Folklore material as subjects of philosophy 
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai

June 4, 2006 


"What is freedom?" is a lecture series by M D Muthukumaraswamy, the director of National Folklore Support Centre based in Chennai. The lecture series intends to show how folklore material as subjects of philosophy can invigorate social sciences and humanities. The second lecture in the series on 'Deconstructing structures of belief' took place on May 17, 2006 at the NFSC premises. 

An old performance photo of 'Ratri Shukta' collected from the town of Seraikella 
by M D Muthukumaraswamy during his field work in 2001 

The subject of Muthukumaraswamy's research for the second lecture is Seraikella Chhau. NFSC had conducted a workshop by Tapan Kumar Pattanayak, Director, Government Chhau Dance Centre, Seraikella, in September 2003 at the Alliance Francaise, Chennai. An 8 minute documentation clipping of the workshop and a duet 'Ratri' (Night) based on a Vedic hymn were screened. The dancer in black symbolises the night, the dancer in white is the moon and the duet is about the romance of the night and the moon. 

Muthukumaraswamy gave a brief introduction to the history and movement vocabulary of Seraikella Chhau. He finds Seraikella Chhau fascinating because it is a masked dance, where the body movements create a visual language. The original repertoire did not have spoken words or songs and the dancers communicated to pure instrumental music. In recent years, performances are done to folk songs.  
The 3 styles of Chhau are Seraikella (in Jharkand), Purulia (West Bengal) and Mayurbhanj (Orissa). Their location in three different States is a development resulting from the reorganization of Indian States after India got independence in 1947. While the Purulia and Mayurbhanj Chau are militant and vibrant in movement, Seraikella Chhau is more lyrical and never militant.  

Seraikella was originally located in district Singhbhum in the Indian state of Bihar. The literal meaning of Singhbhum is 'Land of Lions.' It is said that in the past large number of lions were found in this area. Singhbhum was ruled by the Singh royal family, so it also means land of the Singh kings. That district has in the recent decade been divided into three smaller districts - East Singhbhum, West Singhbhum and Seraikella Kharsawan. All are currently part of Jharkhand state. 

During the British rule in India, the rulers of Seraikella signed a treaty with the British and continued to enjoy their freedom including celebration of religious rites. Not being exposed to external influences helped the art and customs to flourish. The patrons and teachers were the royalty, so the royal court of Seraikella was instrumental in helping to protect and promote the form. 

To perfect different fighting tactics and strategies as well as develop control over one's physique, Parikhanda or the war dance with shields and swords was developed. The Chhau movements are based on Parikhanda and on animal and bird imagery, such as elephant, tiger, crane, fish, horse, deer, snake and goat - a phenomenon common to other Asian martial arts. Some movements are inspired by the daily chores of a housewife like sweeping the floor, sprinkling of water, husking paddy, pounding rice, making ritual designs on the floor, bathing in the river, etc as well as the routine of a farmer in the field. The dancer's identity and sex are concealed on account of the mask worn when performing, so the mask holds the dominant rasa and the body projects the bhava (mood). Since the mask and headgear, music, costume and the dancer's expertise form the heart of the presentation, it is important to compose a visually, appealing picture without words. 

After the introduction, Muthukumaraswamy dealt with the premise that belief creates and causes agency in human beings and that belief belongs to the realm of 'semiotic.' His research work is focussed on how folk dances work as conduits for beliefs to transition to the realm of the 'symbolic.' Bulgarian philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva's most important proposition is her idea of the 'semiotic.' "For Kristeva, the 'semiotic' as the discharge of bodily drive is associated with the maternal body, rhythms, tones and the movement of signifying practices, whereas the 'symbolic' is associated with the grammar and structure of signification. Similarly Chhau begins in the motherly space of wordlessness immediately after the deluge. The Seraikella rituals organize time and space as a movement from the cares of the mother to the abandonment to the rules of the father by providing contexts and frameworks for the dance to depict the paleontological imagination of the Hindus."   

The repertoire of Seraikella Chhau is based on Indian myths and legends and regional folklore. Illustrating his thesis with the field data on Spring Festival rituals and the masked dance of Seraikella, Muthukumaraswamy elaborated on how the entire Hindu belief system presents itself so thoroughly within a 5 day festival of rituals and dance performances. Seraikella is a small town on the bank of the river Kharkai. Every year in the month of April (Chaitra), the Basant Utsav or Spring festival takes place when everyone takes part in the festivities. In many regions in India, New Year is celebrated on varying dates in April.   
A 13 day preparation precedes the Basant Utsav. The idea is that the world is coming to an end and is re-created. On the first day, the dances start after invocation of Lord Shiva and elaborate rituals are offered to Shiva and his consort Shakti. 'Chhau' means shadow and could mean "I dance as the shadow of Shiva." The 2nd day is treated as the 2nd Yuga. Episodes from the Ramayana are presented, especially how Hanuman destroys Ravana's gardens where Sita is held captive. The 3rd day features episodes from the Mahabaratha, especially dances about Krishna and the gopis. The 4th day signifies start of the Kaliyuga and dances presented on 4th and 5th days are on sociological themes. 

In short, the Chaitra Parva / Basant Panchami festival acts as conduit for Hindu beliefs to transition from the realm of 'semiotic' to the realm of the 'symbolic.'