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How women entered a martial arts dance

Published : Aug 23, 2017, 1:53 am IST
Updated : Aug 23, 2017, 1:53 am IST

Teaching chhau to young women in Calcutta was quite a learning and growth period for Krishna Chandra Naik.

Guru Madan Mohan Lenka, Guru Krishna Chandra Naik, Guru Sri Hari Nayak and Sharon Lowen.
 Guru Madan Mohan Lenka, Guru Krishna Chandra Naik, Guru Sri Hari Nayak and Sharon Lowen.

Recently I had a visit from Caroline Prada, currently one of the finest exponents of Mayurbhanj Chhau to chat about women in Chhau. As we spoke, I realised that this is linked to the transition from local royal patronage to performance in urban theatres.

It is well known that the British ban on private armies in eastern India led some zamindars and maharajas to maintain these as martial arts based dance troupes. But when and why did girls, ie. women, enter this male performance domain?

Pre-Independence, my Mayurbhanj Chhau guru, Krishna Chandra Naik danced under the patronage of the Baripada royal court. Two competing teams rehearsed their new choreographies on familiar themes and characters to win honours from the Maharaja. Barred from dancing for a year owing to some transgression, young Krishna was too restless to cool his heels on the sidelines and headed to Calcutta to see what he could do to earn a living through as a dance teacher.

Caroline PradaCaroline Prada

This was the heady times for the revival of Indian cultural traditions as part of reclaiming national identity in the pre and post Independence era by the educated elite. Tagore’s Santineketan was going strong and the Bengali bandralog embraced dance forms from around India.

Teaching chhau to young women in Calcutta was quite a learning and growth period for Krishna Chandra Naik. He developed not only his abilities as a teacher, but also his fertile imagination as a choreographer and respect for the abilities of women in a previously all-male form.

There was no going home to Baripada after the Maharaj banned all his dancers from performing Chhau after his support had to end with the new Indian government’s cancelling of his privy purse. During the low period, when to be a chhau artist was synonymous with being a rickshaw puller, an invitation from Shanti Bardhan to join his Little Ballet Troupe opened new creative opportunities.

I consider the atmosphere, vision and productions of the Little Ballet Troupe, established in 1952 and shifted to Gwalior phase in 1964, resonating with the heady collaborative experimentations reminiscent of the Bauhaus in Europe. Its core philosophy was to draw on folk and classical traditions and work as an ensemble rather than an individual start performer.

On stage, a Little Ballet Troupe performance.On stage, a Little Ballet Troupe performance.

The creative genius of Krishna Chandra Naik was given full expression as he also learned the various aspects and requirements of theatrical presentation. Little Ballet Troupe, Gwalior toured professionally but also became a center for training in theater arts, including dance.

Shanti Bardhan’s wife and LBT co-founder Gul Bardhan studied Mayurbhanj Chhau under Krishna Chandra Naik, along with other dance traditions. She carried on alone after her husband’s death in 1954, dancing and adding choreographic works including the iconic signature production of the Ramayana.

Up until this time, Guru Krishna Chandra Naik was the only Mayurbhanj Chhau guru teaching women. Equally significant, he was the only one with extensive experience in theatre, which paved the way for him to be able to take a tradition of solo, duet and group dance compositions to another level in creating full evening performances for the stage.

Experience in the theatre was essential for the great gurus of Odissi to rebuild a classical genre out of gotipua and mahari traditions that could transition to the concert stage. Today when we see Gotipua troupes performing the fabulous banda nrutya acrobatic formations, the linking dance technique and performance presentation is coming closer to the sophistication of classical Odissi. As Odissi gained recognition and respect during the 20th century revival, gotipua presentation style kept it out of the formal theatre venues.

Krishna Chandra Naik received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in the year 1975 and SNA also paid his salary to stay on in Delhi at the Bhartiya Kala Kendra to teach Mayurbhanj Chhau and create Chhau ballets for their repertory company. In the first few years, his major disciples were two women, Madhuri Bhatia and myself, along with Bharat Sharma.  Madhuri was a brilliant dancer, approaching learning chhau with an extensive background in yoga, and was the featured dancer in the early BKK annual Chhau ballets choreographed by Guru Krishna Chandra Naik, which included Jagdev, Konark, Kaling Vijay, Khajuraho, Yayati, Karna and Chaitra Parv. These were all under the direction of Shobha Deepak Singh who, sadly for me, wouldn’t consider allowing me to dance in her ballets or even annual student shows but has happily discarded this zenophobia for later generations of videshi students.

Just to connect a few more dots in the transition from gaon to city and the acceptance of women in Mayurbhanj Chhau that I have touched on in earlier articles, in 1976 Guru Naik insisted I perform in Baripada for his Chhau peers to prove that women were equally capable. This led to their later inclusion of girls from Baripada itself at the Mayurbhanj Chhau centre. In 1978 I had the opportunity to introducing Chhau to the Americas at the American Dance Guild/ Congress on Research in Dance held in Hawaii.

Other women who have made a mark in Chhau including Daksha Seth and Ileana Citaristi  while Odissi performing artists including Padmavibhusan Sonal Mansingh and Padmashri Ranjana Gauhar have incorporated Mayurbhanj Chhau in fusion performances.

Except for the Mayurbhanj Chhau ballets choreographed by Guru K.C. Naik, no other Chhau production was seen on the formal stage in Delhi until my production of Jivan Rekha at Kamani Auditorium, with Chhau dancers from Baripada and Seraikella in collaboration with Padmashri Gopal Dubey’s Trinetra Seraikella Chhau Centre.  I only realised this when I heard of the outcry that government cultural bodies should have done this and not a foreigner. This delighted me to have played a part in “priming the pump” for Chhau to keep moving from the grounds of Trade fair state pavilions to the concert stage.

Tags: martial arts, chhau, mayurbhanj chhau