Folk Dances of West Bengal
The Chhau dance of West Bengal is originated from Purulia district. It is included in the sophisticated dance performances
of Bengal. The Chhau dance is a mask dance in which only male dancers can participate. In the performance of the Chhau, some
of the characteristics of primitive ritualistic dance performance are noted. This can be also seen through its vigour, style
and musical accompaniment mainly with the drum.
In the early period, various shaped symbols were used as facial painting or body painting by dancers. Thus, they are recognized
as personifying the characters they are playing in the performance. And later on, the masks appeared in the dance performances.
It is said that, the best Chhau dancers are from Baghmundi P.S. Many groups or parties are located from here for the best
performance because of their traditional vigorous and heroic style of performance.
Many other groups like Domordi-group, Birgram-group, Madla-group etc. are also famous for the performance but they are
more sophisticated and refined in terms of the themes and dancing styles. The Chorda-group is popular for the best performance
is based on the heroic Pauranic themes. Chhau mask dance is predominantly a Bhumij art.
Basically, it is a festival dance, performed on the occasion of the sun festival observed towards the end of the month
of Chaitra as per Bengali Calendar. The festival is celebrated for about one-and-a-half months till before the starting of
sowing season. This indicates its linkage with the social and economic life of the Bengal farmer & common man. With passing
of time, the situation has changed drastically. Chhau is not only performed on this sun festival but also during many other
festivals at other times of year.
The artistes from rural areas like Midnapur and Purulia districts have kept alive this traditional dance against every
heavy odd. So, the dance has its own identity, making it distinctively different from the Chhau dances that are performed
in parts of Serai KelIa of Bizarre and Mayurbnanj of Orissa.
The costumes of the Chhau performers used at the time of its early year performance, over two hundred years ago are not
known. But the costumes used in modern period are of various colours and designs. It mainly comprises of pyjamas in deep green
or yellow or red shade that is worn by the artistes playing the role of gods, while those, who play the role of demons (asuras)
have on loose trousers of a deep black shade. Sometimes, stripes of contrasting colours are used to make the costumes more
attractive & different. The costumes for the upper part of the body are full of various designs. A character of Goddess
Kali is considered as a popular character in Chhau dance. The costumes for the Kali are made up of cloth of unrelieved black.
To express the separate & distinct identity, the characters of animals and birds use suitable type of masks and costumes.
The masks generally used for Chhau of West Bengal are made in a village called Charida in Baghmundi area of Purulia district.
These masks are made up from the clay and paper. The groups of people, who make masks, have been engaged in this business
from generations. Generally, these artisans are familiar with the details about the Indian epics so that they bear an ability
to produce the high artistic skill.
The Chhau dance is mythological, as it is mainly based on various episodes of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Sometimes
certain episodes of the Puranas are also used. Two rasas are dominant in the performance are Vira and Rudra. At the end, forces
of evil are punished and the righteous triumphs.
No proper dais or raised platform is constructed for its performance. Usually, the dance takes place on the ground where,
the spectators can sit in a circle around it. The Chhau dance shows usually start in the night and continues till after daybreak.
The use of the drum is an important part of Chhau performance. With the beating of drums an invocation to God Ganesha
is given and the dance begins. As the singer complete the invocation song, host of drummers and musicians starts beating with
the Dhol and the Dhamsa. Dhamsa is a two-faced percussion instrument and gigantic kettledrum played with sticks and fingers
respectively. These two traditional musical instruments are used by the rural population in various parts of the country for
As it is compulsory for all the characters in the Chhau dance to wear masks, it is impossible for the artistes to show
variations in mood through facial expressions. Therefore, various body movements, including movements of the peaks of the
masks are used to illustrate different moods. The mask movements show anger, while shoulder and chest movements indicate joy,
melancholy and courage etc. Jumping in the air is another movement, which serves as a gesture of attack during the enactment
of a war scene. This kind of jumping known as ulfa is a high hallmark of acrobatic skill and physical prowess of the performers
of the dance.
Chhau is considered as the most popular Indian folk dance and said to have originated from some primitive war-hoops. Many
experts & scholars feel Chhau had its roots in sympathetic magic, as tribal people performed it in an effort to appease
and influence the Sun God.
Though about its origin there exist confusion, it forms an important part of the rich legacy of the folk culture of West
Bengal and still it has gained international popularity. The Purulia-school has got a huge popularity today not only because
of its gorgeous masks and dresses, but also for its touching themes and dignified gaits as well. Many artistes coming from
the rural working class traditionally regard this dance as a part of their rituals. Several teams of Purulia Chhau dancers
have performed not only in different parts of India and but also in abroad.
Jatra is a considered as a famous form of folk theatre from the eastern region of India. Jatra is the traditional theatre
form of West Bengal. It is the enactment of a play. And performed with a cast and also comprises of music, dance, acting,
singing and dramatic conflict in its performance. In earlier years, the religious values were well communicated with the help
of Jatra to the masses. In short, it is used as the powerful medium of communication & awareness creation.
The meaning of word `Jatra` literally means `going` or `journey`. Therefore, Jatra is a form of folk drama combining acting,
songs, music, dance altogether by the troop that is traveling from one place to another. Stylized delivery and exaggerated
gestures and orations are some of features of Jatra. Jatra is believed to have originated from ceremonial functions that are
called before starting on a journey. Other suggestions are that it developed from processions brought out in respect of different
gods and goddesses. These processions often included songs and dances as its primary part.
Brita dance is one of the most important traditional kinds of folk dance. Brita is basically an invocation dance performed
by women of Bengal, who are unable to give birth to children. Through this dance they are offering worship in thankfulness
after their wishes are fulfilled.
West Bengal is the state that has given us many of our renowned poets, thinkers, artists & has a rich tradition of
folk art performance. Brita dance or Vrita dance is one of the most important traditional folk dances of Bengal. Quite often,
this dance is performed after a recovery from a contagious disease like small pox, etc. So, the basic purpose of this dance
is of thanks giving.
Only, women members can participate in this dance. The belief is that the children are god`s gift. As one receives His
blessings through birth of Child, one must bowed to him.
Gambhira Dance is a special type of folk dance that is popular in North Bengal, especially in Malda district. It is a
solo performance with wearing a mask. At times, it is also performed in duet or in-group, depending upon the number of participants.
The characters of the dance represent Puranic deities like Shiva, Parvati, Kali, etc. A big drum known as `dhak` serves as
a supporting instrument for music.
Gambhira songs are assumed to have originated from the worship of the god Shiva. God Shiva is also known as `Gambhir`
so the dance is termed according to that. In ancient times, Gambhira used to be celebrated as Puja, a form of worship only.
But in the medieval period, most Hindu communities started celebrating the Puja of `Dharma thakur` (a popular god of the Hindus)
on the last three days of the Bengali year. This came to be known as the `gajan of Shiva` later on. In the past, Shiva was
imagined to be present at the time of actual performance.
Scholars believe that Gambhira was of two kinds: the primary Gambhira and the narrative Gambhira. The primary Gambhira
would throws light on gods and goddesses and describes human joys and sorrows. And sometimes, important events of the year
also. In the narrative Gambhira, every character would represent a social problem through their acting.
At present, the main characters in the Gambhira are a maternal grandfather and his grandson. The performance is usually
structured as a dialogue between them, interspersed with songs for fluent flow. Both prose and verse kinds of dialogues are
used. The Gambhira reflects contemporary social problems through witty dialogues, songs, dances and jokes. Sometimes it also
reflects a generation contradiction in opinions & choices.
The costumes for this performance are very simple. Both of performers wear lungi. The gray-bearded grandfather wears a
mathal i.e.straw hat on his head and holds a stick in his hand. Whereas, the grandson wears a torn jersey and has a gamchha,
a local checked towel that is tied round his waist.
It takes place during Chadak festival in the month of March-April. The big drum Dhak is primarily used as the principal
accompanying instrument and the song, sung in eulogy of Lord Shiva, produces an effect of heavenly atmosphere. Tunes are loud
and coarse having no variations gives an added glory to its form.
Tusu is a folk dance performed mostly in-group. It is performed by both men and women. This is tribal dance performed
during the harvest festival to celebrate the coming Crop. It is popular in Purulia and Medinipur.
`Makara Sankranti` is an important festival in all parts of Bengal that comes in the month of January. `Makara Sankranti`
is celebrated in vigor. The Tusu Parab is held in Birbhum on this occasion. In its performance groups of young girls gather
every evening throughout the month of Pousa (December-January) and sings songs. These songs are termed by the generic term
On the day of Makara Sankranti, the groups gather at one place & go to the village to a nearby tank or river with
the goddess Tusu symbolized in small clay figurines or sometimes merely as cow-dung balls. After taking a sacred bath, all
return to their worship. And make offerings of rice to the deity as a token of respect & love. Different groups meet,
sing songs near the riverbank or the pond and compete with each other. This creates an environment of happiness. Simple group
movements accompany the songs but there is no other accompaniment for it.
The men also have their particular songs and dances for the occasion. These are known as the Bhaduriya Saila. The dance
is performed in a traditional way. The performance of the dance is more predominant in nature. For example men dance in circles
clock-wise and anti-clockwise direction.
In some parts, it is performed by & for the unmarried girls. For them, Tusu is very excellent with graceful movements
and elegance that may fulfil their desire of performance. There is no history behind this festival but there are some ritual
customs that are primarily responsible for its performance. It has its tremendous store of songs, which are also full of life
The stories and the experiences of livelihood are reflected through these songs. These songs gives spirits for living.
Songs are deeply related with nature that one can feel its simple impression in the innocent people of this land.