The Chho Dance of Purulia and the Politics of Authenticity

The Chho Dance of Purulia and the Politics of Authenticity

Roma Chatterji

In this paper I address a conundrum that was a source of great puzzlement for me when I was researching the performative traditions of Purulia – how does the chho[1] dance maintain its popularity with its local audience?  This is an important question especially if one compares it with other dance forms in the region which seem to be in danger of extinction. We can address this question at two levels:- 1)We can turn to the history of the dance – to the forms of patronage that have perhaps influenced the shape that it has come to acquire. Thus at one time the chho was danced in the courts of the local rajas and zamindars and acquired several attractive attributes such as story based compositions and masks from that period. This later made it accessible to audiences who were unfamiliar with the form and it was picked up for circulation in state as well as international festivals.[2] This added to its popularity back home. 2) We can also examine the dance form per se – does its appeal lie in its responsiveness to novelty – to its ability to adapt to popular culture? I will take up both possibilities for discussion but I turn first to a consideration of the unique status that the chho has achieved in Purulia itself and in West Bengal.

The chho dance of Purulia was ‘discovered’ in the late 1960s by Ashutosh Bhattacharya. He has described his first experience of the dance and the way in which he brought itto the attention of the outside world in many of his writings. The following excerpt is taken from the introduction to a publicity pamphlet that contains the reviews of the dance performances held in the USA in 1975.

It has been my practice and hobby for many years past to visit the most interior parts of villages of Bengal in search of original materials for the study of folk-literature of Bengal. In 1961 I visited Purulia. Only a few years back the district of Purulia was formed with the Bengali-speaking population of the now-defunct district of Manbhum and was joined with the state of West Bengal on a linguistic and cultural basis. It was summer time and during the night I heard the beat of drums coming from all directions. I was told that a dance known as chhau dance was performed during this season and the beating of drums showed that the dance was being held everywhere in the villages with the accompaniment of its usual music. At midnight I with a batch of my students arrived at a village where the dance was in progress and I was immediately surprised by its novelty. Thenceforward, I devoted my field study to this novel form of dance hitherto unknown to the world outside.

I attracted the notice of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi– to this form of dance. It took immediate interest and invited me to give performances of the dance in New Delhi.In June 1969, I visited New Delhi with a batch of 40 village artists for the first time outside their native district. Performances were held there before very distinguished Indian and foreign invitees in the open lawn of Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi. Performances were also shown in T.V. in Delhi.(Only three years later it was also shown in B.B.C. television in London and five years later in New York U.S.A.).

At the encouragement of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, arrangement was also made for training of some artists at their villages. Since then the annual Chhau Festival in Purulia during the middle of April has become a regular feature. Even Smt. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, has taken interest in the Annual Festival. It has been attended so far by a number of foreign dance-critics from almost every part of the world. Due mainly to their interest in the dance, invitations also come from far off countries.

                                                                     (Bhattacharya1975: 2-3)

Since this was written, the ‘Chho Dance of Purulia’ has become a symbol of West Bengal’s tribal Other – performed in all kinds of public forums, portrayed in literary and art works.[3]  In this paper I shall explore some of the discourses in which the chho is inscribed and describe the ways in which these discourses also build notions of ‘tribe’into the dance itself.

Purulia Chho and Authentic Tradition

Three different types of discourses have emerged around the dance in recent years - academic, activist and performative. Each of these strives to constitute a particular tradition in which to embed the dance and thus give its form a certain ‘authenticity’.First, for scholars like Ashutosh Bhattacharya, the doyen of folklore studies in Bengal, the ‘aboriginal’ culture of Purulia is still visible beneath the thin veil of Hinduism. He tries to prove that the chho is essentially a tribal war dance that acquired a Hindu veneer when it came under the patronage of the local chieftains who had themselves only recently been sanskritised. Other scholars, taking issue with the condescending tone of Bhattacharya’s writings,do not differ from him on the basic framework within which the dance is placed.Thus they also characterize the dance as tribal and magical and like Bhattacharya, they assume homogeneity in the cultural forms found in the tribes of Jharkhand with which Purulia has affinity. However, as distinct from Bhattacharya they treat tribal culture as superior to the Hinduization that the dance has undergone. Much of this writing pre – dates the formation of the state of Jharkhand so that the latter is seen as a cultural rather than apolitical entity (Mahato 1978). Interestingly, some recent articles published from Calcutta (now Kolkata) locate the dance within an alternative Bengali tradition that seeks to establish a continuum between an ancient pan – Indian shastric tradition and a desi, regional or folk tradition that bypasses both the medieval as well as the colonial period of Bengal’s history (Roychaudhury 1996).

The search for the ‘authentic tradition’ of the dance by folklorists is based on the notion of an original source. This leads to a division between the essential tribal aspect of the dance located in the music and the pattern of movements and the later accretions, that is, the narrative themes that are the subjects of the performances. The latter are thought to be a result of the slow process of acculturation that took place when these tribal groups came into contact with Hindu culture. For the dancers with whom I interacted in the course of my fieldwork there was no such dichotomy, for though they conceded that the form of the dance has altered to include narratives from the sacred Hindu texts, they considered the musical tradition on which this dance is based to have its source in these texts. For example, the late Gambhir Singh Mura, one of the most renowned exponents of Purulia chho, told me that it was only the shastras (sacred texts) that revealed the rasa (flavour), tala (rhythm), chala (gait, movement) and bhongi (style) of the dance. It is not accidental that one of the recent articles that seek to locate the fragments of a lost tradition of classical dance in Bengal is based on intensive interviews with Gambhir Singh Mura. However, Gambhir Singh never resisted outside influences if they were compatible with the mood of the themes that he danced. Whereas for scholars of folklore the question of authenticity of the dance is tied up with its ‘original’ form, for the dancers themselves, the dance is continuously evolving.

The Dance Performance

The chho is a ‘folk’ dance,that is, it belongs to a tradition that is not elaborately codified. The performance has been described as having a particular episodic structure: the introduction of each character in sequence, the build up to the battle, the battle and the victory dance (Natih 1985). While this may describe the sequence in which the dance episode unfolds, it does not do justice to the polyphonic nature of the performance. What the dance seeks to do is not so much narrate a story that already exists in different forms in other texts, but to present a series of images that are strung together by the music. The dancers wear masks that portray the dominant moods of the characters they are supposed to represent. The masks of the gods (devas) are painted in pastel shades and have features that are delicately modeled showing expressions that are serene or benign. The masks of the demons (asuras) have bulging eyes and snarling lips and are painted in colours that are darker than those representing the gods. The hand gestures used by the dancers are natural though exaggerated. They do not express the moods (bhava) of the characters.This is done in terms of the styles of movement displayed through the torso,the legs and the arms. Some of the important styles of movement that portray the major characters are as follows:

The heroic gait (bir chala) inwhich the dancer takes rapid steps in a half crouched position, interspersed with high leaps, somersaults (both movements are referred to by the same term,‘ulfa’) and rotations on one heal (edi ghora). The great gods like Siva, Durga and Kali are portrayed through the deb chala (the gait of the gods). In comparison with the former gait there is far less emphasis onmovement in this one. The dancers enter the dance arena with a stately shuffle and take up statuesque poses modeled on the iconography associated with temple images. There are also various animal gaits, for example, the bandor chalaor monkey gait. The dancer moves with a half crouching, elongated step, legs stretched out, and arms pushed away from the body and bent at the elbows. The torso juts forward and moves to incorporate the movement of the tail that is attached to the waist, into the dance. This is a difficult gait to perform. The dancer must convey a disjointed grace and yet his movements must not be jerky.This gait is also associated with the comic mood.

Each of these gaits is associated with a character type and a dance episode will always portray a set of such character types so that there is an interweaving of different styles of movement. The characters are classified on the basis of the moods (bhava) they embody. These are largely the heroic, the godly and the comic as we have shown.

A character type is not continuous with the personalities found in the sacred narratives. These personalities may display a number of conflicting moods, which may be displayed in different episodes of the dance. Thus Lord Shiva, a great god, is visually portrayed through the godly gait except in one episode in which he is disguised as a hunter, and performs the heroic gait. Although the audience is familiar with the entire corpus of narratives in which Shiva is portrayed as a god, the use of the heroic gait marks out a particular moment in this corpus in which Shiva disguised himself as a hunter in order to test Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata. The point is that the audience knows before hand that at the end of the narrative, the disguised hunter will reveal himself as Shiva, but the dance must portray the character that Lord Shiva adopts for this particular episode rather than portray his godly character which is known to all.Similarly there are demons that are portrayed in the heroic style. In some cases demonic characters may embody the comic type when they bear some resemblance to the animal characters in the disjointed style of their movement.

The instruments used as accompaniments for the dance are as follows:

          The dhol, a barrel shaped drum played with the palm of the left hand and a stick held in the right. There are usually two dhols in a particular dance episode. They lead the dancers and there is a conversation between the dhols and the dancers.

           The dhamsha or nagra,a huge bowl shaped kettle drum played with two heavy and blunt sticks. The dhamsha has a deep and throbbing sound.

          The shaina or shahnai, a wind instrument with a high wailing sound.

The basic rhythm (tala) for the dancers is provided by the dhols. The rhythm cycle is usually composed of a pattern of four beats grouped into sections of two. The tempo (laya) varies in the different phases of the performance. The shaina provides the melody (sura). It is usually played in the pauses that signal a movement in the narrative – either the exit of one character and the entrance of another or a shift to another phase of the story being enacted. Since no stage sets are used in the performance, shifts in location are marked by a slight pause in the dance that is filled up by the music of the shaina. The dhamsha is used only at certain moments in the performance – during the battle scene or during moments of dramatic climax.

These are the instruments that have traditionally accompanied the chho dance. There are some others that have been added in more recent times such as the kaurnet or clarinet.This instrument can produce a soft rippling note and is sometimes used to create suspense in the pauses between particular dance sequences. There is also the banshi or flute that is used in episodes that involve Krishna or those that have forest settings[4]. I have also heard the singa[5] or horn and the bugle being used, but these are still quite uncommon. The dance arena (ashor) is marked out with wooden posts. It is hard, dry ground usually near the Shiva temple. Petromax lamps are used to illuminate the arena. The dancers use a minimum of props, other than the elaborate masks that they wear and the gold and silver embroidered costumes. The space around the arena is left empty for the audience to sit. As the evening progresses and the excitement mounts, more and more people enter the arena, to sit where they can get a better view of the dancers. The machhas– string cots hoisted on long poles, form a semi circular gallery behind the seating area on the ground.

Let us now turn to the performance.It usually begins at around eleven o’clock at night and carries on until daybreak. There is a burst of music as the troupe approaches the area where the dance is to be held. The drummers announce their arrival with frenzied drumbeats, the wind instruments wail and the masks are held aloft and shaken till they quiver. The musicians circumambulate the arena, playing their instruments.This is called the tal bhanga. It helps to ‘set’ the ashor (ashor jaumano) – to create the necessary excitement for the dances that will follow. The music frames the dance, dissociating the space and the time of the dance from the other activities that are going on side – by – side in the temple precincts.

As the musicians enter the arena for the tal bhanga, the dhol players prance backwards and forwards, beating their drums and uttering short, sharp exclamations of “chhau”.The dhamsha and shaina players walk around the arena and then either sit or stand on one side and play. Then the singer comes in and welcomes the audience to the performance with a special jhumur song.

Shuno, shuno shaubagaun, shaube kori nibedaun

Hamra din hin aubhagaun he

Apnader amontron pe, hoya anondito mone

Hamra ekhane korechi agomaun he

Shuno, shuno bondhugaun

Oh listen, all you assembled here, accept our offering

We are poor and unfit

Having received your invitation, with gladdened hearts

We have come here

Oh listen all you friends

After this the singer may immediately begin another jhumur to introduce the dance that is to follow.However, before I actually give the song and describe the episode that it introduces, I will briefly summarize the story on which it is based. The story, Parashurama’s sighting of his guru, Lord Shiva (Parashuramer Guru Darshana), is popularly used to begin dance performances because it incorporates an invocation (vandana) to Lord Ganesha. Ganesha is traditionally worshipped before the beginning of new ventures and all performances begin with an invocation to Ganesha.

The story is as follows: Shiva and Durga retire to their private abode in the Kailash mountain, having instructed their son, Ganesha, to stand guard outside to prevent intruders from disturbing them. Parashurama, a hot tempered ascetic, chooses this moment to visit Kailash and demands a meeting with his guru, Lord Shiva. Ganesha, in an excess of zeal, tries to use force to prevent him from entering his parents’ abode,but Parashurama defeats him with contemptuous ease. Kartikeya comes to the aid of his younger brother, Ganesha, but he too is unsuccessful in stopping Parashurama. Finally, it is Shiva himself, awakened by the sound of battle, who succeeds in vanquishing him. But in the process Parashurama achieves the purpose of his mission, a sighting (darshana) of Lord Shiva.

The jhumur song that is sung at the beginning of this episode is given below.

Age te baundona kori Gaunesh gaujanaun

Tarpaure baundona kori Shibero chauron

Tarpaure baundona kori Kartik chudanaun

Tarpaure baundona kori Pauroshuramo debogaun

Tarpaure baundono kori jauto debogaun

Nomo, nomo Narayaun

Sinduro baurono aungo, mushiko bahon

Shaukol shidhidata, hauro Gouriro naundon

First, I invoke Ganesha, theelephant headed

Then I invoke the feet of Shiva

Then I invoke Kartikeya, whosehead is adorned with a crown

Then I invoke Parashurama andother gods

Then I invoke all gods inexistence

Narayana, I salute you

With vermilion hued body, whosevehicle is the mouse

Who grants all wishes, the son of Hara (Shiva) and Gauri (Durga)

 By the time the song has ended Ganesha has taken up position at the entrance, half crouched, one leg extended, shoulders quivering expectantly.

The dhols begin a steady beat as Ganesha advances, pacing. He crouches, moves his head to display the mask,an elephant head with a halo around it, decorated with tinsel beads and small plastic flowers. This is the chhauk or display. It is followed by a few degs, that is, a series of jumps that end in the crouched position with the right leg extended. By this time the dhols have increased their tempo.

As Ganesha slows down to the udamalaut– pacing around the arena with a deep knee - bending walk, the dhols also slow down to a measured beat. Ganesha does ulfas (high leaps), bahimnauka (the quivering of the shoulders especially associated with the heroic gait) and edi ghora (turning on the heel). Each time the dancer completes a particular sequence of steps, the dhols stop and the dhol players shout “chhau[6].

At this point in the performance Ganesha, frozen in one pose, is ritually worshipped (arati). This is the real invocation and Ganesha at this moment is set apart from the role that he has in the episode that follows. It appears that this worshipping is a recent interpolation in the dance episode. This is clearly marked by the music for the dhols and the shaina stop playing, giving way to the kaurnet or clarinet on which a Hindi film tune is played. Also, the dancer who enacts the role of devotee worshipping Ganesha dances in a style modeled on the dance sequences from popular Hindi films with elaborate hip swinging movements not otherwise found in the chho dance[7]. After this the episode continues.

Kartikeya, as befitting the commander– in – chief of the gods’ army, enters in a burst of peacock feathers. His dance is even more vigorous than that of Ganesha. He has peacock feathers attached to his mask and costume. This is known as the ‘false Kartikeya dance’(naukol kartiker nach). It is not necessary for the unfolding of the story but only added to the dance episode more to show off the skill of the dancer and the splendour of his costume.

A roll of drums beats (dhamsha and dhol) announce Shiva’s entrance. He takes the Nataraja (the Lord of the Dance) pose with a trident in one hand. His dance consists of sudden movements followed by a swing back to immobility.

Shiva instructs Ganesha to stand guard while he retires to his own abode in Mount Kailasa. Nandi and Bhringi (Shiva’s demonic followers) are to help him. Nandi and Bhringi are comic characters with grotesque masks. They adopt a splay footed gait,swinging their hips like puppets. They perform a caricature of the heroic gait,yet with an awkwardness that is more characteristic of the animal gait. Shiva,Ganesha and Kartikeya use natural hand gestures, so Shiva points his finger asif in instruction. This provides narrative continuity, but the sudden switch from Shiva’s statuesque pose to this pause can seem incongruous to the outsider.

There is another roll of drums in anticipation of Parashurama’s entrance. He enters with nonchalance and makes a mocking gesture at Nandi and Bhringi, who try to take up menacing postures. He pushes them back, scornfully. The pace quickens as Ganesha enters the arena.The war beat drummed out by the dhamsha drowns the dhols and the shaina as Parashurama defeats first Ganesha and then Kartikeya, who comes to his brother’s help, in a series of wild ulfas that threaten almost to breakthrough the boundaries of the arena. As the music reaches a crescendo Durga enters with her vehicle the lion and then Shiva. The battle draws to a close and the shaina player plays the tune of the devotional song Raghupati, Raghava, Raja Ram, to mark the reconciliation. Parashurama has achieved what he came for – Shiva’s darshana. All the characters shake hands. Then the other gods come in and all the dancers dance the mel chho to celebrate the peace. (The mel chho is a group dance in which all the dancers synchronise their steps.) The end of the dance is fast and heavy, and the air is thick with dust. The words of the songs that are sung and the style of the singing all make the performance a patchwork of different tonalities. As we saw, the dancers enter the arena on a note of challenge – the tal bhanga. But this changes to supplication with the invocatory jhumur. The dance is offered as a gift to the audience.Therefore the performance always begins with a Ganesha vandana but the episode that has been described here is not particularly complimentary to Ganesha.His first dance that ends with the arati is set apart from the rest of the dance, in which he is shown to be an inexperienced warrior easily overcome by the seasoned Parashurama. And the war scene is mixed with comic elements.Thus even at the height of battle when Shiva and Durga enter the arena to support their sons against Parashurama there is a side play in which Nandi and Bhringi try to pull the lion’s tail and fall back in alarm when it pounces on them.

Purists like Bhattacharya have deplored the assimilation of inauthentic elements in the dance – novel gestures like the handshake between Parashurama and Ganesha in the episode described above for example, or pieces of popular film music. However, if we view the dance not as a single homogeneous entity but as a composition of heterogeneous pieces, we see that these novel elements do fit into the overall structure of the dance. Take the example of the handshake, which has become one possible mode of greeting among men. The dance transforms it into a gesture that symbolizes the peaceful resolution of the conflict. The fact that this gesture is accompanied by the tune of a devotional song made popular by Mahatma Gandhi, a symbol of nonviolence himself, is singularly apt. Again, take the Hindi film song sung at the time of the worshipping of Ganesha. It seems slightly incongruous coming as it does at that point in the performance, soon after the rhythmic beat of the dhol. Yet the structure of the dance allows for sudden breaks in the musical rhythm and, thematically at least, the song complements the ideas expressed in the invocatory jhumur; since the words of the song, “Let the evil eye not fall on my beloved’s face” (teri pyari pyari surat ko kisi ki nazar na lage) though originally addressed to the romantic heroine by the hero in the film Chaudhvinke Chand can also be interpreted at a more spiritual level to refer to the relationship between God and his/her devotee. Not only does the performance allow for direct audience participation by shaping itself in terms of the response of the spectators but in a fundamental sense the dance also acknowledges their life world by incorporating musical elements like popular film songs into its structure. Together, both spectators and dancers create the performance. Meaning is generated playfully in the spirit of lila (divine play), which is the goal of all ritual performances in this culture.

 ‘The Primitive War Dance’: Ashutosh Bhattacharya’s Representation of the Chho

In the previous section I tried to enter the field of performance by presenting an ethnographic description of one particular enactment. I will now move to another register and for the rest of the paper will deal only with the way in which the dance enters written discourse. By describing one particular performance in detail I have tried to highlight a crucial element – the dance presents a series of iconic images that are polysemic in nature. No written discourse can capture the fullness of the images presented. But even this statement is loaded, emerging as it is from a particular disciplinary perspective on culture and community. I am aware that my description assumes that this dance form is culturally distinctive and is therefore embedded in a bounded community whose members all partake of a system of shared symbolic meaning. Thus even accretions like the introduction of Hindi film songs and so on are integrated seamlessly into the dance form making it an organic whole. However, my purpose in this paper is not to present a critique of anthropological representation but rather to describe the process by which the dance form circulates in a public sphere via the written discourses of folklorists like Ashutosh Bhattacharya.

Ashutosh Bhattacharya and those who come after him have tried to construct a history for the dance. This ‘history’ is not an objective or a chronological account of the dance but rather one particular mode of creating intelligibility. It has its own imaginative tropes. His writings on Purulia chhoare numerous and address many different types of publics, ranging from fellow folklorists, to students of Bangla literature and even to uninformed audiences who might be watching Purulia chho for the first time. (In fact, he is as famous for his role as an impresario who was the first to expose this dance to audiences abroad as he is as a specialist on the folk culture of Bengal.) However in spite of their range, his writings on Purulia chho are remarkably homogeneous and revolve around a few themes, which I will try and summarize.

He calls it a “ritualistic and calendrical” dance performed before, “the village shrine with the purpose to induce the primitive sun god (now Hinduized to Siva) to produce more rain for agricultural purposes”. (Bhattacharya 1975:10). Bhattacharya’s hypothesis is that the chho originated with the Doms. This group, he says once formed the infantry of the local chieftains of this region but were forced to disband and were reduced to their present status when the British pacified this region in the eighteenth century. Then he goes on to say that, “A local tribal chief who ultimately rose to the status of a Raja was a great patron of this dance. In his zeal to spread Hinduism over his people he introduced the Hindu legends from the epics into the theme of the primitive war dance” (1975: 11).

He also develops on the theme of the chho or as heterms it the ‘Chhau’ being a tribal war dance by analyzing the term philologically. ‘Chhau’ may refer to ‘Chhauni’ – a military camp. He sees in the dance, the remnants of various other kinds of material art forms that are no longer found in Purulia. The dances are like “simple morality tales”, hesays – they articulate the play between good and evil. But more than the dance it is the mask that becomes the focus of his imaginative reconstruction. He includes the chho in a comparative perspective that will encompass all masked dances everywhere in the world. With reference to the chho mask he says,

The Chhau dance once held the mask to be an object that was inherently holy, but that was when they were made of wood. Now wooden masks are only artifacts which are preserved in shrines… They are taken out only on special days for ritual dances… when craftsmen carved the masks from wood, they were revered and passed from father to son… Today the masks are made from papier mache by a method unknown elsewhere. (1975:12)

Ashutosh Bhattacharya’s writings on Purulia chho are inflected by his self – proclaimed status as the ‘discoverer’ of this exotic dance form and, therefore, as the one who must mediate between it and the outside world. The theme of the exotic – the mask as being quintessentially exotic – is addressed to a foreign audience. Bhattacharya’s own feelings towards the dance, the masks and the people these belong to, in however, deeply ambivalent. In some of his writings in Bengali he refers to the mask as a disguise that the dancer can use to hide his own dark visage so that he will not appear incongruous when he tries to represent the gods.[8] The mask helps him to take on the image of the sacred. Yet at the same time, for Bhattacharya, the mask is a sign of distortion. If at one level it serves to hide the disjunction between tribal and Hindu cultures at another level it reveals it more clearly. The chho dance, he says, can never aspire to become a classical dance form because it prevents the face from being integrated into the total bodily expression of the dancer. At times Bhattacharya’s discourse is overtly racist. In his account of masked dances in Eastern India he compares the chho with the Manipuri dance form. He feels that there is some similarity between the chho and the Manipuri dances as they both contain a mixture of Hindu and tribal elements. He says, however that the Manipuri dance was able to develop into a classical art form because the fair complexioned Manipuris could take on the appearance of the gods in the dance without having to resort to the use of masks. He seems to imply that the physical appearance of the aboriginal people of Purulia is directly related to the form that the dance has taken and to the stage of development that it has been able to reach (Bhattacharya 1965: 762)[9].     

However my intention in this section is not so much to expose Bhattacharya’s writings as false but to reflect on his orientation to the phenomenon that he seeks to explain. Is his kind of historical reconstruction a mode of explanation? Does it qualify as a mode of history writing? Gadamer (2000) says that the condition of unintelligibility often motivates scholars to take a detour via the historical, at least for those who have inherited the Romantic tradition. What makes sense can be understood at sight and what does not can be understood as survivals or contradictions from the past. Bhattacharya’s plunge into historical reconstruction may have been an attempt to come to terms with what was for him an unexpected and even puzzling juxtaposition of two incommensurable cultural formations – ‘primitive, tribal’culture with ‘civilizational’ Hinduism. It is in these terms perhaps that one can view his attempts at mediation. Hence, the location of Purulia chho within the Dom community, at present, a low - status caste group within the Hindu – fold, and its later appropriation by tribal kings; or the enigmatic references to wooden masks, which no other authority on the dance form ever mentions.[10]

Needless to say, for the dancers that I knew in Purulia, there was no rupture between the aspects of so–called primitive religion and the high tradition of Hinduism. They viewed the dance as a whole and not as reified in its various aspects. The masks were not seen as sacred per se. They became one of the attributes of the sacred icons that were embodied in the dance. The word for ‘mask’ in Purulia is ‘muha’ which means face. The masks become the faces of the dancers in the course of the performance. As a dancer told me once, “The masks that you see are dead; they will come alive again when we put them on in the evening to dance”.

 The Chho as a Symbol of Tribal Culture

Bhattacharya’s representations of the dance are meant for an alien audience. It is interesting to observe, however, that when other writers write on the chho dance for an audience that is presumably familiar with this dance form, the same themes are repeated.

I shall take up one such work. Bankim Mahato (1978) as a cultural activist and a proponent of a unified Jharkhandi identity, takes a very different political stance from that of Bhattacharya but still follows his example when he reduces culture to a collection of customs and rites which are treated as the collective property of a particular group and symbolically seal its boundaries. He speaks of a unified cultural area Jharkhand, of which Purulia is a part. The chho dance belongs to this cultural area and is an ancient and magical (indrajalik) dance so that the gestures used tend to demonstrate an event or achieve a particular aim which is to bring rain. The author turns to early folklorists like James Frazer and Jane Harrison for support in his speculations about the original purpose of the dance. This he discovers in its form, which he says is mimetic. The linear sequence in which the dancers appear in the performance is supposed to imitate the pre–monsoon clouds (kalboishaki) which chase each other across the sky. The music of he chho dance (by which I assume he means only the drums) simulates the thunder that accompanies the pre – monsoon showers. The mimetic connection between the dance form and the forces of nature is magical because the tribal’swill is so strong that he forces nature to obey. He has no need for prayer and supplication. He quotes Frazer for support.

Magic assumes that in nature one event follows another necessarily and invariably without the intervention of any spirit or personal agency. Thus its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science, underlying the whole system is a faith, implicit but real and firm, in the order and uniformity of nature.[11]

There is no disagreement between Bhattacharya and Mahato about the outline of the history of the dance, only disagreement regarding the values given to the two cultures – tribal and Hindu. Bhattacharya was often puzzled by the fact that such primitive people were able to preserve‘classical’ Hindu themes in their dance and to portray them correctly. This, for Mahato, is a sign of the degradation of tribal culture, and of its exploitation by outside forces. Both authors give the dance homogeneity in terms of form as well as in terms of participation in the dance. This is far from actual reality. The dance has never been restricted to any one caste or tribe, and it has a structure that can easily absorb outside influences.

Bankim Mahato, as I have said, is a scholar–activist who speaks for the distinctive Jharkhandi identity of Purulia’s culture, separate from that of West Bengal. In the early 1980s when I was doing my fieldwork in Purulia, the debates and discussion around the chho dance were largely located within Purulia itself. Chhatrak, a journal published from Purulia was the only forum in which such debates were published. Twenty years later, when I began to re–examine some of the issues that I had worked on in my doctoral dissertation, I found that not only was there an explosion in the written literature on issues pertaining to the culture of Purulia but also that writings on the chho dance were appearing from other districts of Bengal and Bihar, like Jhargram, Keonjhar, Kolhan and so on. (This is over and above the three traditional regions where the chho is supposed to be locatedand which are associated with the three canonical styles that this dance form takes – Purulia in West Bengal, Mayurbhanj in Orissa and Seraikella in Bihar. Kharsawan is a recent addition to this list.)

In an earlier paper on the chho dance I had said that the discourses on the dance form generated authoritative representations that were later absorbed into the form itself such that by the time I was doing field work in the 1980s it had become what it was represented as – a war dance.I then went on to show how this had led to a diminishing of stylistic variation in Purulia chho such that some of the more difficult dances were no longer performed (Chatterji 1995). After having read some of the new literature on the chho dance I have to reconsider my earlier statement. The homogenization of the dance form has occurred side–by–side with its proliferation, not merely in Purulia, as I had previously discussed, but also in other regions. Its relocation has led to further transformation in the dance style so that we may have to speak of multiple styles within Purulia chho itself.

Is this proliferation an effect of publicity? The circulation of representations of the chho dance creates new publics who lay claim to this dance form. Added to this, the composite nature of the form –the fact that it can absorb new elements, but also shed them - makes the public domain a suitable site for the articulation of cultural politics. By claiming ownership of the chho dance communities stake claims to a distinctive identity – one that self–consciously thinks of itself as other to Bengali high–culture.[12] They claim an originary primitiveness that marks their culture out as authentic. However this form of authenticity is never embedded in an interactive community but rather in a territory which becomes the space of an abstract community and a ‘composite culture created out of an amalgamation of different types of ‘boundary–crossings’ between contiguous groups. Thus, Pashupati Mahato (2001) speaks of the hara–mitanor the quality of human fraternity that characterizes Jharkhandi culture, in fact he uses this Kurmali[13] term as a designation for the composite culture of the region. In a different vein Mahua Roychaudhury (1996) finds traces West Bengal’s composite culture in the chho dance. But for her the notion of composite culture refers to the interchange between folk and classical forms of culture over time, specifically with reference to dance rather than to inter–community exchange in the present within the context of a bounded space.

Pashupati Mahato is a cultural activist and a specialist on the culture of Jharkhand as was Bankim Mahato before him. Also like the latter, he presents it as an autonomous cultural region with only a superficial affiliation with the folk culture of West Bengal. However, what sets him apart from the earlier activist writers in Purulia is the position that Ashutosh Bhattacharya occupies in his writings. The latter is his chief interlocutor,the ‘other’ against whose negative representations, Jharkhandi identity must crystallize.  (Bankim Mahato, as we have seen, never referred to Ashutosh Bhattacharya by name.) Let me give an example,

            Bhattacharya… reconstructing the history of the origin of Chho dance traced it back to Buddha drama. (It) has a very ancient origin,which can also be guessed from comparative study of the origin and development of two other ancient forms of Indian dance – Manipuri of Assam and Kathakali of Kerala. …the system which is followed in Chhau dance today could not have been developed by the aboriginal people who practice this dance. It is indeed a contribution of a higher culture keenly conscious of an aesthetic sense.”

(Mahato 1987, 71)

He also refers to Bhattacharya’s Bengali text of 1965 that I have also mentioned in an earlier section – the one in which the latter says that the tribal dancers wear masks when depicting characters from the Puranas since their own ‘black’ faces would not be equal to this depiction. Bhattacharya goes on to say that there is further proof of this hypothesis from the fact that the dancers do not wear masks when depicting events or stories that are purely local. (Needless to say,I found no basis for this assumption. The only time a dancer does not wear a mask is when he is performing pure nritya and is not enacting a specific character.) Mahato (1987) quotes extensively from Bhattacharya’s writings to show how Bengali folkloristics has a political agenda, that of appropriating the tribal voice. As he says Bhattacharya’s texts still form part of the curriculum for the post–graduate course in Bangla literature in Calcutta University. To counter this kind of representation Mahato seeks recourse to another source of authority, to the famous exponents of Purulia chho about whom he has an insider’s knowledge as well as to scholars who come from this region. Interestingly, Mahua Roychaudhury (1996) also refers to one of the famous exponents of Purulia chho, the late Gambhir Singh Mura, whom Mahato also mentions, as an authoritative source for her own reconstruction. As I have already mentioned,it is diametrically opposite to that of Mahato. She quotes from the interview she had with Gambhir Singh to establish the historical link between a folk form like Purulia chho and a vanished classical dance that was once performed in Bengal. She attributes the disappearance of Bangla classical dance to the effects of colonization, to the indiscriminate adoption of western culture by the Bengali bhadralok  and also to the popularity of north Indian musical and dance forms that came to Calcutta in the wake of  the Nawab of Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah’s being exiled to that city by the British. Both these movements, she says led to the neglect of Bengal’s original high culture and to its subsequent demise.

Both Mahato and Roychaudhury share a common concern,which they address from opposite vantage points. They both think of culture in terms of its location in a territorially bounded space, that is, in terms of an ethnic boundary. But this space is a virtual space, waiting to be embodied in practice and in representation. Instead, scholars like Mahato and Roychaudhuryhave, through their writings, helped create a discursive space that points to the emergence of a new public sphere.

Orsini (2002) says that one of the most significant features of the public sphere is the emergence of a common language of debate.This creates a common horizon, a virtual space that allows public activism a certain freedom from the limits of participation in the face–to–face context.Virtual space is clearly liberating – it allows for critical debate, there is an awareness that one is accountable to a public out there. Yet it is also alienating – the public being addressed is composed of faceless strangers.[14] Thus the need to anchor ones discourses in some form of institutional authority. In the two discourses mentioned above, the source of authority is tradition – embodied in the voice of the exemplary dancer. The difference between the earlier writings – of Ashutosh Bhattacharya,but equally that of Bankim Mahato, and that of the younger scholars, is the explicit use of quotation and citation to establish the legitimacy of their claims. They are more self – consciously polemical, far more aware that the object that they are writing about in being constituted through the circulation of the discourse itself. I see this change in the style of representation as evidence for the crystallization of a new public sphere, with Purulia as its center. The expansion of the space in which the discourse circulates does not inevitably lead to its homogenization, in spite of the fact that there are only a few common themes that circulate. There are instead multiple publics, constituted by the easy transferability of the common theme from one site to another. In the process, the theme itself undergoes multiple transformations. I have already touched upon this when I discussed how communities who claim to perform the chho dance have multiplied over the years. Let me now demonstrate this in more detail, taking one specific theme that recurs in most of the public discourses on Purulia chho – that of ethnic identity.

 The Birth of the Adivasi: The Creative Appropriation of Tribal History

Recent writings on the public sphere in India tend to focus on the development of literary languages and the emergence of reading/writing publics (see Naregal 2001, Orsini 2002). Instead, I intend to focus on dance performance – the emergence of a public that is responsive to the writings on Purulia chho but is not necessarily literate. The influence of written texts extends beyond the boundary of a literate public, as I will show in this section, when the dancers respond to what is written about the dance through the dance itself.

As I have said Ashutosh Bhattacharya literally created a tradition for the dance, not merely through his writings, though their influence is far reaching, but also through the dance festivals he organized. Schecner describes a dance performance that he saw with Bhattacharya in Mathain 1976.

During the dancing he sits behind a desk, two petromax lanterns making him the best lit figure of the event, and next to him are his university assistants. All night he watches and writes. The next day, one by one the villagers appear before him… He warned oneparty not to use story elements not found in the Hindu classics. He chided another for not wearing the standard basic costume of short skirt over leggings decorated in rings of white, red and black. Bhattacharya selected this basic costume from one village and made it general. When I asked him about it he said that the costumes he chose were the most authentic, the least Westernized…(1983, 89).

Other scholars located in Purulia have also tried to reconstitute/ recover a tradition for the dance by suggesting themes of historical significance such as the Santhal Rebellion of 1956[15]. A dance episode on this theme was, in-fact,choreographed by Nepal Mahato, a student of Gambhir Singh Mura, in 1979. It was performed before a group of folklorists at a conference held in Purulia town.But it has not been accepted at the popular level. Thus, even though new themes are constantly being introduced into the dance tradition and even interludes with Hindi film songs have been accepted, contemporary history is not considered a source, which can provide authentic themes for the dance.

Why do compositions like “The Santhal Rebellion” have no authority for those who are integrated in this dance tradition? Gambhir SinghMura, the leader of the dance troupe in Chorida, the village where I did my fieldwork, once said to me, “When people ask me, ‘From where have you taken the rasa (flavour), tala (rhythm), bhongi (style), chala (gait) of this dance?’ What shall I say in reply?” For him the authentic form of the dance can only be revealed by the pauranic and epic texts. This is not to say that history has no place in the consciousness of the dancers. In response to the efforts of folklorists to bring innovations in the themes, the Chorida troupe created a new dance episode that they called, “The Origin of the Adivasis” (adibashir utpotti). However, the history that they constructed was a mythic history based on a narrative found in the Sharaboli,a sacred text.

The process by which a narrative location was found for this idea will described in some detail. The choreographer of the Choridatroupe, Anil Shutrodhar was initially thrown into confusion because he could not find any reference to the word ‘adivasi’ in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana that deals with the origin of all jatis. He finally consulted an elderly Brahmin who dismissed the problem by saying that the word ‘adivasi’ had been coined by Mahatma Gandhi and therefore could not have been used in the Puranas that are ancient texts. However, Anil Shutradhar was able to recollect a story from the Sharaboli that contained a reference to the Pashan (stone,rock) jati[16]. He made a connection between the word ‘pashana’, the tribal jati ‘Bhumij’, to which Gambhir Singh belongs, andt he more generic term ‘adivasi’. He said that the name ‘Bhumij’ contained a reference to the aboriginal origin of the jati because it meant ‘born from the earth’ (bhuin theke hoenche, i.e. ‘bhuin’ is the earth).Therefore, ‘Bhumij’ means ‘adivasi’. Rock or stone (pashana) is their symbol (pratika) because their bones are buried under rocks. The Pashanajati mentioned in the Sharaboli, can be taken as a reference to the Bhumij jati.

The reference to written texts like the Sharaboli and the Brahma Vaivarta Purana seem to contradict my earlier statements about the emergence of a non – literate public around the discursive formation that Purulia chho has become. However, it is the fact of being written rather than what is written that is important here. When Anil Shutradhar consulted the Brahma Vaivarta Purana it was an act of memory – the text as it exists in the collective memory of the village, as the embodiment of tradition and as a standard against which performance can be measured. Writing, the notion of a book, acts as a distancing device; it constitutes tradition as being set apart - objectifying it and making it self – reflexive. Tradition becomes a constituent part of the public, it exists to be addressed. This, at least, is the way I have tried to make sense of Gambhir Singh’s hypothetical questions.

The constitution of the chho dance as an object of public discourse is crucial in the kind of innovation described above. But a question still remains – why is Purulia chho singled out when there are many other dance forms in Purulia that have not become discursive objects? It may, perhaps, have something to do with the composite form of the dance.Different aspects of the form are in a relationship of dissonance, which makes for the easy absorption of new traits. This fact is important in there-constitution of the tradition. Let me go back to the new dance pala that I just described. The ground for the mythic appropriation of new issues such as ethnicity had already been laid even before the troupe started experimenting with new compositions. The mask makers of Chorida have tried to make profit from the outsider interest shown in the chho dance by making small scale masks of human ‘tribal’ faces which they sell in Purulia town. This has also had some influence on the iconography of the dance masks as well. Rishis, munis and other human characters depicted in the dances are now shown wearing masks with human features such as wrinkled brows or smiling faces with teeth that are supposed to resemble human teeth. I may mention here that gods are usually depicted with closed mouths and asuras are depicted with fangs or a single white slab without any demarcation of individual teeth. More significantly for my argument, there is one dance pala for which the Chorida troupe is famous – the episode in the Mahabharata when Shiva appears before the hero Arjuna, disguised as a kirata (tribal) to test his prowess before the great war. Shiva as kirata is depicted as a ‘tribal’ hunter and wears a full–scale version of the curio mask (Chatterji 2003). As this example shows the introduction of the commodity form may sometimes have a positive effect on folk culture, precisely because the power it has to de–contextualize and alienate. In the process it opens up new spaces for innovation.[17] Even though this innovation is often radical it is not disjunct from the tenor of everyday life. The power of popular culture comes from its familiarity, the intimacy associated with day–to–day practices.Forms of folk culture that have the potential of recovering this relationship of intimacy with their publics will flourish. Those that cannot will perish or be reduced to folkloric exotica.



 Banerjee, Sumanta (2002) Logic in a Popular Form. Essays on Popular Religion in Bengal. Calcutta: Seagull Books

 Bhattacharya, Ashutosh (1965) Banglar Loksahitya. Vol III. Calcutta: Calcutta Book House

 -----------, (1975) Chhau:Masked Dances of West Bengal in America. Calcutta: Research Institute of Folk Culture

Chatterji, Roma, ( 1995)“Authenticity and Tradition. Reappraising a ‘Folk’ Form.” In Vasudha Dalmia and Henri von Stietencron eds. Representing Hinduism.The Construction of Religious Tradition and national Identity. New Delhi: Sage (420-44)

 ----------, (2003), “TheCategory of Folk” in Veena Das ed. The Oxford India Companion to Sociology and Social Anthropology. Delhi: Oxford University Press(567-597)

 Chattopadhya G.P. & A.P.Sinha, (1979) “Akademi of Folklore Ayojeeto Chhonaach Seminar.” Chhatra volIII (151-155)

Gadamer, Hans-George, (2000) Truth and Method. New York: Continuum Press

 Mahato, Bankim, (1978) “Chho Naach: Ekti Shomikha.” Chhatrak vol III. (205-213)

 Mahato, Pashupati Prasad, (1987)The Performing Arts of Jharkhand. Calcutta: B.B. Prakashan

 ----------, (2001) JharkhanderHara-Mitan (Kheroal) Samajik Sabhyata. Shilpa Chetona o Jibanrausbodh. Kolkata: Ashok Chakravarti

 Mauss, Marcel, (1972) A General Theory of Magic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Naregal, Veena, (2001) Language Politics, Elites and the Public Sphere. Delhi: Permanent Black

 Natih, Susan, (1885) Chhau Diaries. Devon: Dartington College of Arts

Orsini, Francesca, (2002) The Hindi Public Sphere 1920-1940. Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism.Delhi: Oxford University Press

Roychaudhury, Mahua, (1996)“Banglar Loknritto ar Goudiyo Nritto.” Lokshruti vol 12 (89-120)

 Samaddar, Shekhar, (2004)“Shundorer Nidhon: Bastobbe o Natye.” Desh 17th March (85)

 Sarkar, Benoy Kumar, (1941) The Folk-Element in Hindu Culture. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal (1st published in 1916)

 Schechner, Richard, (1983) Performative Circumstances from the Avant Garde to Ramlila. Calcutta: Seagull Books

 Trautmann, Thomas R., (1997) Aryans and British India. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications

 Warner, Michael, (2002)“Publics and Counter Publics.” Public Culture. 14(1) (49-90)


[1] Unlike the more common designation ‘Chhau’, my spelling of the word is closer to the way it is pronounced in Purulia. I was told by my respondents in Purulia that the name ‘chhau’ was invented by Ashutosh Bhattacharya. See also M.D. Muthukumaraswamy’s in this volume on what is at stake in naming a cultural entity. An earlier version of this paper was published in my book, Writing Identities: Folklore and the Performing Arts of Purulia, Bengal. Delhi: IGNCA and Aryan, 2009.

[2] A comprehensive history of Purulia chho still has to be written but I have been told by knowledgable people in Bagmundi district, Purulia, that the dance acquired its present form under the patronage of local chieftains. The Bagmundi royal house was one of its chief patrons. In fact the rajas even brought mask makers for the dance from neighbouring districts of Bengal and settled them Chorida village in Bagmundi district. I lived in Bagmundi village from 1981 to 1983 as part of the fieldwork period for my doctoral research.

[3] Ritwik Ghatak, the film maker, used the motif of Purulia chho in at least three of his films. He used it symbolically to portray both primeval innocence as well as primitive savagery, in films that had no overt relationship to tribal culture. More recently, Bangla theatre has also used the chho as a literary device to talk of communal violence. In a Bangla play called ‘Riot’ by Shashi Thakur, the main protagonist is portrayed as a Muslim chho dancer who is attacked by Hindu fanatics for daring to portray the characters of Hindu gods in the dance (cf. Samaddar 2004). The use of the chho to represent the tension between folk simplicity and violence seems to have become a stable literary device.

               I am grateful to Rimli Bhattacharya for bringing the review of this play to my attention and to Poulomi Chatterjee for explaining the use of chho in new dance re-constructions like Goudiyo Nrittya.

[4] A metonymic relation is established between the flute, the aboriginal hunter and the forest in many narrative genres in Purulia.

[5] It is interesting to observe that some scholars think that the singa was the original wind instrument used in the Chho at the time when it was still a ‘war dance’. They believe that it was replaced later by the shaina when the dance became more stylised and began to use pauranic and epic themes (Chattopadhya and Sinha 1979).

[6] Perhaps this is the reason Ashutosh Bhattacharya calls the dance form ‘Chhau’. I have never heard the dance being designated in this way in Purulia.

[7] The dancer who performs the arati is known as a densar (from the English word ‘dance’) and not nachuad, the term normally reserved for Chho dancers.

[8] The association between light skin and civilization and dark skin and savagery is an important theme in the colonial history of India (Trautman 1997). I do not think that it has been adequately problematized in Indian scholarship. Colonial modes of addressing race and culture occur as unconscious traces in the writings on folklore and popular culture as we have just seen in the case of Ashutosh Bhattacharya’s. One finds traces of this mode of thinking even in more recent works. Thus Sumanta Banerjee (2002) finds evidence of goddess Kali’s aboriginal origin in her dark skin.

[9] Lokendra Arambam, with whom I had the opportunity to talk to during the conference on folklore and the public sphere organized by the IGNCA and the NFSC in Delhi in October 2002, said that in fact in Manipuri dance, the face itself, is treated as a mask.

               Needless to say, the chho is not danced exclusively by ‘tribal’ people. The dance troupe that I worked with had dancers from all jatis in the village.

[10] I think that Bhattacharya sometimes conflates accounts of the chho dance with the dances performed during the Gambhira ritual in North Bengal. Like the Shiva gajon, when the chho is ritually performed, the Gambhira is a Shaivite ritual. The Gambhira is of historical significance in Bengali folkloristics. An account of this ritual was first published in a monograph on folk religion in 1916 by Benoy Sarkar. Sarkar finds traces in this ritual of Bengal’s early religious history. Thus Buddhism and Jainism, the two great religions that precede Hinduism in Bengal are still supposed to be alive in folk memory (Sarkar 1941, Chatterji 2003).

[11] The author does not give proper references for his quotation. I presume that he is referring to Frazer’s major work, “The Golden Bough”.

               Frazer believed that the evolution of the human mind went through three phases – that of magic which was based on the coercion of natural and supernatural forces, religion which was based on supplicating them and science which reverted to compulsion.He felt that even though magic was based on the mistaken application of two fundamental laws of thought, that is, “the association of ideas by similarity”and “the association of ideas by contiguity in space and time”, it still presented a more objective view of the natural world than did religion. He said that it was similar to science in its belief that the mastery of the world was possible. Religion, for Frazer, represented a retrogressive stage in mankind’s evolutionary history (Mauss 1972).

[12] This is variously defined either as sanskritic or colonial depending on whether the dance is claimed for the articulation of an originary Jharkhandi or Bengali identity. Purulia, being a border district (between West Bengal and the new state of Jharkhand) is the site of conflicting territorial claims.

[13] This is the link language between different communities in this region.

[14] Warner(2002) defines the public sphere as the space created by the circulation of discourse. It is a space of encounter in which different genres of texts and discourses address each other. It is unlike the space of localized face-to-face interaction because its reality lies in the fact of reflexive circulation. The addressable object of the discourse is conjured into existence in this process– “to enable the very discourse that gave it existence” (2002: 61).

[15] The Santhal hul or rebellion of 1856 was led by the two brothers, Sidu and Kanhu, who proclaimed that they had divine sanction to guide the destiny of their people.

[16] The story that contained this reference is as follows:

               Surabhi,the celestial cow lived in the retreat (ashrama) of the ascetic Jamadagni, Parashurama’s father, Raja Kartaviryajana, had gone hunting with his entourage and took shelter in Jamadagni’s retreat for the night. The celestial cow, Surabhi produced food to feed the King’s entourage, golden palaces for them to shelter in and servants to provide for their comfort. In the morning all this disappeared and only the ascetic’s hut was left. The king coveted the miraculous cow. But the ascetic said that he could not give away what had been given to him by the gods. The king was confident that he could take her by force. But she produced soldiers – from her udders (udor) emerged the Ujjan, from her eyes (chokhu pauthe) the Chauhan and from her hooves,when she stamped them, the Pashan.

[17] In the last decade or so there have been further developments such as the introduction of video technology that is rapidly expanding the repertoire of dance themes and also bringing in theatrical elements such as dialogue through the technique of ‘voice over’ in the dance. ‘The War in Kargil’ (Kargiler Juddho) and ‘The Call of the Jungle’ (Oronyer Dak) are to examples. Mask makers have also started making full scale ‘curio masks’ which are waiting to adorn characters in new dance stories. ‘The Sorrowful Peasant’ (Dukhi Chashi) is one such mask. An invention of the Shutrodhar mask makers of Chorida village, it is still waiting for a potential character in a dance story to bring him to life.