Chhau - the lyric of the moving body 
by Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
February 8, 2004   

Coming from Seraikella, Hariyana, India, Pt Gopal Prasad Dubey and his team gave the dance lovers of Thrissur in Kerala at the tip of the sub-continent, a distinct cultural experience under the aegis of Thalam, a cultural organization. 

Chhau is a vigorous dance form, an amalgamation of the ritual, tribal, and martial elements presented in an idiom that can be understood and enjoyed by all. The word Chhau, in Sanskrit means mask; it also means shadow. Chhau as a dance drama uses the mask, as its distinctive feature. The elaborate costumes, simple choreography and nature-oriented themes in an idiom of lokadharmi, natural language close to pantomime, make it a globally relevant theatre platform.  And it shapes an ethical attitude. The mask makes the eye capture body movements that convey the theme; the focus shifts to leg-movements that draw patterns in the air. Far removed from the complexity of the classical and the gymnastics of the modern dance forms, Chhau is endowed with a lyrical charm. It takes the viewer back to the days when Life of Man was writ in simple annals.

Radha Krishna
The performance starts in a novel way, with a musical invocation identical to Siva-sthuthi, with the flute and shehnai to the accompaniment of drums and harmonium. Arati too is just praying with light that introduces Chhau as a unique way of perceiving life. The exquisite Radha- Krishna, the eternal man and woman, glide as if in a dream forgetful of life in their love and romance. The fluid movements of the lovers make them part of the swaying Nature. And Krishna giving his flute to Radha every now and then and music flowing from her love is a different perception altogether. The masked dancers seem like figurines stepped out of miniature paintings to dance and freeze on the stage for momentary tableaux. An aura of mystery weaves a pattern blended with the unheard of melody of fluting. 
The Peacock
The lure of the Sea
The Peacock, India's own bird struts about in all her grace, beauty and vanity. The body seems to be the house of movement and rhythm. A fictional body is created by spontaneous energies in an original way. In an atmosphere of rain cast sky, the joy of the bird is contagious. The rains. Yes, it rained gloriously in our hearts! 

"The Lure of the Sea " is another unique theme. In soft light the liquid movements of the dancer paints the enticing charms of the sea: the dancing waves that embrace his heart, the bellowing waves that beckon his soul, its vastness liberating his spirit from a sense of confinement, and its beauty with ominous fascination. That he is lured to seek eternal rest in its depth, that Lord Rama merged in the waters of the river Sarayu, that every drop of water finally reaches the sea, is part of Indian philosophy. 

"Rathri," is a poetic presentation that depicts different aspects of Night: smoothening, terrifying, tranquilizing in its sublime serenity. The onset of twilight carrying light in its heart dims and disappears as darkness descends in majestic strides. But its overwhelming gloom withdraws into a hazy shadow as the moon showers its silver hues. The Night grows and fades with cinematographic lyricism. Three dancers representing twilight, darkness and full- moon create a wonderland of charm. 

"The Hunter" and "The Fisherman" remind us of how life was so simple once upon a time. And "Eklavya" retells the tale of self-made men from the marginalized societies who rise to heroic dimensions.  

With the last piece we experience a leap into our own troubled times of violence. The story of an innocent girl in love with life is driven to seek refuge in death. Chandrabhaga, a young woman is playfully engrossed in the beauty of the seashore near Konark temple, the domain of the Sun god. The Sun god pursues her until she plunges into the sea, her only refuge. 

Folk dances like the Chhau loudly proclaim the rich cultural heritage of India and the need to treasure our diversity. 

The sun god hunting the maiden Chandrabagha
Chhau is a dance drama much talked about among artists interested in the traditional theatre. Pt. Gopal Prasad Dubey, the versatile master of Chhau dance is an internationally known figure. He is also a choreographer working with mainstream cinema as well as with experimental theatre.