Chaou – an ancient dance form preserved through endless grit | Milaap

Chaou – an ancient dance form preserved through endless grit

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. 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 artist enters the stage in the character of Ganesha with his vibrant moves synchronised with the drum beats.Accompanied by traditional percussion and pipes, their energetic movements are faster than the eye can follow. But the dramatic, unmoving feral mask-faces imprint themselves in the viewer's mind.

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

Traditional mask makers of Purulia. Image by Saumalya Ghosh  

Like the dance form, the masks are created by artisan families. Traditionally made of terracotta, they are today made with mixture of mud, sand and paper. Depending on the character it portrays the masks are painted and adorned. Today, Chaou 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 schoolteacher in the local government school in a small village Kharjhuri, Purulia.Chaou has been a part of his family for the last 70 years. He even runs a NGO that supports Purulia Chaou dancers. He reconstructs the journey of the dance in the last few decades.

His father, Durjodhan Mahato was an eminent Chaou performer who started around 30 groups in Purulia and performed in 1800 shows during his lifetime. Thanks to the work of artists like Durjodhan, in the last 20 years, Chaou has been recognised as a classical Indian dance form. But in all the 70 years, Mahato says, there has never been a full-time performer. Any artist, can dedicate themselves to the art only part-time. But this has never stopped them.

Practice before the performance. Image by Saumalya Ghosh  

All performers in Ajit's troupe hold full time jobs and they make sure to gather every day to practise. “Chaou 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.

The dedication of the dancers as a group motivates them to keep going till change happens. Ajit says, “In my childhood, there was hardly any recognition given for Chaou. Determined to find a way out, Chaou 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 for alive through thick and thin.”

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 Mamata Banerjee government is very supportive of Chaou groups. We are asked to create social awareness programs through Chaou in various districts of Bengal,” he says.

Image by Saumalya Ghosh

For the dancers, state support has meant double the number of performances, a monthly pension and a union of performers. “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 guitar and piano sounds. Earlier 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 performed needed to be very loud. But now we arrange speakers. They vibrate the air with the narrations and let us focus on movement,” Ajit explains.

The final performance. Image by Saumalya Ghosh

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

This article originally appeared in The Better India.