Challenging male-dominated art form, this is Chhau artist Mousumi Choudhury’s saga of determination

Mousumi Choudhury in Chhau costume

Eyebrows raised, neighbours taunted, many mocked her, but she did not stop; she stood up, fought for her passion, and worked hard to achieve her goal. Today she is credited as the first female Chhau dancer of Purulia District in West Bengal.
Focused and confident, 23-year-old Mousumi Choudhury knows well where she is headed. If you ask her what her aim in life is, without any hesitation or second thought, she will answer, “I want to be identified as a Chhau exponent; this is my life. I will soon pursue my Ph.D. in the art form too.”

Mousumi broke the age-old tradition of male dominance in this field by mastering the art form and performing in national and international venues.
Chhau (included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010) has interesting inception as an art form. Chhau is derived from the word chhauni (camp). It is believed to have been performed initially to keep soldiers war-ready.

Mousumi Choudhury

This is a challenging art form for the performer with vigorous leaps, jumps, and somersaults. A kind of dance drama, Chhau represents the stories from Ramayana, Mahabharatha, and the Puranas.
Chhau celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Chhau is categorised into three types – Purulia (West Bengal) Chhau, Mayurbhanj (Odisha) Chhau, and Seraikella (Jharkhand) Chhau. Today, the dance drama is also used to spread awareness about Covid-19.
“My father, Jagannath Choudhury, a Chhau artist, attracted me to this exciting dance form. Since childhood, I have been fascinated by the beats, movements, and masks used in Chhau. It was during my high school days, I thought seriously about getting myself trained in Chhau. I spoke to my father, and he was all ready to train me for the dance drama,” said Mousumi, who won the Grand Prize at the 2019 Asia-Pacific Youth ICH Storytelling Contest, organised by UNESCO. 

Mousumi with her father Jagannath Choudhury

Initially, Mousumi had to face a lot of hardships to enter into this male domain. But, unflustered, she continued her journey with determination to master the art form. If one looks into the history of Chhau, it can be found that a handful of women have dared their way into this art form earlier as well. Madhuri Bhatia, Ileana Citaristi, Subashree Mukherjee, Madhumita Paul are some who have inspired more women to enter the world of Chhau.

“Earlier, Chhau was only performed by men. As this is an art form that requires great physical endurance, women were not considered for Chhau. I had to break this stereotype and wanted women also to be part of this art form.”

“It wasn’t easy, and I had to stand for myself and be bold enough to take any public backlash. Today, I am happy that I came out strong, completed my Masters in Bengali. I also teach Chhau at the university, and I am inspiring many women to make an identity in Chauu,” voiced Mousumi.

It was Banglanatak dot com that helped Mousumi to reach out to a wider audience. An NGO working towards the upliftment of marginalised communities, Banglanatak dot com also conducts Chhau training camps in Purulia.
Mousumi, with her all-women Chhau troupe that she set up in 2010, polished their skills there. Inspired by Mousumi, today, more than four all Chhau women groups work in Purulia.
Now, after over a decade, Mousumi has performed in various stages in India and in Norway.
“We were about to go to Singapore this year, but our show got canceled due to the pandemic. I hope everything gets back to normal soon. True passion for the art form is driving me forward. We hardly have any monetary benefits from this art form. As Chhau is performed only during Hindu festivals, it’s difficult for the Chhau artists to survive during the off-season. The pandemic has hit us hard as many artists have turned to do other daily wage jobs to sustain a livelihood,” said Mousumi.

Awarded the Grand Prize at the 2019 Asia-Pacific Youth ICH Storytelling Contest, organised by UNESCO

The mask and the costume play a pivotal role in Purulia Chhau. The masks are classified as – ‘babu’ masks (depicting gods, such as Shiva, Narayana, Ganesha, Kartik, and Krishna); ‘bir’ or hero masks (used for demons like Ravana, Mahishasura); ‘bhoot’ or ghost masks; animal masks (of tiger, lion, buffalo, or monkey heroes like Bali and Sugriva from the Ramayana); ‘nari’ or women masks (for Durga, Parvati, Saraswati and the like); and bird masks (for peacock, swan, Jatayu, etc.).

The masks and attire are pretty expensive. “A Chhau artist will have to spend at least INR 4,000 for a performance. The same mask cannot be used for more than two performances. When we calculate the whole expense of a single show, we are in loss. But, artists still put their maximum effort into celebrating the art form,” added Mousumi.
In this 21st century, when people are immersed in a technology-driven world, few strive hard not to let off their customs and age-old traditions.

Mousumi and her women group belong to such a cult that are protecting the skills and knowledge of traditional art forms that might soon find places in history books if not valued anymore.
“It’s a tough battle to keep the art form alive. It would be great if the government could come up with any plans to preserve such endangered art forms and provide artists with a monthly income to keep them working even in this uncertain time of the pandemic,” said Mousumi.