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  • Writer's pictureSharon Lowen

Connecting the dots between Chhau, Odissi and Gotipua dance forms of Odisha

Chhau originated as an all-male tradition, Gotipua limited to pre-pubescent boys dressed as female, and the Odissi in the temple tradition was performed by women dedicated to spiritual service. The Odissi we see on the stage today is a combination of the Mahari temple tradition and the medieval Gotipua bhakti expression. Chhau is a cousin-brother to both along a developmental range of nuance in shared culture of body positions, movement, music and themes.


During British Colonial rule, the princely states of Mayurbhanj, Dhenkanal in Odisha, and others nearby in Purulia and Seraikella, initially had their own private armies but when this was banned in the 1800’s some states maintained these Paikas (foot soldiers) as dance troupes with the same vigorous exercises stylized into themes set to music. The female nachni in rural areas and other folk traditions informed the development of Chhau.

Of the three major chhau forms today, Purulia Chhau (or Chow/Chou) and Seraikella Chhau of Jharkhand are performed with masks while Mayurbhanj Chhau from northern Orissa is performed without masks, facilitating the development of a more articulated vocabulary of torso movements.


The Chhau lasya items set to the tunes of well-known traditional Odiya folk songs reveal the direct cousin sister-brother connection of Chhau and Odissi dance, particularly as those native to Odisha immediately can identify the song from the tunes also used in Odissi. The dharan basic stance of Chhau is the tandav version of Odissi’s lasya tribangi. Both have a triple bend, one foot diagonally forward with additional bend at the waist, yet the same position can be the epitome of sensual grace in Odissi and broadening the shoulders and feet slightly transforms it to a warrior stance.


Mayurbhanj Chhau flourished under royal patronage with strictly supervised opposing teams, Uttar Sahi and Dakhin Sahi. When Independence and the loss of the Royal Privy Purse made continued patronage impossible, the erstwhile Maharaja of Mayurbhanj forbade his dancers to perform. Fortunately, a young dancer who became the great Mayurbhanj Chhau guru, Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee Krushna Chandra Naik, had already left for Calcutta, The Little Ballet Troupe in Gwalior and eventually Delhi where he taught both men and women and helped keep the tradition alive. Guru K.C. Naik’s lasya or feminine chhau choreography exemplified that the Nachni-Gotipua-Odissi evolution includes Chhau on the same spectrum.


Gotipua dance is another male dance tradition of Odisha which was created in direct relation to the Mahari temple tradition performed exclusively by women and merging to become what we now call Odissi. In the first half of the 16th century, the Bengali saint Chaitanya settled in Orissa and transformed the Vaishnavite form of worship of Krishna. The centrality of Radha was expressed in the Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda when it was performed for Jagannath at the daily Bada-Singara ritual ceremony, but it was Chaitanya who spread the Radha idea to the populace.


The neo-Vaisnavism of the Chaitanya era created the right environment for dance to become a vehicle of expression to reach the people. The custom of having Odissi performed by boys dressed as girls enabled the devotional poetry to reach the general public outside temple precincts. It was also a logical development, both as women dancing in public were not acceptable during that era, and secondly, because sakhi bhava or worshipping Krishna as female devotees was an acceptable religious practice. The Gotipuas performed at religious festivals, social gatherings, occasionally in temple courtyards, and had considerable patronage up until the 19th century.


The acrobatic Bandha Nrutya which is the striking part of the Gotipua repertoire can be seen in the karanas mentioned in the Natyashastra. The Oriya texts and the music and training of Gotipuas have provided a strong base for the revival of Odissi in the 20th century. Today we see Banda Nrutya included in Odissi performances while the Gotipura training in the traditional akhadas are coming closer to the technique of today’s Odissi.

The ancient Mahari tradition, with its emphasis on dramatic expression, and the medieval Gotipua tradition of boy dancers performing outside the temple precincts, which emphasized the more physical and even acrobatic aspects of the dance, was the foundation for the development of classical Odissi as a theatrical performance art on the stage as we know it today.


Odissi Dance has moved from the temples and public squares to the modern stage thanks initially to Guru Pankaj Charan Das (who grew up in a Mahari family in Puri and learnt dance from his Aunt Ratna Prabha Devi), Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, Guru Debaprasad Das, and Guru Mayadhar Raut. The temple dance tradition of the Maharis was pretty much strangled by the British anti-Nautch act and Gotipua troupes were not in high esteem. The rediscovery of Indian Sanskriti by the intelligentsia in the early 20th century also resulted in the daughters of forward thinking families starting to take private tuitions in dance at home. The need and possibility of bringing Odissi to the concert stage with independent dance performances demanded major reconstruction and research.


Odissi’s recognition as a classical dance form in the 1950’s was entirely brought about by dance gurus/choreographers who had experience in the Jatra and Ras Leela folk theater traditions along with gotipua training and were able to translate the dance for a proscenium stage.


In 1959, a group called Jayantika was formed which included the eminent gurus and scholars of Odissi, including Guru Pankaj Charan Das, Guru Deva Prasad Das, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and his wife Laxmi, one of the first females to dance on the stage in Orissa, Guru Mayadhar Raut, Sanjukta Panigrahi and scholars Kalicharan Pattanaik, Dhirendranath Pattanaik and Lokhnat Mishra. The decision was taken to base the pattern of development of the Odissi dance on first the Shastras, secondly the Gotipua tradition and thirdly, the temple sculptures.


The repertoire accepted by the Jayantika in 1959 turned the first six items of the Gotipua repertoire into one continuous invocatory dance, Mangalacharan. The others are almost intact, except that the Svara Pallavi based on melody of sentiment, sometimes accompanied by song, has been generally eliminated leaving only the Svara Vadya Pallavi based on raga alone. The Sabhinaya Nrtya is simply called Abhinaya and the name of the concluding Ananda nritya is now elevated to Mokshya, liberation. The positioning of Mangalacharan, Batu and Mokshya in a program is invariable, though Batu is now sometimes left out.

No Mahari dance is performed with a Mangalacharan and ending with Mokshya. There is no Batu Nrutya in the Mahari Nrutya and it is because of this that some Gurus call it Sthai Nrutya and not Batu.


Guru Pankaj Charan Das did not accept Mangalacharan as the opening of a performance for the stage as his dance background reflected the Mahari temple dance tradition and he felt that Mangalacharan should only be performed in the temple because of Tantric connections. Instead, Pankaj Babu’s stage performance repertoire opens with the dancer gracefully offering aarti with candles or lamps.


Only songs of Gita Govinda were offered in Jagganath Puri temple while the gotipuas shared Odiya bhakti poetry for the public. The Odissi performed on stage draws on both sources as well as expanding to other languages and themes. Chhau also uses the songs of Odiya Bhakti poets, though without a vocalist as traditional outdoor settings before microphones supported loud percussion and shenai with the audience recognizing the familiar Odiya poetry from the tune.


The Oriya Mahabharata, written by Sarla Das in the 15th century, gives a detailed description of Prince Arjuna dressed as Bruhannari during his year disguised as a dance teacher which quite accurately describes the costume worn by the Maharis at Puri Jagannath temple but the costume worn by the Odissi dancer on the stage today is closer to that worn by the Gotipuas.


The movement of the torso is one of its most distinctive features in Odissi dance as compared to other Indian classical dance genres. The graceful shifting of the torso throughout a dance phrase gives a lyrical, softening effect to the movement while the feet precisely match the rhythm accents. This articulated torso movement is shared not only with gotipua dance but notably with Mayurbhanj Chhau. It is significant that this lyrical body expression in Mayurbhanj Chhau is shared primarily with Odissi and Gotipua but less so with other Chhau forms of Bengal and Jharkhand.


Odiya music used in Chhau, Gotipua and Odissi, stands at the crossroads of Hindustani North Indian music and Karnatak South Indian music, with a strong regional identity that Oriya scholars and musicians have made efforts to have accepted as a third school of Indian music


By the 1980’s, Odissi dance had firmly established its own identity in the pantheon of Indian classical dances by demonstrating that the principles and rules of shastra applied. With Odissi’s stature assured, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and other gurus brought back to the form elements which were earlier eliminated or played down. These ranged from “rustic” poses, torso undulations seen enlarged in the “brother” style of Mayurbhanj Chhau, traditional Odiya hasta abhinaya hand positions and increased presentation of Odiya abhinaya besides the Sanskrit ashtapadis of Gita Govinda.


While each dance tradition, Chhau, Gotipua and Odissi are distinct, they each blend and overlap in multiple ways. The Shastric karanas that are core to the Bandha Nritya of Gotipua tradition are now entering the repertoire of Odissi training and performance. Gotipua troupes are exposed to the performance practices of Odissi which is adding sophistication to their performance. To see the relationship of Mayurbhanj Chhau’s lyrical physicality to the others, simply see a Chhau dancer interpreting an Odiya song like ‘Aja Mu’ next to the same song performed by a gotipuas dancer next to an Odissi dancer—a visible continuum.

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