Chhau and Dak: Bengali Folk Dances (Part 1)

Folk dancing in Bangladesh has been handed down through countless generations, forming an important part of community gatherings. Some folk dances are closely associated with religious beliefs, while others may cross the borders of religion and have meaning on a social level, incorporating elements of daily activities such as planting, harvesting and fishing.

While folk dances are generally less formal than classical dances and allow for a certain amount of freedom of expression through improvised movement, the different dances each have unique and unmistakable characteristics. Folk dances can be performed by an individual, but group dancing is more common, with singing being a prominent feature.

Originating in West Bengal, Chhau dance is based on the Hindu epic of Ramayana and Mahabharata and is performed as a martial arts dance, complete with swords, sticks and shields. Wearing different masks and dresses to depict their various roles of gods, demons or animals, the dancers are generally all men whether playing a male or female role. The musicians form a circle, leaving a gap through which dancers will enter the arena. A prayer is offered to Ganesh, followed by a song to welcome the dancers and then the performance starts. Chhau is a war-like dance, and performers take the stance of warriors in an attack/defense situation, jumping, kneeling and rushing toward one another threateningly, all with intricate footwork, movements of the head, neck, upper torso, hands and legs. In days gone by, Chhau dances were associated with the occasion of Shiva Puja, at the end of Chaitra, or the beginning of Baishakh – the last and first months of the Bengali calendar respectively. Today, Chhau is not only reserved for bidding farewell to the old year and welcoming in the new, it is performed and enjoyed regardless of the season or occasion.

Another dance with a war-like theme is the Dak dance originating in the Manikganj District of the Dhaka Division of Bangladesh. The dance starts with the team leader calling out that the enemy has launched an attack and his fellow warriors must be ready for battle. At his call (dak), other dancers come running onto the stage and the battle begins, during which martial skills are exhibited to the beating of a drum, which may or may not be accompanied by other instruments.