In a grainy black-and-white film snippet from a royal event in Calcutta in January 1912, a big group of martial dancers swamp the screen for about 30 flickering seconds. Swords and shields in hand, they leap high, flying across the maidan, engaged in mock combat. There is vigour here, but also the controlled energy of coiled spring.

Well over a century later, in his Delhi studio, veteran choreographer-dancer Bharat Sharma is putting his dancers through a callisthenics regimen focussed on the thighs, spine and core. The basic stance is challenging enough – tribhangi, where the central line of the body is interrupted at three points – and then the left leg is deflected outwards. From this skewed posture, the dancers have to leap, kick, lunge, squat and twist, using their entire body to emulate mortal and divine beings.

Next month, similar artistry will be seen across some of the poorest tribal pockets in three states – Mayurbhanj in Odisha, Seraikela in Jharkhand and Purulia in West Bengal – as magnificent dancers, many of them daily wagers, mark the arrival of Chaitra Parva, the spring harvest.

Chhau, the dance form, defies every label. You can find it in urban studios of modern and classical dancers, in the training workshops of theatre actors, and the akhadas of Mayurbhanj. It is too codified to be folk, too folk to be classical, and too classical and too folk to be martial. It lays no claims to great antiquity, nor does it cite ancient texts to establish high scholarship.

But it has what no other dance form in India has – an eloquent, expressive dance vocabulary that uses just the legs, feet and torso. Animals, birds, spirits, divine beings and women going through their day – all come alive in this spare, exquisite form. There are no hand gestures here, no facial abhinaya, not even song texts, just pure body work.

Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen, among the students of the legendary Krishna Chandra Naik of Mayurbhanj, says its versatility benefits all kinds of performing artistes. “It uses the entire body, with the movement starting from the core, which is fundamental in modern dance and ballet,” she said. “And for actors, how you change your spine and core is essential to establish a character.”

Delhi old-timers still recall the mild September evening of 1965 when Chhau made a splash in the capital city, far from its remote eastern home turf. By then Bharatanatyam and Kathak had acquired their current forms, and Odissi had nearly crystallised. The idea that an art form this evolved was as yet undiscovered was unthinkable for the capital’s cultural tsars. On the lawns of Sangeet Natak Akademi, audiences gasped as a dance with sleek, lyrical and gravity defying physicality. What is this? people asked one another.

“We were stunned by this form that communicated its themes through the entire body, not through facial expressions or words,” said Kumkum Lal, who learned the style under Krishna Chandra Naik in the late 1970s. “Its themes were unusual – Shikari [hunter], Dandi [initiation into brahmacharya] or even the very distinct ras leela of Tamudiya Krishna. There were leaps and curvatures of the entire body. And what was remarkable was that those who danced were labourers and rickshaw-pullers, and you could see the sinews on their bodies, which were evidently undernourished but very lithe. We were full of admiration for how dedicated they remained to dance, despite their work. And the music was very unusual, it had tribal influence but also some strains of a clarinet-like shehnai.”

Leading the troupe was Naik, a petit man with a wiry – almost gaunt – frame, capable of tremendous feats of grace and strength. Dancers often struggle for words when they describe his craft. Ballet maestro and choreographer Narendra Sharma was to recall to his son Bharat: “He [Naik] could spiral down and reverse it while standing up on one leg, all in slow motion”.

Krishna Chandra Naik, a brilliant dancer, took Chhau out of its home state and inducted women into the art. Courtesy: Bharat Sharma.

Bharat Sharma has been documenting the story of Chhau’s arrival on the national scene. This is not just because he was among Naik’s earliest students in Delhi, but also because Chhau’s journey in the 1960s crisscrossed the life and art of his father, whose 100th anniversary falls this year. “Chhau gave Indian modern dance and ballet the perfect answers to the many issues it was struggling with,” he said.

Royal preserve

Chhau varies across the eastern belt – in Mayurbhanj, it is muscular and dynamic, in Seraikela, a face mask gives it a softer, otherworldly feel, while in Purulia the folk element is strong.

It emerged from the mid-19th century martial training of elite fighters and for it to become the celebratory entertainment of common people decades later, it had to go through a tortuous journey involving imperious maharajas, independence, loss of privy purse, and the migration of rebel gurus to the cultural capitals of Delhi and Calcutta.

One of the most exhaustive and oft-cited research works on the Chhau is The Story of the Chou Dance of the former Mayurbhanj State, Orissa, the 1973 doctoral dissertation of Judith Blank, a scholar at the University of Chicago.

She documents how royal families were active patrons, participants and interventionists in Chhau’s evolution. In Mayurbhanj, they not only danced it, but also backed it and directed choreographies. In Seraikela, the engagement went a step further: the king and queen themselves danced a more sedate, elegant form of the dance.

Bharat Sharma has been documenting the story of Chhau’s arrival on the national scene. Credit: OP Sharma. Courtesy: Bharat Sharma.

Blank traces the dance back to the akhara floors of the paikas, whom she describes as the king’s henchmen. They practised callisthenics and swordsmanship and, more fascinatingly, they maintained a distinct style of movement at all times – a “springing walk with feet turned out, weight held low in the thighs as if ready to jump and back arched”. They could make the most sudden movements to drum beat without losing their balance, she adds.

The form became the preserve of the royals and it was only in the first three decades of the 20th century that “lesser” aristocrats and, later, professionals were allowed to perform it. But with independence and later the abolition of the privy purse came the question: who would back Chhau? Mayurbhanj kings, says Blank, considered the art their personal possession, and in 1948, in an after-me-the-deluge gesture, banned dancers from performing or taking the form out of the state.

Krishna Chandra Naik, a brilliant young dancer, was among the first to be thrown out of the Baripada court for defying a royal diktat. He did two unthinkable things – he left Chhau’s home state for Calcutta and there, taught women dancers, who had no place in the art till then.

The Chhau story then goes to an unusual destination – Gwalior, the home of the acclaimed Little Ballet Group at the time. Naik was brought in there to teach Chhau to its dancers. Among them was Shashichandran Nair, already trained in Kathakali. He was among those on whom Naik choreographed Bhairavi, an epic ballet work totally based on Chhau.

“Guruji’s dance was very stylised and clean,” recalled Nair, who was to star in Naik’s big productions such as Konark, Khajuraho and Karan for the Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. “I had never seen a guru like him, structured, precise, like he danced in a frame.”

Government support

Back in the capital city, two years after the first landmark Chhau show, arts enthusiast Asutosh Bhattacharya brought an astonishing display of Chhau from Purulia, particularly Arjunia Keerat, an episode from the Mahabharata. “I still remember that to the beat of 8-10 massive drums, dancers would enter the stage thus: each would jump, twist mid-air, and drop to the ground, and spring straight back up,” recalled Bharat Sharma.

The versatility of Chhau, Lowen asserts, benefits all kinds of performing artistes. Courtesy: Sharon Lowen.

Delhi was hooked. Connoisseurs and scholars could not have enough of Chhau and dancers sought Naik’s tutelage. Among them were Bharat Sharma, Lowen and Madhuri Bhatia, followed in later years by Sonal Mansingh, Daksha Sheth and Ileana Citaristi.

In December 1968, the arts journal Marg published a landmark issue on Chhau, with scholar Jeevan Pani and Sunil Kothari documenting separately the movements, stances, music and accessories of the Mayurbhanj and Seraikela variants. Writer Mulk Raj Anand contributed an ode to it titled Anandam.

Chhau had arrived on the national scene.

But it was not just the country’s culture capitals that were benefitting from the Chhau phenomenon. Government arts bodies reached out to support Chhau talent in its home turf, extending the finances and resources that the impoverished community was much in need of after the death of feudal patronage. Suresh Awasthi, the Sangeet Natak Akademi secretary, despatched a team of dancers and scholars to Baripada to closely study the form. Among them were Narendra Sharma and Kathak veteran Uma Sharma.

By the 1970s, as Bharat Sharma documents, Chhau had travelled west – Kedarnath Sahu of Seraikela Chhau went to teach Chhau at New York University and Purulia Chhau troupes toured Europe – even as theatre practitioners and scholars from the United States and Europe were travelling to Baripada.

Most importantly, for ballet dancers, struggling to find a totally Indian physical idiom, Chhau became the go-to form.

In the 1970s, Indian ballet and contemporary dance groups started making Mayurbhanj Chhau an essential element of their training programme. Courtesy: Bharat Sharma.

“Indian ballet and contemporary dance groups started making Mayurbhanj Chhau an essential element of the training programme for dancers,” says Bharat Sharma in an article for the online dance journal Narthaki. “Many groups adapted the style in Kolkata, Bhopal, Delhi and Bengaluru, while some soloists included Chhau dances in their repertoire, especially Orissi dancers who saw the style as a male counterpart in a gendered perspective. This even had an impact on nomenclatures – Chhau and Contemporary, Chhau and Orissi, Kathak and Chhau, and of course several manifestations in theatre.”

In the decades after its discovery, Chhau rode high on state and global support. But now, as an independent art form, it stands at something of a critical crossroad. Its easy adaptability has diluted its essential form and the yawning chasm between its practitioners back home and those in the metropolitan dance studios does not seem to close with ease. “For the form to stay intelligent it needs training in choreography which the Chhau centres are not getting,” said Lowen. “In cities, there is innovation but then there is the danger of it becoming something of a khichdi.”

Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at