As we picked our way through the artists’ colony, it was the signs of poverty that appalled us. This was where the mask-makers lived. And along with the dancers, who donned these masks, they together preserved one of India’s cultural traditions, the Seraikela Chhau.
A little over 300km from Kolkata and nearly 50km from Jamshedpur, Seraikela does not look any different from other small towns of India. But once upon a time, it was a princely state, founded in the early 17th century. Although a largely Odia-speaking state, it was merged with Bihar after India became independent and then brought under Jharkhand when the new state was formed. But the political ramifications or its emergence as an industrial hub is not its claim to fame. Seraikela is home to a unique traditional dance form of India, the ‘chhau’.
According to Odia litterateur Sitakanta Mahapatra, the word originates from ‘chhauni’ or military camps, which partly explains why the dance form has been a male dominated one. There are three distinct forms of chhau, which take their name from the region they flourished – Purulia (West Bengal), Seraikela (Jharkhand), and Mayurbhanj (Odisha). However, Purulia and Seraikela use masks during performances. In 2010, UNESCO inscribed ‘chhau’ on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The royal palace is one of the star attractions of Seraikela town. Although a large section lies in a decrepit state, the architecture speaks volumes of the glorious days. A scion of the royal family, Raja Pratap Aditya Singh Deo, along with his wife Arunima, reside in a well-maintained section of the palace. He has built a small museum inside his residence, which may be seen with special permission.
One section of the museum is devoted to family history through photographs while another section is devoted to a display of Seraikela chhau masks and other paraphernalia. While the masks used for Purulia chhau are large and elaborately designed, that of Seraikela is smaller, fitting snugly with the wearer’s face and has minimum embellishments.
Different masks represent different characters, from divinities to demons to animals. There are distinct colour codes and trimmings which help the spectators to identify the characters. Making the masks is an elaborate process, which can be seen in the neighbourhood with prior arrangements. Not many artists pursue the trade now. It is the delicately painted expression on the masks that breathes life into the drama.
“The royal family of Seraikela has always been a great patron of the dance,” said Pratap Aditya as he took us around the museum. His grand-uncle Kumar Bijay Pratap Singh Deo, considered the ‘Paramguru’ of Seraikela chhau, contributed to many areas of the dance form, including choreography. It is said that it was he who gave the finer nuances to a dance form rooted in martial movements. Other family members too have been active patrons of the dance form. The present royal family continues to support the dance school on the premises, which was founded in 1941. The temple of the royal family’s guardian deity, Paudi Mata, is also located in the palace compound.
It was from the Raja that we learned the best time to visit Seraikela is during the Chaitra Parav festival (in mid-April) when night-long dance performances are held in the royal palace. Prior to the commencement of the performances, there are many rituals to follow, which are mostly held at the Jatraghat on the banks of the Kharkai River. The state government too organises a dance festival during this time.
Outside the festival, the Kharkai river bank was a tranquil place. There were many small Shiva idols lying in the open next to a large temple. There are several other temples in and around town, including a nicely maintained Jagannath Temple.
Raja Pratap Aditya Singh Deo has started a small heritage homestay in the palace, which can be the base for a quiet holiday in this little-known corner of Jharkhand. With prior arrangements and separate payment, the palace homestay can also arrange for local sightseeing, chhau recitals, culinary lessons, and other activities.
Seraikela is connected to Kolkata and Jamshedpur by road and rail. By road, it is nearly 320km from Kolkata and about 50km from Jamshedpur. It is advisable to stay in Jamshedpur and make a day visit to Seraikela.
Although train travel is not recommended under the pandemic situation, you may avail the early morning Howrah-Barbil Janshatabdi Express when things are back to normal. Get down at Sini (just after Tatanagar). From Sini, Seraikela is nearly 15km by road.
Personal protective gear such as masks and gloves, sanitisers, and other necessary precautions, such as car sanitisation, maintaining distancing norms, etc. for travel during pandemic are a must.