Odissi and Chhau-a comparative study
Origins and history
Odissi and Chhau dance (I will be dealing in this article only with the Mayurbhanji variety of Chhau dance) are two products of the rich cultural history of the state of Odisha; they represent two important aspects of this history and are indicative of the two major trends which characterize the region, the religious or bhakti component and the martial one.
Although two branches of the same tree, the two forms of dance had different and almost contrasting path of development. While we can trace back the history of the Odissi form to the nartaki depicted in the Rani Gumpha cave of Udayagiri (200 B.C.) considered as the most ancient dancing representation in stone , we don’t have much documents related to the emergency of the Chhau dance before the 18th century A.D. On the other hand while Odissi had almost disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century and it was only after the Independence that the revival took place, the Chhau had reached its climax by the beginning of the 20th century and lost its luster with the merger of the Mayurbhanji state in 1949, when having lost the patronage of the Bhanji royal dynasty, it took some time before the new Government came to its rescue.
Although we don’t have much documents related to Chhau dance before the tenure of Maharaja Jadunath Bhanja Deo (1822-1865 A.D.) we are never less able to trace the development of the martial trend in the history of Odisha through the study of the paiks or infantry soldiers, their contribution to the feudal structure of the region in terms of military service, valor and prestige. From the phari-khanda (sword play) and rook-mar (attack and defense) exercise of the paiks to the full developed form of Chhau dance the path has been one of continuous development and progression. The patronage of the enlighten rulers of the Bhanji family have been determinant in bringing the Chhau style to the highly refined level of codification and stylization which characterizes the dance we see nowadays.
One important event in the course of this development has been the impressive performance put up by the Chhau dancers (called paiks by the local press of that time) in January 1912 for the reception of Emperor George V at Kolkata. The item known as ‘war dance’ had been directly supervised by Sri Ram Chandra Bhanji Deo and was a display of all the movements belonging to the attack-defense technique brilliantly choreographed by the ruler and performed by 64 well trained dancers from Baripada. From this stage onwards the style kept on developing adding new themes and movements drawn from folk and tribal dances of the region until it reached a vast repertoire of new and creative items.
While the Odissi style after an almost virtual disappearance got a sudden revival and recognition at the national level in the late 50’s and early 60’s and was able to attain the status of ‘classical’ from the concerned authorities, the Chhau somehow, although gifted with all the technical premises and with a well codified basic grammar, has not yet been able to get recognized in the classical category. I have personally seen a lot of refinement and improvement in terms of presentation of dance items and musical accompaniment in the course of the last 30 years and I am quite sure this recognition is not far from coming. One only hopes that the young generation of dancers who are nowadays practicing the art form will continue to do it with the same amount of dedication and commitment which the gurus and practitioners of the earlier generation had shown.
The basic steps (thabaka and uphli) ) of the Chhau style belong to the desi category of akasiki chari (Sangita Ratnakara) or aerial steps whereas the Odissi ones are more akin to the bhumi chari or earthly steps. In the akasiki chari the feet and legs are moved at different levels above the ground before being placed down, whereas in the bhumi chari the raising of the feet from the ground level is much less. Since in Chhau the legs are used to depict actions which in Odissi would be shown by the hands and arms movements, the leg movements are bound to be much wider and acrobatic than in other styles.
Some of the akasiki chari we find in the Chhau style are:
-vidyubhranta-throwing up the foot in front and moving it around above the forehead quickly before placing it on the ground. This corresponds to the sintha-pada in Chhau (putting vermillion spot on the forehead).
-purahksepa-throwing up the kunchita foot and stretching it forward quickly place it on the ground. This corresponds to the chhodadia in Chhau ( spreading the cowdung on the courtyard)
-harinapluta- jumping up with the foot bent and letting it fall repeatedly, In Chhau this is called harina dia ( the jump of the deer)
-damari- is the circular movement of the bent foot to the left and to the right. This is similar to the gobara-gala of the Chhau (mixing cow dung and water)
-janga varta- where the sole of the foot moving inwards is thrown at the back of the knee and the sole of the foot moving outwards is thrown at his side. In Chhau this is called anta muda (swinging of the hips)
-suchi- after placing one foot by the side of the thigh it is stretched pointing the end. In Chhau this is called baga macho kujia (the crane searching for fish in the pond)
Among the 108 karanas (co-ordination of movements of hands and feet) described in the Natya Shastra the ones most used in Chhau are vrscika ( one of the leg is bent towards the back), vishnukranta (one leg stretched in front) and lalata tilaka ( put tilaka on the fore-head with the big toe).
The basic movement of the upper torso (dheu-wave) in Chhau is in a frontal back direction whereas in Odissi is in a sideways direction. The frontal back direction (agrachala prusthi) in Odissi is used only in specific movements depicting water and peacock gaits.
Some similarities between the Odissi and Chhau technique are the following:
-eka bhudha ghura (single leg spin) is similar to the ekapada bhramari of Odissi
-chalaka (quick sideways movement of the feet) is called chapaka in Odissi, used very often in abhinaya
- thamaka of the Chhau is called sarana chari in Odissi, when one foot advances sideways and the other slides nearby with a quick movement
The two basic poses of tri-bhanga and chowka are present in both the styles but the Chhau tri-bhanga called dharana has the feet at a distance of 12” whereas in the Odissi one the distance is of 6”. The position of the arms in Chhau (right one up suggesting holding of the sword and left one thrown in front suggesting holding of the shield) and the more open position of the chest transform the feminine and graceful Odissi tri-bhanga into a masculine and virile stance. The chowka remains more or less same in both the styles except for the position of the arms: the Odissi 90 degree sideways position of the hands in pataka hasta resemble the iconographic figure of Jagannath, to whom this dance was offered as seva, whereas the upper and lower position of the Chhau arms suggesting the holding of sword and shield establish the martial derivation of the style.
It is interesting to observe how the basic squatting position of the knee and triple deflection at the neck, waist and knee is present in both the styles, as reflection of their belonging to the same regional context and how from these two common basic postures the two styles have developed in a opposite and complementary directions, as reflection of their different purpose and finality.
I consider the two styles complementary to each other in terms of energy, body language and aesthetic quality. The elegance and lyrical quality of Odissi infuse elegance into the Chhau whereas the virility and lightness of the Chhau infuse stability and control into the Odissi.
From practicing the Chhau movements one can develop better stamina, sense of balance and elasticity of muscles while from practicing the Odissi one develops command over rhythm and control over the micro-movements of hands, eyes and facial expressions.
When the two styles are compared, the Odissi is often described as the lasya or feminine component and the Chhau as the tandava or masculine one; this definition does not give justice to either of the styles. Elements of lasya and tandava are present in both the styles, it is the energy-quality which differs. While practicing both the styles one can really feel the different way the body is energized by the two forms of movements and realize the type of complementary energy which in the process gets released.
During the training period it maybe difficult to keep the two styles separated and some movements of one style may infiltrate and ‘pollute’ the execution of the other, but once the two styles have been mastered, there is no doubt that they enrich each other and offer a vast spectrum of possibilities in terms of creative choreographies.