West Bengal's Charida village in Baghmundi, Purulia district, is the back of beyond of the back of beyond. The landscape shifts and villages fly past looking clean, and clouds of lotuses bloom in clear ponds as cows graze and chimneys smoke the fresh bricks being toasted in their kilns. The egg devils and aubergine fritters sold by the local kaka babu are unambiguously delicious and ridiculously cheap. The tea sits on stoking hot coals. It's where the Vodaphone signal is at its strongest. It's also where the roads are unendingly smooth... almost eerily pothole-free. Like an autobahn in the middle of a graveyard.
These masks which are impossibly beautiful to the naked eye, need the night to hide the tatters that shroud the man who wears it with such aplomb.
There has been, however, for the past six decades or so, no known source of employment generated for the men who roam the fields and stare at endless horizons. Surviving on wild roots, leaves and the raving antics of the local politicians, their hope for redemption have been these masks. Their loudest claim to avoid ignominy in the face of poverty. It helps keep them and a tribal traditional dance form alive, which very few city dwellers like us will have the time to patronise twice. It is, after all, a seven-hour drive on a good day from Kolkata.
The artists, behind their glorious masks and meditative looks, hide thin, rickety, malnourished frames. They look happy somehow. This evening has been in the making for months. The artisans will be paid, sheltered and fed for a week. They all seem upbeat at the prospect. Food for dancing. Such short-lived exuberance makes the word bourgeoisie hang in mid-air, silently floating on top of your head, the moment you take your red plastic seat at the rim of the patchwork amphitheatre, waiting for the show to begin. You feel small, humbled. You want to do something more than just sit there and smile and clap and buy masks for your living room... you feel washed in raw socialist ideals with every passing moment spent on that red plastic chair. Naxalism suddenly makes sense in all its unfairness.
With worn-out socks doubling up as footpads and old T-shirts barely concealing the worn-out bodies that bear the heavily adorned and riotously coloured headgear with such pride, you descend into their world with a loud drumbeat from their troupe's Pala. It is a small patch of mud, almost dry enough to start a storm, surrounded by the gleeful children of the neighbourhood, who turn more keenly to see what shoes you wear than the Chhou artists on display. You cringe in your jacket and you share your food and your chocolates with them, even as the first artists march onto the enclosure with a confidence that would do Vishnu proud.
The artist is, of course, playing the part of Krishna that evening, battling the demons with Balaram, in order to win back Devlok for the sages and the gods above. This battle he will win...he is scripted to win... even as the journalists from Kolkata click away at the many possibilities of making this look any more surreal than it already is. But this battle to survive the poverty that laces every single performance... how do you ever win over that? Maybe the photographers can Photoshop that part too.
[T]his battle to survive the poverty that laces every single performance... how do you ever win over that? Maybe the photographers can Photoshop that part too.
You begin to understand why their art must remain shrouded in darkness. These masks, which are impossibly beautiful to the naked eye, need the night to hide the tatters that shroud the man who wears it with such aplomb. Daylight would ruin this magic... flesh and bones would kill this fever pitch cry to glory.
We stop taking pictures. We soak it in. We are spellbound. Every move, every lustfully devotional chant, every gymnastic twirl and somersault, every brandishing of sword and bow makes for rousing rounds of applause and we too join in, in shameless abandon. This is better than childhood. These people, my people, our people... our poorest of the poor people, are simply incomparable. Their art, their soul, their kindness, their craft, their wide childlike grins, their deft fingers that create these gods and goddesses that sell for a few bucks, their splendid heritage and poor realities, their brilliant painted faces on stage and their curiously invisible lives... are all so rich. So powerful in their will to live beyond their obvious means.
Live they do, in no small measure. They live in every single Purulia song, sung with so much passion and attention. They live in the Chhou masks that mask their ragged walls, their dimly lit porches and their cracked ceilings and lives... they live in every little jerk of that enormous mask on that tired, somersaulting body. The body that shrugs and then quivers to life every time the haunting tunes of the hymns, rooted in the mythologies that this place belongs to, matches the rolling drums and rises to a warlike crescendo.
They dance because that's all they know, they fly because they dream, they sing because they need to be heard, they smile because they hope; and once the audience leaves, they get ready again for their next performance. They paint their faces, wear their wigs, limber their joints and laugh over a few cups of tea and cigarettes. They will always keep performing. For life itself is just a rehearsal.
Pictures by Bodhayan Roychaudhury (firstname.lastname@example.org: iPhone6.)
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