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Seraikella Chhau – Mask Dance

The principal festival of Seraikella Chhau is the Chaitra Parva (March – April), which is the Spring festival celebrated in honor of Shiva as Ardhanarishvara, for five days in Jharkhand, India. On the first four nights of the festival, the Seraikella Chhau dance is performed. The dance is not connected in any manner to the ritual.

The poses and steps in Seraikella Chhau are derived from the basic posture of tribhanga (three bends of the head, torso and lower limbs). The knee bend is not emphasized. The open square motif is not used as the fundamental sitting posture. The body moves in diagonal, and one hand is above the head as if holding the sword, and the other is at waist level as in holding the shield. From this structure the other movements are built. There are basic movements of walk, and these are transformed into various gaits of animals and birds. Then come the leg movements, which are known as uflis. These are derived from the various occupational modes in agriculture, mixing of cow dung, household work, cutting of shrubs and so on.

All movements evolve from the lower limbs and may involve the whole leg or only the calf. The hands and torso move in synchrony, but there are no hand gestures. Most of the movements can be seen as movements described in the ancient text of dramaturgy written by Sage Bharata (Natyashastra). It is this factor that makes the dance form one of classical mode. The movements are extremely delicate and merge with the mood and poetry of the theme.

The repertoire of Seraikella Chhau is on three levels. The first is that of a simple dances by children such as Hare Krishna, Madana Gopala and so on. These dances are performed without masks. The next category of dances are those in which the choreography follows the theme of the dance. They are realistic presentations. The last level of dances are highly stylized and have a text and subtext which is sophisticated and abstract.

The themes of such dances cover a vast canvas – nature, abstract concepts, daily life, etc. Night, injured deer, peacock, swan, sailor, and hunter are some of the titles of the dances. But the depictions are not realistic. In dance of the peacock or mayura, the movements are stylized and depict self adulation. Similarly, in banaviddha (injured deer), the pain of loss of life or love is depicted. In nabika (sailor) a man and woman are in a boat caught in a storm. The boat represents security and the storm is the vortex of life. The woman tries to submit and ask for protection and the man is the protector.

The human face of the masks in Seraikella Chhau represents all living beings, their passions and sufferings. The masks highlight the poetic image of the dance. In ratri (night), the mask has half-closed eyes heavy with sleep, and in injured deer the eyebrows are knotted in anguish. For each character there is a different mask. The majority of them are painted in pastel shades, and the eyes, eyebrows, mouth etc. are stylized.

In Seraikella Chhau, some members of the royal family have been dancers, choreographers and designers of masks and costumes. Consequently, the costumes, masks, ornamentation, and even the design of the masks are extremely beautiful, elegant and sophisticated. The choreography is also attuned to the poetry of the theme of the dance.

To see Seraikella Chhau is a great aesthetic experience because nuances of emotions are created only through body postures, and the expertise of the dancers in such that their masks seem to speak and express emotions.