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Indian Prototypes of Ancient Greek Masks: Part I

 A Comparative Study of Chhau Masks of Eastern India and Ancient Greek Masks


Gouri Nilakantan Mehta

Purulia Chhau Mask           Greek Theatre mask     Saraikela Chhau Mask

pics courtesy : /


Theatre is a powerful means of communication; it essentially is a transformation that allows both the spectators and performers to come into contact with one another.  The actors are thus able to play the role of another fictional persona.  This is created with the aid of theatrical devices and objects.  The mask is one such tool that helps the performer to alter his personality and thus recreate a totally new one.  Most theatrical traditions of the East, in particularly, India, employ the powerful use of masks and they are essential to many ritual customs.  Chhau, a major theatrical folk form of eastern India namely Purulia (Bengal state) and Seraikela (Jharkhand) makes use of highly stylized masks to dramatize narratives.  The antecedents of this masked folk form resound with ancient theatrical practices of the west.  Chhau bears close semblance to the ancient Greek theatre and its origins may lie in the ancient tradition of Greece.  My paper will closely examine these cross connections between Chhau and Greek theatre with special reference to the usage of masks.  

Both Chhau and the Dionysiac religion were from the beginning inclined towards transformation.  The individual persona in Chhau and Greek drama alters into a higher human being.  According to Rajkumar Suvendra, an ace Chhau performer,

When I put on the mask I become impersonal.  It is easier to slip into the body of another character.  It passes its function to the body.  Expression does not follow from my face to my body, but is transmitted from my body to my face. (53, Deo)

  The best aid in both the theatrical forms would be hence costume and the masks.  The generic words of both Chhau and tragedy in Greek drama give us important clues to this alteration of character.  The Greek word tragos, from which tragedy is arrived also, means one who dresses up and performs.  Tragedy is song in honor of the Greek gods. Komos the word from which comedy is arrived is where the members of the Greek drama when dressed up as animals take part in a happy parade.  Thus this cult contains all the elements which are necessary for the development of a serious drama or gay comedy by disguised human beings. 

Greek drama essentially developed as a mark to celebrate the god Dionysus.  This fertility god is associated with both birth and death.  He is the only god whose parents were not divine.  He was twice born, his mother Semele died before he was born and his father Zeus removed him and deposited him in his thigh allowing the development of the offspring to emerge and develop later.  Dithyramb (double birth) is a religious hymn that is sung and danced by a chorus to honor the god, a precursor to tragic drama. 

Double-ness plays an important role here that emphasizes the imagery and myth.  Dionysus was also the god of wine that elevated the followers into an ecstatic religious rapture.  This gives them an exalted condition and the singing and dancing changed them into satyrs or sacrificial goat.  They in the bliss is said to have direct effect and union with the gods.  Humans therefore could become god like.  Tragedy as mentioned before is also derived from the word tragoidia or goat song.  The tragedy drama developed out of the Dithyramb which was a song of rejoicing and the chorus led the dance in honor of the Dionysus. This was originally performed by men in disguise of the demonic followers of god; they were the satyrs who had equine ears and tails as depicted in the vases.  It was from this satyr the final form of drama developed.

The transformed individual thus required some façade or disguise.  The significance thus of masking arises. The very act of wearing a mask and transformation into another character is a form of worship in itself.  This double-ness, masked transformed individual in worship can be seen in the origin of Chhau.  Scholars are divided in their opinion about the etymology of the word Chhau.  Some researchers say that the word chhau is derived from the word Chhauni that means military camp. As this form involves the use of vigorous martial art techniques the form is said to have militaristic fervor.  However one can also opine that the word Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word Chhadma (Shadow) or hindi word Chhaya.  This word clearly resounds to the mask or the disguise which is a sort of shadow that is created.  In the eastern state of Assam masks are also called Chhon that bear a close resemblance to Chhau. 

Both Chhau and the Greek theatre are closely related to ritual festivals.  Greek theatre developed when the city of Dionysia celebrated the worshipping of the fertility God Dionysus.  The city Dionysia lasted for about week not only celebrated the religious and the artistic achievements but display of wealth, power and public spirit.  The tragedies were the center piece of the festival.  They were performed on the fourth, fifth and sixth day of the festival week, each day devoted to a single playwright.

It is interesting to observe that Chhau is celebrated during the spring festival or the Chaitra parva in March- April.  The festival lasts for about 13 days and Chhau is also the focal point of the festival.  Chhau folk dance drama, similar to the Greek counterpart is not a part of the religious festivity but is purely for the entertainment of the people.  This dance drama is also not performed everyday but is performed on the first, third and forth day.

  While the rituals of the Chaitra Parva take place every year, the dances take place for a few days.  13 days of the rituals are performed by 13 people of different castes, who perform the customs daily.  These people are called the bhagats who perform the ceremonies.  Quite similar to the Greek festivals in which the people are transformed into satyrs the Bhagats also are transformed to gods during the festival.  They gather around the Shiva temple and are given a sacred thread.  By wearing that they hence become shiva gotra, belonging to the same caste as Shiva and they alter their caste and thus getting some socio-legal sanction to perform the rituals.

The bhaghats start the procession from the majna ghat or the bathing ghat with the accompaniment of music and dance.  A flag staff is held by the man who is leading the festival called the Jarjar.  They have a dip in the river and proceed to the temple and to the palace where the flag is kept all the time. On the first day they also visit the performance area to purify it. This ceremony is called the Akhada mada. The next day the jatra ghata takes place that is followed by the Chhau.  The following evening is a ceremony called Brindabani in which god hanuman, the monkey god is prayed to. On the third night takes place the Garai bhar in which an episode relating to Krishna and the milkmaids is depicted.  The god Krisna is depicted as stealing the clothes of the milkmaids who have gone to take a bath in the pond.  A Chhau performance takes place in the evening.  Chhau is not performed on the fifth night and it can be done only if a small fee is paid to the Shiva temple in the form of a fine. 

The dances that take place are uniquely artistic and not ritualistic.  There are no direct links between the festival and the dances and they provide entertainment for the people.  The complex relationships developed among mythological narratives, social circumstances and theatrical displays are evident in the masked variants of Chhau.  This grew out of tributes to Shakti or the primordial energy associated with exorcist practices developed during the Chaitra parva under different systems of patronage.  Interestingly, Shakti like the god Dionysus is also worshipped widely as goddess of fertility in many parts of India.

In India many fertility festivals are often associated with wine and dance.  During the spring time another major festival takes place in India called the Holi where by merry making, wine drinking and playing with colors is popular.  Incidentally the God Shiva, who is worshipped in Chhau is also said to be fond of wine or Bhang, a heady drink made of milk, almonds and cannabis, which bears close resemblance to Dionysus the god of wine.  During the Siva Ratri or the festival that honors the god Shiva many devotees indulge in drinking of Bhang. 

Both Chhau and the Greek theatre have a participatory flavor.  In Greece it was said to be the civic duty to perform in the festival, and nearly 500 citizens performed.  Chhau too is based on cooperation amongst the people and it is also considered to be a public participation.  The mask hence gives both Chhau and Greek theatre a corporate personality. It gives the actor the actor contact with god and removes him from everyday mundane existence. 

Both chhau and Greek theatre developed under royal patronage.  The wealthy Athenian citizens were obliged among their aristocratic duties to sponsor a play.  This way they made their way to public education. The Athenian government officially sanctioned and gave support to a theatre festival for the best tragedy written.  The government has made a record of these events.  The dramatic festivals took place once a year and three writers were presented to for three continuous days.  A separate day five comical writers were also presented. 

Both in Seraikela and Purulia Chhau was fostered under royal patronage.  In Seraikela the kings were not only patrons but are dancers as well, both Aditya Pratap Deo and princes Suvendra and Brojendra are quite famous and well known.  Similar to the Greek theatre an annual competition is held between the various dancing groups.  The maharaja or the king gives the annual prize.  The whole town is divided into groups or akharas in which the dramatic form is developed.  The town is divided into eight akharas the Bajar Sahi, Mera khodara Sahi, Brahman sahi, hunja sahi, kansari sahi, khodara sahi beribahu, uttar sahi and dakshin sahi.  Chhau in Purulia is supported through households and there are also active competitions supported by rival political parties.

In Greece, famed actors were held in great honor and were even selected for diplomatic embassies.  They were granted special privileges and received help and protection of sovereigns and leading personalities of the state.  Aristodemus was invited to the court of Philip of Macedon and Thettalus to the court of Alexander the great, they were sent on important political missions.  They belonged to certain guilds along with the stage managers, costumers, dancers and musicians.  They produced epic, dramatic and lyrical plays old as well as new tragedies and comedies.

Chhau on the other hand is also organized into troupes that are under a leader or a guru.  Instrumentalists, stage managers, directors and actors all form the essential part of the troupe.  Chhau artists are given much social respect and honor. Many Chhau performances were taken abroad and Haren Ghosh, a troupe leader took Chhau to Europe as early as 1937-38.   

Unlike Greek theatre there is no spoken word in Chhau and there are no dialogues.  Conflicting emotions are concealed and they mainly focus on the mood or the theme of the drama.  The whole body therefore has to give totality to expression and hence the actor liberates himself from the body through masks. By Angikabhinaya or expression through body the actor explores the dominant bhava or emotions. 

Mask helps to express the bhava or the mood and the aesthetic sentiment or the rasa.  This helps the shirobheda, the head movements and the girvabhed the neck movements, as it emits glances.  Skill becomes the only determining factor as the age and the sex of the dancer is concealed through masks.  It resounds to the lord of the world Shiva as the cosmic lord is Shiva and the whole universe is nothing but postures and postures and Shiva both sustains the life force as well as destroys it.  Masks hence become the main aspect of this life force and it helps in the open acceptance of all and is in unison with nature and the universe.

Harmonies, movements and rhythms express the basic ideas of Chhau narratives.  The basic movements are based on the parikhanda or the exercise of the shield and sword; they are a set of Chalis or movements that are performed from back to front in single duple and quadruple tempo.  The movements are based on the daily activities and are therefore close to nature.  For example gaits of animals are incorporated like bagh chali crane walk, goumutra chali the walk of a cow after passing urine and harin dain the jumping of deer.  The activities of human beings, animals and birds are the inspiration behind the movements.

This article was a paper that Gouri had read in a conference held at Waseda University in Japan, 2008 on Masks.



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