Smashing Patriarchy: The Women Behind India’s Chhau dance

KOLKATA — The year was 1979. Ileana Citaristi, an Italy-born Odissi exponent, had just arrived in India. She was visiting Delhi as her Odissi (a classical Indian dance form) trainer, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, was conducting workshops in the Indian capital.

One day, she walked into a room at Delhi’s Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra (an Indian cultural institution) and was mesmerized by an Indian woman dancing beautifully.

“An old man was also there, playing the drum,” remembers Citaristi, “I didn’t know which dance form she was practising. The performers then explained to me that she was performing Chhau from Odisha.”

Ileana Citaristi performs Mayurbhanj Chhau. (Ileana Citaristi)

That awe-inspiring performance by Madhuri Bhatia, one of India’s best known Chhau dancers, prompted Citaristi to learn the martial arts-based semi-classical dance that originated in eastern India more than 150 years ago and was incorporated in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

Women Chhau dancers were regarded as “exceptional cases” in those days. But not anymore, thanks to a number of trailblazers in the world of Chhau who have, over the years, inspired scores of women – both rural and urban – to take up the dance form as a profession.

“When I started, there were hardly any women Chhau performers,” says Citaristi, who became the first dancer of foreign descent to be awarded Padma Shri, one of the highest Indian civilian honours, in 2006. “Over the past 10 years or so, more and more women seem to be taking centre stage.”

Take Mousumi Choudhury, who is credited with starting the first all-women Chhau group, Mitali Chhau Maldi, in the Purulia district of the east Indian state of West Bengal in 2010. She was barely a teenager at the time.

Mousumi Choudhury of West Bengal’s Maldi village is credited with starting the all-women group trend in Purulia. (Mousumi Choudhury)

“After I started the trend of all-women groups in 2010, more and more girls in Purulia started learning Chhau. Now, there are 10-12 such groups in our district,” says Choudhury, who has been trained by her father, Jagannath Choudhury, a Purulia-based Chhau artiste.

Subhasree Mukherjee, born and brought up in Odisha’s Baripada, home to Mayurbhanj Chhau, is another trendsetter who has shattered patriarchal conventions in the dance domain. She stormed the male bastion in 1993-94 as a 15-year-old.

Subhasree Mukherjee performs during a Mayurbhanj Chhau show (Subhasree Mukherjee)

“When I started in the 1990s, I didn’t find a single woman in the Baripada akhada (training centre) where I was learning Chhau. I trained with boys who used to play Durga and Kali (Indian goddesses) in the dance dramas,” says Mukherjee, who is associated with Project Chhauni, dedicated to preserving the heritage of Mayurbhanj Chhau by training local artistes and facilitating performances all over the world.

“Although statistics regarding the current number of women Chhau dancers in India are hard to come by, there’s no denying the fact that more and more women are coming forward in Odisha and elsewhere to pursue the indigenous dance form.”

The number of women (rural and urban) learning and performing Chhau has also increased manifold in Jharkhand, according to Tapan Pattnayak, director of the Seraikella Chhau Academy in the east Indian state.

“There are some all-women groups, too, and they perform the male characters in productions as well,” he says, adding that as the head of the academy, he threw open the Chhau institute’s doors to girl students way back in 1995.

Mousumi Choudhury with her co-performers in Purulia. (Mousumi Choudhury)

Recently, women Chhau dancers were part of COVID-19 awareness initiatives helmed by Pattnayak in Jharkhand. This was unthinkable even a few years ago when male dancers would dominate the arena, playing women characters in the dance pieces, according to the Seraikella Chhau Academy director.

Tribal-dominated areas of Purulia, Seraikella, and Mayurbhanj in West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Odisha, respectively, are considered Chhau strongholds.

Accordingly, the dance form broadly comprises three sub-genres — Purulia Chhau, Seraikella Chhau, and Mayurbhanj Chhau. The first two schools are famous for their use of a wide variety of larger-than-life masks to identify with the characters artistes play during performances. Masks aren’t the sine qua non of the Mayurbhanj form. Although the dance is traditionally performed in spring with shows peaking during Chaitra Parab (spring festival), Chhau recitals are now held throughout the year across India and are also part of various international cultural festivals.

All the three Chhau forms are known to be deriving their narratives from Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and mythological texts. Of course, there are experimentations with contemporary topics as well.

Subhasree Mukherjee started learning Chhau at the age of 15 years. (Subhasree Mukherjee)

Another common aspect is that all the three schools demand strenuous body movements from its dancers – leaps, jumps, and somersaults are part and parcel of Chhau, which traces its origins to the martial practices of Indian sepoys in the 19th century. This is one of the reasons why women have been discouraged to pursue the dance form over generations, according to Chhau exponents.

“It was believed that Chhau demanded extreme physical effort (apart from the jumps and somersaults, heavy props like swords and shields are also used) and, hence, women shouldn’t be encouraged to perform this,” says Mukherjee.

Smashing patriarchy in the world of Chhau hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk for women performers. Kolkata-based Chhau dancer Madhumita Paul started in 1999, living and learning Chhau in Purulia for several years.

“My trainer, who was a pioneer in the field as he had introduced several modern techniques in the Purulia Chhau form, used to address me as ‘betachhele’ (a Bengali colloquial word meaning ‘a man’) initially,” remembers Paul, who also trains women keen on becoming Chhau performers. “It was difficult for him to accept a woman as a trainee at that time. After much coaxing and cajoling, he agreed to teach me.”

Citaristi was once stopped from performing a Shiva Tandava (dance of destruction by Lord Shiva) Chhau piece during Chaitra Parab in Baripada. “I don’t know if it was entirely because I was a woman or because I was not a person of the soil; I think both factors worked,” recalls Citaristi.

Dancers of Project Chhauni, dedicated to preserving the Mayurbhanj Chhau heritage, during a show. (Project Chhauni)

Choudhury feels that with the steady rise of women Chhau dancers, the mindset is slowly changing. “In my district, people now appreciate my achievements and are certainly accepting the fact that women Chhau dancers can be as skilled as their male counterparts,” says Choudhury, who won the Grand Prize at the 2019 Asia-Pacific Youth ICH Storytelling Contest, organised by UNESCO.

All efforts should be made to generate more and more interest in Chhau, Citaristi says. “It is a product of the soil and unique in the panorama of Indian dance,” she says. “It is a form that is nearer to original Indian martial arts.”

Greater participation of women in Chhau has to be encouraged, Pattnayak says, because we believe in women empowerment and gender equality in all fields.

(Edited by Anindita Ghosh and Uttaran Dasgupta)

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