Facial expressions are vital in a dance, or for that matter in any theatrical performance. One can hardly imagine a show devoid of these yet there is an exquisite charm of an Indian dance style that uses elaborate masks and headgear to communicate with and entertain the audience.
Years ago Pandit Gopal Prasad Dubey of Chhaya Academy of Arts Mumbai visited Kenya and introduced Nairobians to this amazing dance style and the ancient art form from East India.
Reading about various Indian classical and folk dance forms recently brought back cherished memories and charms of the Chhau dance in which the performers cover their faces with a mask and use body language and a medium to express their story and feelings.
The Chhau dance is from Eastern India where some believe that wearing a mask or disguising oneself makes them able to communicate better with the deities and spirits.
The dance style explores stories of man’s relationship with the elements of nature and stylised features about animals, birds, celestial beings and demons.
The name Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word Chaya meaning Shadow, image or mask. The dance is performed traditionally by male dancers but in recent times female enthusiasts have also ventured to join in. The dancers step out specially to honour Lord Shiva during the Gajan Festivity. However, the performances are even common at social events during marriage or fertility initiation ceremonies.
The performers wear elaborate masks, headgears and costumes associated with the event and swing into action set to rhythmic traditional folk musical accompaniment of Dhol, Shehnai and Dhamasas — the Indian percussion, instrumental and clarinet.
Basically, the Chhau performance themes draw inspiration from religious and folklore episodes of Ramayana and Mahahbharta, but at times love legends or abstract themes are knit in. The performers, depending on the theme chosen, are either romantic or acrobatic.
They often display vigorous acrobatic jumps, breathtaking somersaults and energetic shaking of the torso or shoulders to receive hearty applauses. Our local dance gurus have over the years done a remarkable service by propagating the artistic and creative Indian classical and folk dances like Bharat Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi and Kathak. One hopes and wishes that it is time they consider venturing into teaching Chhau, the expressive art behind the masks as well.
Finally, as we mark our Jamhuri celebrations, enjoying and rejoicing over the fruits of our freedom, it is an opportune time to pay tribute to our artistic fraternity, dancers actors and disc jockeys who have done a great job in keeping us informed, entertained and happy during the year that is going by.