DER Documentary

Surviving Chau

by Mainak Bhaumik
color, 50 min, 2005



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This documentary maps the evolution of the ancient ethnic dance form of Chau (or Chhau) - an athletic dance of India done by men in masks - from an anthropological and sociological perspective. In addition to following the details of the entire ‘behind-the-scenes’ artistry, the film also interviews one of the Ustad dancers (leader of the Chau group) and observes the artists and performers in rehearsal and during the heated discussions which follow.

An intense level of artistry and performance is required of artists who work on the masks as well as the people who perform the dance. They each work independently then collaborate to form the dance form of Chau that still, to this day vibrates the culture of Purulia, the town of its origin. Since it is only performed by men due to the physical fitness required to carry off the difficult steps, they enact the women's roles as well. The dance is structured in the form of a competition between two teams. Each team tells the same story in turns, carrying the competition through the night into the wee hours of the morning. At sunrise, the team most popular with the audience is marked as the winning team.

The children are taught and disciplined in the art of Chau from a very young age, not as an occupation, but as an intrinsic part of their very being. Due to years of ethnic tradition, Chau dancers are simply born into the Chau Society, and from birth are taught to accept their vocation of dance as an unquestionable given. Every single part of their lives reflects in their art, since dance for them is not just a means of existence, it is the meaning of their life.

In the face of this tradition, they are very poorly equipped to survive by any other means; thus, they attempt to adapt to cultural change by replacing their ethnic instruments with modern day keyboards and substituting their old mythological stories into modern day events, such as “Bin Laden's Downfall” and “The Kargil War.” Due to the onslaught of cinema and Bollywood in the villages, Chau's value as a performing art and mode of entertainment has decreased greatly. Villagers can now simply watch the performances on television with added special effects. This documentary endeavors to raise awareness and contribute to the survival of this struggling art form.


Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Society for Visual Anthropology/American Anthropological Association Conference, USA, 2006
Festival Interuniversitaire de Films Ethnographique de Montreal, 2006
forumdoc.bh.2005 - Documentary and Ethnographic Film Festival, Brazil, 2005

View more photos on www.flickr.com

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