Chhau: Dance through the ages

Dr. Basanta Kumar Mohanta

    The Chhow, Chho or Chhau is a type of dance form performed by the people living in a contiguous area of Seraikala, (Jharkhand), Mayurbhanj (Orissa) and Purulia (West Bengal). In Orissa, the evolution and growth of the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj has gone through a lot of ups and downs. The different kings of Bhanja dynasty were great patrons of art and culture. The Chhau dance was flourished into a better form under the sponsorship of the Bhanja rulers of Mayurbhanj state. Prior to the rule of Maharaja Jadunath Bhanja (1823-1863) the Chhau dance in Mayurbhanj was not popular as it is today. At the time of Maharaja Jadunath Bhanja, the Rama Leela dance was performed for the first time during the Rama Navami festival in the month of Chaitra. After few years later Madan Singh Babu came to Baripada from Dhalbhum who added Chhau music in this Rama Leela dance. In this way the Mayurbhanj Chhau Dance started growing under the Royal Patronage. The musical instruments of Chhau dance came into existence accordingly. Most probably in this way the Rama Leela dance was changed into the Chhau dance during that period. At that time the performers of Rama Leela dance were covering their faces with various types of masks related to the character. Although now a days the artists of Mayurbhanj Chhau dance are giving much more emphasis on the facial expression but initially the masks were used for various characters.

    The Mayurbhanj Chhau dance became very popular during the reign of Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanja Deo (1868-1882). Mr. Ramahari Bebarta Babu, a faithful aid of Maharaja witnessed the Chhau dance of Saraikela and requested to Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanja for the development of Mayurbhanj Chhau dance accordingly. Then Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanja brought Mr. Upendra Biswal, a Chhau Ustad from Saraikela and appointed him to teach the Chhau dancers of Uttarsahi. After two or three years Mr. Banamali Das, another Chhau Ustad from Saraikela was appointed to train the Chhau dancers of Dakshinsahi. For that Maharaja gave them a rent free (Lakharaj) land grant. These Lakharaj lands are still being enjoyed by the successors of these two Ustads and they claimed themselves as successors of the Adi Gurus (first preceptors) of the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance. At that time Mr. Brundaban Chandra Bhanj Deo, the then Chhotrai Saheb and Mr. Gokul Chandra Bhanj Deo, the then Routrai Saheb were in-charge of Uttarsahi and Dakshinsahi Chhau dance parties respectively. In this way the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance was developed to some extent during the reign of Krushna Chandra Bhanja Deo. He laid the foundation on which his son Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo raised the Chhau edifice of the State. After the death of Maharaj Krushna Chandra Bhanja Deo in 1882 the Chhau dance was performed in the palace at the time of Chaitra Parva for two days only to keep the festival alive. Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo took over the charge of the administration of the State in 1892. The annual performance of Chhau dance was presented inside the Palace of the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj for three days prior to the Chaitra-Sankranti i.e. roughly from 11th April to 13th April. At that time these two prominent parties were competing with each other and the winning party was being awarded a running cup known as Talcher Cup. At that time Chhotrai Saheb Shyam Chandra Bhanja, the younger brother of Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo and Routrai Saheb Sreedam Chandra Bhanja took charge of the training and performance of the Uttarsahi and Dakshinsahi Chhau dances respectively, with an annual grant of Rs.2, 000/- for each sahi. Apart from this amount, each brother was to spend as much as Rs.15, 000/- every year for the training and development of the Chhau dance. Both of these brothers were not only personally participating in the actual dance performances but also supervising the daily food of the Chhau dancers. The training and practice of Chhau dance was going on all over the year and at that time many new artists were introduced. At that time the Uphuli, Basipaiti, Dhana Pachuda, Jhuntiamaja, Govara Gala, Bidya Sundara, TamuliaKrishna, Hindustani, etc. were practiced by the Uttarsahi and Dakshinsahi Chhau dance parties. In this way the Chhau dance was developed and occupied an unique place among the people of Mayurbhanj during the period of Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo.

    In 1912 the Maharaja took special attention for development of the Chhau dance. With the help of his brother Routrai, Maharaja introduced a new dance form, which was famous as 'War Dance'. Maharaja had spent a lot of money for the creation of this special dance. The dance was for the first time performed at Calcutta to welcome the British Emperor George-V and Queen Mary in 1912. This 'War Dance' dance is essentially a mock-fight between two opposite groups holding swords and spears in their hands. The dancers are dressed in red or blue dhotis, turbans along with feather-garlands round the arms and waists. They painted their faces and bodies with ochre or red colour. The beautiful presentation of the Chhau artists was very much appreciated by the Emperor George-V and Queen Mary. Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja was died in 1912. The appreciation of Chhau dance by the Emperor George-V and Queen Mary was reflected in his condolence letter, which he had sent after the death of the Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo. In this appreciation letter he wrote, The Queen and I are grieved to hear of the death of Maharajah of Mayurbhanj. Please convey to Maharani our sincere condolences with her in her sorrow. We remember of course the important part taken by the Maharaja in connection with the pageant on the maidan and our pleasure in seeing him on that occasion.

    After the death of Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja the Chhau dance faced different types of problems. During that period Maharaja Purna Chandra Bhanja Deo had given only an annual grant of Rs.250/- to each sahi for the purpose of keeping up the ceremony. Because of the financial scarcity the artists reduced the duration of practice. They practiced only one or two months in place of practicing the whole year. Because of that reason Maharaja Purna Chandra Bhanja gave special attention to revive the Chhau dance. But as a result of some internal conflict with the dance teachers the dance was stopped practicing.

    Maharaja Purna Chandra Bhanja Deo had no offspring. He died in 1928. After his death his younger brother Pratapa Chandra Bhanja Deo became a Maharaja of Mayurbhanj. He was very much interested in the Chhau dance and gaves special attention to develop the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj. He increased the annual grant to Rs.5, 000/- for each sahi. He formed a committee for each sahi and a manager was appointed to look in to the activities. The committee was taking special attention for the training of the artists and their presentation at the time of the Chaitra Parva. Number of new dance themes were composed and introduced in the Chhau dance. During this period a new era of Chhau dance was started. The dance teachers were sent to different parts of the country to see the performances of the top exponents of Indian dances like, Udayasankar, Amalanandi, Simike etc. Several features from such dances were included in the Chhau dance to improve its range and quality. Because of these the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj became more attractive than the Chhau dance of Saraikela. The dance performance at the time of the Chaitra Parva restarted. During this time the classical Hindustani music was introduced in the Chhau dance. Maharaja Pratap Chandra Bhanja Deo appointed Sri Keshab Das, the Kathakali dance teacher, to train the Chhau dancers. Foreign musical instruments were also added with the traditional musical instruments to develop the quality of music in Chhau dance. But the English style of dance and music was not last for a long time and was abolished from the Chhau dance of Mayurbhanj. (Senapati 1967; Mohapatra 1993:13-15; Lenka 2001; Mohanty n.d.). During this period some selected elements of talas, music and dances of the Oddisi or Gotipua School of dance were also taken and included in the Chhau dance. Inclusion of Jhumar music in the Chhau dance helps to popularize the dance. Maharaja also instructed the Ustads to compose the dance items in Desi form and emphasized the music in the style of the local inhabitants like, the Kolha, Mahanta, Santal, Bengali, and Oriya etc. Maharaja Pratap Chandra Bhanja Deo was directly involved with these dance parties for their development and because of that the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance flourished and attained high standard during his period. Under the direct supervision of Maharaja there are number of new group dance themes were introduced and some are developed by both Uttarsahi and Dakshinsahi Chhau parties. At that time the Uttarsahi Chhau team composed these following dances like; Kaliya Dalan, Matru Puja, Premika-Premika, Megha Duta, Samudra Manthan, Kela Keluni, Garuda Vahana, Nataraja, etc. In the same way the Dakshinsahi Chhau team composed these below mentioned dances like; Giri Gobardhan, Maya Sabari, Holi, Niladree Bije, Bastra Chori, Ras Leela, Kirat Arjuna and Banshi Chori, etc. That was the glorious era of the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance, when that reaches its peak.

    After the merger of Mayurbhanj in Orissa in 1949 the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance started decreasing its quality and it was Sri Bhabani Kumar Das, a former member of the Dakshinsahi Chhau dance group, formed the Mayurbhanj Chhau Dance Organisation with the help of some old Ustads and artists. This organisation could somehow manage to alive the Mayurbhanj Chhau dance till the official patronage and grants made it possible to be revived to its present shape. They presented special shows of Mayurbhanj Chhau dance before Sri Rajgopalachari, the first Governor General of India and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Dr. H.K. Mahatab became the Chief Minister of Orissa gave special attention for the development of Mayurbhanj Chhau dance. He extended the support of State Goverment in 1951-52, and given an annual grant of Rs.5,000/- to reorganise the Chhau dance. Later in 1954-55 the grant was increased to Rs.10,000/- to support the various Chhau parties of the district. To encourage the Chhau dancers of rural area a competition of rural Chhau dance was started in 1955 by the Mayurbhanj Chhau Dance Organisation where the the Chhau dance parties from Kuliana, Kostha and Chitroda were participated. The Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, an organized body, was established in 1960 and it was registered under the Societies Act in 1961. This Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan was made for the growth and proper function of the dance. It consists an Ex-Officio President, Vice-president, Secretary and other important persons from both of the Chhau dance parties. The Mayurbhanj District Collector, A.D.M., and an O.A.S. officer are appointed as the Ex-Officio President, Vice-President and Secretary respectively of this organized body. The Pratisthan is getting financial support both from the Central Government and the Sangeet Natak Academy and celebrates the Chaitra Parva for three days each year at Baripada where the Chhau dance is performed. Both the Eastern Zone Cultural Centre of India and the Cultural Department of Orissa are now encouraging to the Chhau dancers to improve the quality of the dance. Now a day the financial assistance is given through the Sangeet Natak Academy of Orissa to Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, an organised body to bring up the art. Some of the important achievements of this Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, are (1) Construction of a building (Chhau Bhowan) at Baripada, (2) Sub-divisional level Chhau dance competition to meet the growing number of Chhau dance organizations in rural area, (3) Celebrating Chaitra Parva for three days, (4) Giving award and certificates to Chhau Guru and artists, (5) Publishing a journal on Chhau Dance every year at the time of Chaitra Parva, (6) An organized Syllabus to be published very soon, and (7) Performing Chhau dance both inside the country and abroad.

    In 1980 the Chhau Dance-Training Centre was established at Baripada by Orissa Sanget Natak Academy to train the interested young artists. There are seven staffs appointed in this organization, which includes Mr. Ramesh Chandra Mohapatra, an Administrative Officer, Sangeet Natak adored Sri Ananta Charan Sai, Sri Lalmohan Patra, two musicians, a peon and a night watchman. There were 10 young artists taking admission in that institution in six-year course. They were getting Rs. 60/- as a monthly stipend. Initially this Training Centre was started at Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan Bhowan and later shifted it to a rented house near to the present Baripada Municipality office. Because of some unavoidable circumstance this institution was closed after three years i.e. in 1983. Then it was restarted in 1989 with two years course. The monthly stipend was initially increased to Rs. 125/- and then to Rs. 250/- in 1994. The Disdtrict Cultural Officer, Mayurbhanj is looking the work of the Administrative Officer. Presently the dance and music (Dhol, Mahuri) is tought to the students by these faculty members like, Sri Ajoy Baitha- a young dance Guru, Sri Bighnoraj Dhoda and Bideshi Baitha. The role of these Training Centre and Pratisthan is quite significant for the growth and development of the Mayurbhanj Chhau Dance (Biswal 1995:109-112).

There are almost 200 Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan are present in different parts of the Mayurbhanj district. Some of the important Pratisthan are as follows,

  1. Arun Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Sansimala, Rairangpur
  2. Arun Rashmi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Kantabani, Rairangpur
  3. Badara Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Badara, Rairangpur
  4. Badjamboni Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Badjamboni
  5. Bamanghaty Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Rairangpur
  6. Bharmargola Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Bharmargola
  7. Chachinapoda Dakshinsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Chachinapoda, Muktapur
  8. Chandrachuda Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Nehrusahi, Sirakud
  9. Dakshinsahi Chatrapati Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Raghabpur, Totapoda
  10. Dakshinsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Baripada
  11. Dakshinsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Bhurukundi, Purinda
  12. Dakshinsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Chitrada
  13. Dakshinsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Sarda, Aunla
  14. Deuleswar Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Badsole, Pothania
  15. Dhenkia Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Dhenkia, Baddhenkia
  16. Gokul Chandra Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Darudihi, Singoda
  17. Janta Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Singoda
  18. Jitendra Pattnaik Memorial Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Deolasahi, Rairangpur
  19. Kapoi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Kapoi
  20. Kedar Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Bhurusa, Gambharia
  21. Maa Bhairabi Chhau Nrutya Samojsobhya Pratisthan, Bhalia
  22. Maa Binapani Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Hatimundi
  23. Maa Kichakeswari Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Kiapanposhi, Bola
  24. Mayurbhanj Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Baripada
  25. Mundalia Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Mundalia, Baddhenkia
  26. Musamari Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Musamari, Bisoi
  27. Pallipuspa Chhau Nrutya Kolaparishad, Charupani, Sanpurunapani
  28. Panchameswar Mahadev Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Bola
  29. Panchbhaiya Dakshinsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Panchbhaiya
  30. Panchbhaya Uttarsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Panchbhaya
  31. Pareswar Chhaukola Vikash Pratisthan, Mundhakota, Baddhenkia
  32. Paromanu Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Sanpakhana
  33. Phulbadia Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Phulbadia, Gadigaon
  34. Pinaki Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Singoda
  35. Purunapani Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Purunapani, Kuradhika
  36. Radhakrushna Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Gadigaon
  37. Rengalbeda Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Rengalbeda, Rairangpur
  38. Rudanga Uttarsahi Chhau Nrutya Parisada, Rudanga, Kuliposhi
  39. SidhuKanhu Dildar Chhau Nrutya club, Bhaleipur, Joshi
  40. Tikarbati Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Tikarbati, Betnoti
  41. Uttarsahi Chhau Dance Organasation, Chitrada
  42. Uttarsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Baripada
  43. Uttarsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Chachinapoda, Muktapur
  44. Uttarsahi Chhau Nrutya Pratisthan, Mugusiria, Kuradhika
  45. Uttarsahi Maa Bhairabi Samajsebi Chhau Nrutya Parisoda, Polasbandha, Moroda

By the author


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