Clad in vest and trousers and sweating profusely on a hot afternoon, 59-year-old Kartik Singh sits inside a single-storeyed building at the end of Chorida village in Purulia district. After counting money and scribbling details in a pocket diary, he distributes money to 34 young and middle-aged men in the room. Son of famous Purulia Chhau dancer Padma Shri Gambhir Singh Mura, Kartik and his troupe have just returned after performing in Khunti district in Jharkhand. “Normally, we get invitations for outdoor performances from across the Jangalmahal region and the Jharkhand districts of Khunti, Paschim and Purba Singhbhum, Ranchi and Saraikela in the summer.
During the rains, organisers capable of arranging indoor auditoriums invite us,” he said. Taking forward his father’s legacy, Kartik’s troupe has 35 members aged between 10-62 years. Since they perform during summer, winter and autumn, they sow crops in their small land holdings during the harvesting season. Purulia lies at the edge of Chotanagpur plateau and has only one agricultural season. Talking of preparations required for a performance, Kartik’s aide and fellow artist Shaktipada Mahato, 38, said: “As we receive invitations for a performance, we begin practising either in our hall or outside, if it is not raining, after checking whether the costumes and masks are intact or need repair. If not, we get them repaired.
The enactment of Mahishashura Mardini, the story of Durga, or of Mahabharata and Ramayana is of three sections, each an hour long. By the end of the performance, everyone is exhausted and some kids even pass out.” However, despite the effort put in by the artistes, they are not paid much. The troupe gets around Rs 20,000 for a full performance in the neighbouring districts of West Bengal and in Jharkhand. The payment goes up to Rs 50,000 when they are called to perform at Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata and other parts of south Bengal. The younger artistes get around Rs 350 for every dance in the neighbouring districts and somewhere around Rs 500 when called during Durga Puja.
The senior members are paid more. However, unlike the Chhau mask-makers of the village, the Chhau dancers have state government-issued artiste ID cards and get Rs 1,000 every month. But the payment not always regular. Kartik, who has accompanied his father to the US (1975), France (1986) and Japan (1991), said foreigners were more humanely disposed towards Chhau dancers than Indians. “Seeing how physically exhausting the dance is, many foreigners asked us to stop mid-way, talked to us and paid handsomely,” Kartik said.
The artistes never refuse a request for a dance performance. “Some tourists come to Chorida and request us for a show. We give a one-section show for Rs 8,000,” he said. Kartik is not pessimistic about taking the dance form forward to the next generation. “Children are learning the art. We are hopeful that they will carry forward our legacy,” he said.