In Puruliar Chhau documentary, Ritwik Ghatak explores the traditional heritage of Chhau, a popular mask dance of Eastern India, Bengali Folk-performing art.
The flow of time has undoubtedly been a central element in Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema. In the eight feature films that the filmmaker has made between 1952 and 1974, memory becomes a constant motif expressed with his cinematic vision or perception. It is memory that links his characters to themselves and to others around them, as they swim against the murderous tides of history and politics. However, his short films and documentaries, including Rendezvous, Chhau Dance of Purulia; Oraon, a preparatory work for Ajantrik, shot in 1955 in Chhota Nagpur, Bihar, and Bihar Ke Kucch Darshaniya Sthaan also reflect his deeper visions of life and deserve to be discussed at par with his feature films. In this connection, Ghatak’s interviews are worth looking at, where he reveals his admiration of the techniques of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, and London’s film centre’s movement led by John Grierson, which he closely followed. In fact, he had once remarked that “the entire world came to realize the power and potential of documentary films because of these two individuals”. His own observation of shooting documentaries is quite eye-opening:
In order to shoot documentaries you need a much stronger love for people…
I do not consider documentary films to be a separate art form—they are
Documents of human life… I do not know a whole lot about documentary
Films even though I have quite a few as I made those to make a living.”
In his documentary Puruliar Chhau, Ghatak explores the traditional heritage of Chhau, a popular mask dance of Eastern India, a Bengali Folk-performing art which happens to be a culturally rich alternative to the other widely known classical Indian dance forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi and Odissi. Performed by the early inhabitants of the arid region of Purulia, it is almost an antithesis of the sophisticated and stylized “Seraikella” form. Through his thought-provoking and memorable cinematic narrative, Ghatak attempts to glorify the traditional heritage of this Bengali Folk-performing art which, unfortunately, shows very little evolvement since its hunting or warfare origin due to lack of sustained patronage and guidance. In his interviews, he conveys his deep respect and love for this folk art form and its artists.
Chhau is significant because it expresses the depth and richness of Purulia’s life. If you visit Purulia, the poorest district of West Bengal, and go inside its villages, you would see how deeply the villagers love their art. When I mixed with them, I totally fell in love. On observing how passionately they love the dance form and how attentively they create dance masks, I was completely stunned. My love for them made me crazy.
At the beginning of the documentary, when the camera pans over thevast greenery, the narrator’s voice echoes:
Ei sei Purulia; rukkho, dhushor jar mati-r buke pran rash… Abahelito manush, je manush sangram kore taar aparaajeyo shilper jonyo. Taar sei durjoy shilper pratik chhau nach, Aajo beche aache taar jibonsangrame…. [Free Translation: It is that Purulia in whose rough gray womb we can still found a little amount of life. We can found this life within the down-trodden inhabitants of this infertile land, those people who fight for the survival of their eternal art. The symbol of their unconquerable art, still live in their fight, in the form of Chhau.]
Evidently, the first few lines of the documentary indicate that the authentic performing art of Purulia has been going through a tough time and fighting for its existence, while the performers of Chhau are also struggling to keep their art form breathing.In fact, in my opinion, Ghatak has done a marvellous and unprecedented job in 21 minutes and 27 seconds with the least number of technological aid to cover the most of the specialities of this folk performing dance within the scope of a celluloid monochrome film. He had visited the villages of Purulia to shoot his documentary and used no artificial stage or studio to shoot his film. In the film, he has tried to maintain a sequential chain while showing the chhau performance, starting with Ganesh Vandana.
However, later on the chain or the sequence breaks as the director jumps between real lives and ‘palas’ with his shots.Ghatakhas meticulously focused on all the things associated with chhau dance form. At first, he focused on the mask of Ganesha, then on the instruments, including the anklets (Ghungur) of the performers. Later, he takes a long shot of a field surrounded by viewers forming a circle. He focusses on all these indispensable elements of folklore which come together to maintain the chain or momentum of the film.
Ghatak also shows in his film that apart from its entertainment value, folk performing arts like Chhau dance serves as a means for recording history by preserving information of past events. In the face of an advancing industrial civilisation, “Chhau” has remained an institution which sends thrill into the hearts of the people of Purulia. In the film, Ghatak also explores the life of the performers, including close shots of eminent dancers like Madhu Ray, Gokul Roy, Adalat, Gambhir Singh, Lal Mahato. All the characters of the documentary are real life rural people and performers, with skinny ribs, depicting their poverty stricken life.
To depict the daily life and hardship of these performers, Ghatak focuses on capturing their feet stepping on mud, hands making plough and heads carrying forest goods, on the screen. Their ornamented masks are highlighted in close shots along with their raw, rustic bodies. The performers are filmed while making mask with clay, advocating an art, which the narrator says, is not their profession but their passion of heart”. There are two experimental shots after this part, involving children. In the first one, the child appears closer to the camera and then blocks the camera with the backside of the mask. In this shot, the director wanted to avoid taking the weight in centre and thus placed the boy at right side but as the boy appears closer, half of his body goes out of frame. This can be considered as dispute of angle. Later on, director did a same kind of shot, replacing the previous boy with another boy. This time he took a centre weighted shot. In these two similar shots of a boy coming towards camera with mask, Ghatak’s cinematic vision becomes apparent, as he has stated in one of his interviews:
All motion, in fact, has the same origin. The camera moves, so do men.
Then everything comes to rest or various integral compositions made out
Of these create a whole design born in that dream.
Although Ghatak used only one camera, but the shooting happened over a period of several days to capture the various different palas, the lives of the performers and the tutorial.
Another attribute of the film is its fast moving action. Chhau dance is generally hours long, but Ghatak had the precision to feature more than five palas with brief narration of the whole story along with the daily life of people, mask making, tutorial etc in just two minute, s.However, if analysed critically, there are some technical issues which needs to be mentioned here. In “Abrubahone-r pala”, we see the camera focused on the dancers, while the back of the horse blocks the camera partially. Also, there are times when we can see that the camera takes a subject, but while changing angle or while panning, some backsides comes in the screen, which is an indication of using a single camera. We can assume there was only one camera, therefore while changing the angle, it must have made faulty appearances. Ghatak tried his best to make the film as much originalas possible and thus avoided the use of artificial lights. His cinematic innovation has been remarkable in his use of flambeau, a rural life lighting to avoid technical lights, which he used to make the film look like a more real life based documentary.
Four to five fade outs can be seen in the film, but those are mainly montages created by the director by directly cutting and pasting the shots, which gave the documentary more of a film like appearance with the constant voice off.
At the end, two hands destroy a mask which depicts the destruction of the art form and again a child takes up the ruined mask which signifies the rebirth of the art form. The editing of sounds in this documentary is really skilful, especially the sound of flute creates a melancholic effect which makes viewers more sympathetic to the Chhau Performers. This doleful sound creates a mood matching the emotion of documentary. But while showing the Chhau performances, the director records the actual instruments of Chhau like trumpet, dhamsa (drums), conch shell that express their joyful moods.
Whenever he captures the rural life, he uses the flute and when he shoots the Chhau dancers he uses the sounds of other instruments, thus he creates a contrast between two moods. In a scene, Director has captured a cow with its calf but the details line sound of the viewers, bird chirping got eliminated by the artificial musical sound of flute which touched taar Saptak, and this sound of flute brings melancholic effect which makes viewers more sympathetic to the Chhau Performers. The voice off techniques used while narrating the stories of different Chhaupalaare very effective, but in the area of sound editing, there are some issues, like in the very first line there is a sudden unwanted cut, which hinders the first sentence of the voice off.
Cinema for Ghatak was an instrument to reach the masses. His films reflected the frantic urge to communicate, to transform apathy into rebellion, to assert that truth, beauty and the human spirit will survive after all. In the documentary, Ghatak not only emphasized on Chhau dance, but also on the entire cast, the audienceand the setting associated with it, which made him successful in keeping pace with is spirit.The dramatic way of the narration in which the narrator becomes an integral part of Chhau, bestows the film with a remarkable spirit, for which it will be remembered for a long time.
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