chandankiyari in Bokaro district, Jharkhand. The Centre will facilitate the development of research initiatives and give a new boost to this traditional dance. This research centre will cover three eastern states of the country including Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal for the promotion and research of Chhau Dance.
Natya Veda
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created the fifth scripture in addition to the four vedas, which is the Natya Veda. Certain elements from all the four Vedas were taken to create the fifth veda: speech from the Rig Veda, Abhinaya (speech, body, dress and facial expressions) from the Yajur Veda, music from the Sama Veda and aesthetic experiences from the Atharva Veda. Chhau is one such dance which reflects all these elements.
Chhau Mask
The beauty of the Chhau Dance depends on the masks they use. Made of paper, mud and clay the masks are painted to give bold look; the eye- brows, mouth, and eyes are painted to give those special effects. You can buy the masks; they are even available online. You can use them for the Chhau Dance being organized locally in your area. These colourful masks can be used to decorate your home or can be given away as gifts. The epic characters symbolise the Indian culture. The vibrant colours of the mask will add to the beauty of your home.

The themes for these dances include local legends, folklore and episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and other abstract themes. The Dance has evolved over the years – from showcasing the mythologies of the Jain and the Buddhist era, to the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Sometimes a few episodes of Indian Puranas are also depicted. The Dance requires lot of energy and vigorous movements throughout. Though there is no discrimination against women to perform the dance, it is usually performed by men and boys as Chhau requires a lot of energy and is difficult to dance that long wearing a mask.