OFF BEAT SANTINIKETAN
OFF BEAT SANTINIKETAN
Off beat Santiniketan can be quite interesting. Few weeks ago on one Sunday (11/11/2012) I decided to take a rest instead of moving out with a camera perennially in search of some topic to pen down some apparently meaningful article for muktodhara and landed up at Abanaida’s (Abani Biswas to be precise) joint ‘Theater House’ barely half a kilometer off Amar Kutir. The mornings at ‘Theater House’ is usually absolutely laid back, with no hustle bustle of any sort. Covered by Shal forest on three sides it is a pretty cool joint; and most importantly here at ‘Theater House’ one can easily talk for hours switching topics from Ramkrishna Paramhans to Goutam Buddha to Girish Karnad & Tagore’s Drama to Poetry in general to Paddy Cultivation to Trinamul Congress at one go. In the mornings, when in absence of any special program, it is a great place for the proverbial Bengali & at times international intellectual adda crossing all terrains with remarkable élan and one can expect to be supplemented once in a while by interesting ‘Tulsi Cha’ made little more tasty by addition of some Adrak. One can always expect some traversing souls there, Indian and foreigner with a handy cook in the kitchen who himself is a Baul with a fairly good voice! So it is an interesting and rejuvenating place, where time is expected to be of secondary importance-human beings being the primary. Abanida is a globe trotting theater personality of a pretty intriguing genre (a full article on his concepts about theater will be published some time in future), who stays at his farm house type theater workshop christened ‘Theater House’ from about October to April and the remainder part of the year is spent on attending and conducting various theater workshops all over Europe. He is back from one just concluded workshop in a festival held in Russia. Talking, or rather just being with him, is pretty interesting.
Coming back to the issue I intended for a cool long chat with Abanida and his theater friends and I did have a long free chat on many out-of-the-world topics. But I also got invited to a ‘Chou’ dance program that was held that evening at ‘Theater House’ for a small team of Norwegian theater people who were doing something on ‘Ritual & Spiritual Theater’ and were interested in interacting with Abanida on this matter.
To cut the matter short, I had to be back at ‘Theater House’ with my camera in the afternoon and as an aftermath this article follows.
A team as far as from Jharkhand, near Tata Nagar landed up carrying the spectacular ‘Chou’ masks atop the vehicle! The face is made of clay, but the decorative part these days are made of tiny plastic ornaments weaved over some half-circled mesh like wire structures. Several layers are created to give a pretty colourful and strong appearance.
With a weight of about 4 to 5 Kgs the masks are fairly heavy and pretty strongly build to be able to sustain some forceful Chou dance movements. The smaller ones starts at Rs 1000/- and according to size it can go upto Rs 3000/-. The masks of Lord Krishna are usually costlier than others as peacock feathers are used with a costing of Rs25/- apiece. Well. Lord Krishna after all remained more fambuoyant then any one else in the God-clan that is a foregone conclusion now!
So, in reality, searching for an off-beat Santiniketan without a camera, I had to rush home, had a hurried lunch, had to counter a grumpy better half, to pick up my rather old fashioned camera and rush back to ‘Theater House’ to take a close look of the Chou dancers. The Nagra and the Dhol remained the preferred percussion instruments with the Sehnai creating some standard nostalgic music.
The dress (to cover the chest and the shoulders) were also laden with several plastic beads arranged in pretty dramatic fashion. The dress would be weighing around one kilogram! The colour combination typically remained strong, almost to the level of outrageous! But such strong colour statement is perhaps a prerequisite for such a powerful dancing medium.
He was the gallant Kartick on the making. The Chou dancers have all their knees, ankles and the feet reinforced with tight elastic kneecaps or anklets to protect those parts from the strain of vigorous jumps and somersaults. I later found out that our Kartik was a specialist on somersaults. The lad behind our Kartik would soon turn into a pretty interesting Saraswati. Well, I was quite amused by kneecap and anklet clad Saraswati in half pants, and fondly remembered our football playing days. Chou dancers have to be good athletes first of all to become a good dancer.
After the initial dress up there will be a great and careful inspection of the mask. These guys hardly rehears with the mask on; and hence it is only on the stage shows that they wear the rather heavy mask. After each show there is always a bit of wear and tear of the masks and they carefully rearrange the masks before the stage show. Infact I would say they are as fastidious as any woman about their facial appearance! This lad spent about half an hour just to shape up the mask to an undefined level of perfection.
Devi Saraswati was in, so was Lord Ganesha with an extra pair of arm tucked at his back, but I was more interested in Mister Devi Durga, the team leader, who appeared absolutely jazzy with a very colouful sari.
Later, it was interesting to find Mister Devi Durga carrying his (or her?) mask and wig to the stage. As the masks are fairly heavy the dancers put on the headgear just before they enter the stage, and pull that out immediately off stage.
I followed the performers to the stage within the farmhouse of Abanida, and it was a very interesting sight for me. At the back of the open air stage the whole group appeared pretty outlandish, with the guy sitting in the middle (snap below) with a brown dress is the great Lion as the carrier of Devi Durga. He was already complaining over the readymade brown overall fearing a split at the bottom while performing his antiques as the Lion on stage and vehemently argued in favour of a tailor made dress for him (the Lion) so that he can move more freely on stage and attack the Mahisasura with more vigour. It was an interesting argument from a supposedly junior artist, which I enjoyed to the hilt.
Mister Devi Durga remained as fastidious as ever with his (or her?) mask. To be frank the guy appeared so manly that it became impossible for me to adjust to the concept of Devi Durga as long as he did not put up the mask. Even when he went for the elaborate wig just before putting up the mask I hardly could imagine him as Devi Durga.
The going to be Lord Ganesha put up the Ghungoor before getting on stage. Interesting thing to note here is the Ghungoor worn is pretty thin, suggesting that they would create very little sound along with dance stepping. Even with larger Ghungoors the chance of hearing the sound would remain pretty thin as Chou dance is accompanied by very powerful percussion instruments. So, evidently the Ghungoor here is just ornamental, probably wore as an accessory purely to show solidarity with the dancers clan.
The classical posture of a Chou dancer (Snap below) is purely a statement of power (Veera Dharma) and most of the narrations the Chou dancers portray is centered along powerful personalities generally the deities involved in some kind of war. I remembered an astonishing episode of Chou dance in Poush Mela where Devi Durga was so cross with her husband Lord Shiva that she challenged him into a war, which ultimately led to a great comical family fiasco! I also remember that Lord Shiva at that time got into a very tight corner and Devi Durga had to be persuaded to refrain from husband bashing!
With the mask tightly tied Lord Ganesha is now just ready to take on the stage and he enters with plenty of whirls. The light was failing, neither my ordinary camera was ready for such high speed photography in failing light without flash, so I could not catch the movements very effectively. Even so Chou dancers on stage became a different prospect altogether, the dramatic change in their expressions on stage is remarkably elegant.
I had never before seen a Chou performance in any open stage and naturally was mesmerized by the whole act of Mahisasur Mardan. Profound thanks to Abanida for providing me such an unexpected yet magnificent opportunity.
Gradually Lord Kartick will hop in and start his impossible antiques. Generally the entry of a Chou dancer on stage is a much-vaunted activity with all sorts of possible frills attached. The frills are usually great physical feats like somersaults, whirls or jumps in the air. It was really astonishing how our Kartick was managing his somersaults with such heavy headgear; to be true in the whole show lasting about half an hour I only noticed one yellow plastic flower dropping off from the mask. The fitness and the finesse of the performers are really great.
Devi Durga appeared little bit subdued as he/she could not jump about in a Sari like others, but naturally excelled in grandeur. Sometimes the percussion instrument players or even the Sehnai player would join the dancers to provide some extra zing to the show.
In this particular show, to be honest I was more interested in the costumes than the actual dance show, primarily because even though I had seen several Chou performances here and there I had very little idea about their costumes. In the end Devi Durga looked pretty cool with her ensemble. As a reference I am posting here a relatively high-speed photography of Chou dance by Surajitda, my respected erstwhile colleague, taken in one of the Poushmelas in Santiniketan.