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Mahisasur Mardini in Purulia Style of Chhau Dance - An Intangible Cultural Heritage of India!

Purulia Chhau is a martial dance drama, mainly based on stories derived from Hindu mythological texts like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. Also known as the “dance drama of the gods,” it is performed by men who impersonate mythological characters of gods and demons by wearing elaborate masks and enacting the story in a performance tradition that melds dance, acrobatic routines and martial arts. Chhau is prevalent in regions across the present-day states of Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkand in Eastern India. At present there are three prominent styles of Chhau dance: Purulia Chhau from the state of West Bengal, Seraikela Chhau from Bihar and Mayurbhanj Chhau from Orissa; another style called Jhargram Chhau from West Bengal is also popular. All these dance-styles of Chhau use masks, except for the Mayurbhanj style, which uses colours on the faces of the performers instead of masks. (Vikrant Kishore, 2014, From Real to Reel - Folk Dances of India in Bollywood Cinema)

Scholars have sought to clarify the origins of Purulia Chhau by exploring the etymology of its name. There are disparate opinions on the origins of the word Chhau; some scholars argue that it is taken from the Oriya (the language spoke in the state of Orissa) word Chhau (attack), while others say that it comes from the Sanskrit word chhaya (shade) or Mundali word chhak (ghost). But most scholars agree about the martial origins of the dance in ancient India (Emmert et al. 1983). Singhdeo (in Emmert et al. 1983) suggests, “Chhau dance is based on the basic techniques of the pharikhanda style of dance.” Phari is the “shield” and khanda is the “sword.” According to Vijoy Kishore, the word Chhau has been derived from the word Chhauni, which means military camp. In the middle ages, Hindu kings of the region maintained these Chhauni or military camps of soldiers to protect their borders against enemies and to conduct military expansion into new territories (eds. Emmert et al. 1983). (Vikrant Kishore, 2014, From Real to Reel - Folk Dances of India in Bollywood Cinema)

Purulia Chhau Rituals

Purulia Chhau dance starts with six main rituals—Dhumal Bajna, Daharua, Akhara Bandana, Sabha Bandana, Udan Bhajana and Ganesh Bandana—that act as a prelude to the main performance. In the first ritual of Dhumal Bajna, the dance groups offer their prayers to gods and the various accoutrements like musical instruments, masks and costumes that are to be used in the performance, after which they begin a ceremonial procession from the village to the dance arena. In the second ritual of Akhara Bandana (veneration of the arena), the musicians pray to the Akhara (stage) for a good performance. Thereafter, they initiate the ritual of Sabha Bandana (audience worship), where the musicians and performers greet the audience for their patronage and ask for their cooperation for a successful performance. In Udan Bhajana the musicians enter the spotlight as they play their musical instruments as loudly as possible, with thundering beats of the Dhumsa and Dhol drums and the shrill calls of the Shehnai and Bansi. This continues for around 20 minutes to ensure that everyone in the village hears the announcement and anybody left behind makes his way to the performance. Finally, the ritual of Ganesh Bandana (worship of Lord Ganesha) pays obeisance to Lord Ganesha, to seek the blessings of this Hindu god of good fortune with the head of an elephant, whose invocation is a must at the start of any venture or occasion in Hindu tradition.

Mahisasur Mardini is one of the most popular dance dramas from the Purulia Chhau repertoire. It is taken from Devi Purana and tells the story of the victory of the goddess Durga over the demon king Mahisasur. One of the main reasons for its popularity in the region was its depiction of the might of goddess Durga, the most venerated goddess of female power in the Bengal region. In the story, the demon Mahisasur begins terrorising all the gods in heaven. Shiva, one supreme god of the Hindu divine trinity sends his sons Ganesha and Karthik to contain Mahisasur’s tyranny. When they are both defeated and sent back, the divine trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu unite together to create a female emanation of their power called Durga to stop the demon king. Bequeathed with the blessings of all gods, armoured with ten arms full of weapons and a lion as her carrier, Durga finally annihilates the demon king Mahisasur.

Excerpts from the book by Dr Vikrant Kishore: From Real to Reel - Folk Dances of India in Bollywood Cinema, 2014 published by UNESCO-APNIEVE 2014

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