The Chhau dancers of Purulia are in great demand this season. Called to perform at election rallies and roadshows, the performers are working overtime and desperately seeking new recruits to revive their groups and inject a life into the dying art form.
A year ago, life had taken a cruel turn for the community as Covid struck and the lockdown followed. Many Chhau groups were forced to disband and members headed out in search of work once unlock started. Now, the elections have brought them back and shored up their income.
“Covid had left us with no shows last year. This election has given us something to cheer about. We performed at three roadshows for BJP in Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore earlier this week,” said Chinibas Mahato, who runs a Chhau troupe at Sitalpur village, around 25km from Purulia town.
Similarly, Ashwini Sahis, Manik Kalindi, Ashwini Sahir and Dharani Rajwar, all members of Maa Bashuli Chhau Nritya Party of Mohada village in Purulia, performed at Trinamool Congress rallies recently. “We were working as masons in Kolkata but came back to the village earlier this month hoping to do what we love — perform Chhau. We performed at two rallies organised by Trinamool Congress.Our group also hired some young boys from the village and prepared them as a backup.” said Sahis.
One of the most rugged and backward districts of Bengal, Purulia had been ravaged by Maoist insurgency for years. But the dynamic tradition of Chhau survived its worst period. The word “Chhau” comes from chhauni (camp) or chhaat (roof), and with stories taken from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, the dance dramas in the form of mock fights celebrate the victory of good over evil.
To tap into the pulse of the locals, the BJP has been eager to showcase Chhau at its election roadshows, the latest being Union home minister Amit Shah’s rally at Purulia on Thursday.
The Trinamool Congress, however, has regularly used Chhau artists to spread the word about its flagship welfare schemes like Kanyashree and Swasthya Sathi in the belt. After the Covid outbreak, the government deployed Chhau artists to spread awareness about coronavirus in the villages. According to performers like Sushanta Mahato of Haramjanga village, all Chhau artists registered with the district information and culture office also receive a monthly allowance of Rs 1000 from the government that helped them sustain during Covid-19.
Chhau artists like Ashwini Sahis and Chinibas Mahato say it doesn’t matter to them which party comes to office, all they want is government patronage. “Ours is not an easy task. Ask anyone to wear a heavy mask like the one we wear and jump and flip the way we do. It takes years of practice, hard work and breathing control to execute the art form. There are very few newcomers. Hence, the government should focus on the needs of the few of us who are striving to preserve our heritage,” said Sahis.
Source: Times of India