Chhau – Dance of the Shadow

Chhau Dance – Dance of the Shadow

The swift and smooth movements of the dancers, unrestrained by the elaborate costume or the heavy face mask define the dance form ‘Purulia Chhau’. This is one of the three types of the famous Chhau Dance, performed primarily in Odisha, Bihar and West Bengal – The Culture Centre of India.


Various legends related to the origin of this dance form persist in today’s time. According to one of them, ‘Chhau’ is a dance belonging to the Paika villages of Orissa. Most of the villagers try to keep it alive by practising and performing this form of martial dance. The key aim of practising with swords and shields was to develop vigour and arouse enthusiasm. It was considered a mock practice for battle of the warriors.

Etymologically, the word ‘Chhau’ is believed to have been derived from a Sanskrit word, ‘Chaya’, which translates to ‘shadow’ or ‘mask’. The other father word for ‘Chhau’ is considered ‘Chhauni’, which means military barracks. Both the words relate to either the theme or, other nuances of the dance. The sound of battle and war echo through ‘Chhauni’ and the use of masks in one of the forms of the ‘Chhau’ dance can be considered a response to the word ‘Chaya’. The dance recreates the excitement of a war. It becomes a shadow of a real battlefield, with dancers performing in costumes and carrying swords.

Forms of ‘Chhau’ dance

The dance has three prominent styles, namely Sareikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj according to the regions they are performed in. The dance adapts and incorporates some innate quality of every region.

Sareikella: This is performed in Bihar and was patronised by the Royal family. The princes were patrons and skilled dancers too. This form was considered suitable only for male dancers because of the strenuous martial element which adds character to the dance. Sareikella, like Purulia, is also performed with masks and beautiful costumes. It recreates a scene from Indian mythology or personifies abstract thoughts. At times, the characters are from everyday life entangled in the most usual problems.

Purulia: This style of ‘Chhau’ dance involves the use of big head gears and masks, which are a unique craft in the region of West Bengal. Its only message is the triumph of good over evil. The message reverberates throughout the performance. The dancers dress up as characters from Indian mythology and mirror the stories in the form of dance, without dialogues.

Mayurbhanj: Fast and soft movements define the Mayurbhanj form of ‘Chhau’ dance, which prospered under royal patronage as well.


‘Chhau’ dance is performed on instrumental music. There is hardly or, absolutely no vocal music. Large kettle drums, dhols, shahnais are primarily used for background music. Instrumental music gives a liberty to the dancers to mould their steps and expressions according to the story. They are not bound by music and, can rather dominate the performance. The dance starts only after a powerful invocation of Lord Ganesh, spurred by the frantic beating of the drums or the dhols.

Themes: From warriors to animals, the ‘Chhau’ dance fuses a number of elements to form a prominent theme. The dance recreates some scenes from Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Indian Puranas are also used as an inspiration for the performances. The message for almost all the dances remains the victory of good over evil. The addition of chalis and topkas (traits of animals) and movement of uflis (wives engaged in household chores) makes it more fascinating.

Costumes: The costumes of ‘Chhau’ dance are sometimes very intricate and sometimes very minimalistic. The Sareikella and Purulia involves the use of huge vibrant masks to cover the face of the dancer and more relatable with the character. The dancers wear masks of gods and goddesses or even asuras to replicate the scenes from Indian epics. The colour of the lower dresses changes according to the characters played by the dancers. They wear shades of yellow or red when playing the role of a deity and black or deep green to depict demons.

The ‘Chhau’ dance is also called ‘Paika Nrutya’, a derivation of the Sanskrit word Padatika which means infantry. The word would translate to battle dance, which captures the essence of the Chhau. This is performed specifically in the month of Chaitra festival which lasts for 13 days. It observes a number of performances and participation from the entire community. Earlier it used to be staged in open places within a community, called Akhadas. However, with soaring popularity, these are now performed on stage in music festivals.

Featured Photo of Chau Dance by Soumyadeep Paul under CC BY 2.0

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