Faded Glory: A photographer's depiction of the Chhau, Ghora naach, through nostalgia and an archivist lens
In Faded Glory, isolated artists can be seen casually lounging in their regal costumes amid the village landscape — perhaps indicating that they are as integral to Purulia’s natural setting as are the trees, the river and the hills.
The Chhau naach, popular in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha, is often described as a semi-classical dance form with martial, tribal and folk origins. Such an insipid description, however, fails to capture the vitality, rhythm and artistic diversity that marks the Chhau naach across different regions.
Photographer Sudarshan Das’ photo series Faded Glory presents a colourful yet sombre account of Chhau and Ghora naach artists in West Bengal’s Purulia, and their struggle against cultural extinction. His lyrical frames attempt to capture memories of a bygone era and the pain resulting from the loss of employment by foregrounding the artists and their struggle for survival in the face of economic liberalisation. The photo series, which is being exhibited at the 2020 Indian Photo Festival, prioritises the humanity of the artists while carefully capturing the beauty of the different dance forms amid the vast expanse of West Bengal’s rural landscape.
The Chhau naach largely has three styles – the Mayurbhanj Chhau of Odisha, Serraikella Chhau of Jharkhand, and Purulia Chhau of West Bengal. The Purulia Chhau, which is the subject of Das’ project, is known for its elaborate masks, dramatic movements and powerful story-telling. It is performed alongside the boisterous beats of the dhamsha (kettle drum) in open spaces, surrounded by the audience on all sides.
Ghora naach is the other folk dance that Das explores in his project. In it, the performers wear a horse costume made of cloth stretched across a wooden plank tied to the dancer’s waist. There is very little that is known about the cultural history of Ghora naach, perhaps owing to its dwindling presence in the region.
In an interview with Firstpost, Das said, “You will still find Chhau naach in many parts of West Bengal and Odisha, but it is extremely difficult to find artists who still perform Ghora naach. In my estimation, compared to Chhau naach, maybe only 10 percent of Ghora naach still survives. I could only find about two or three Ghora naach troupes while I was looking for participants.” Faded Glory preserves the embers of two dying traditions which are at different stages of extinction, in a captivating way.
Das, who sees himself as an archivist, was born in Purulia around Chhau and Ghora naach artists. His family left the town and moved to Kolkata while he was still young, but the memories of his village never left him.
Traces of childhood nostalgia can be felt in the de-saturated yet lively snapshots of isolated artists casually lounging in their regal costumes amid the village landscape, perhaps indicating that to Das, they are as integral to Purulia’s natural setting as are the trees, the river and the hills.
But there is more that ties Das to the life of these artists. “This project [Faded Glory] is extremely close to my heart because for generations, my family has been in the business of making instruments for Chhau naach. We were, in that sense, instrument-makers,” he says, “I started this project to give these artists what they deserve: to bestow on them their lost glory.” In our conversation, Das also emphasised on how through the photo series, he wishes to highlight the precarious lives of Chhau and Ghora naach artists as they struggle to make ends meet in a world saturated with modern forms of entertainment.
He mentioned rather poignantly, “While I was in Purulia, I noticed a group of young people watching Chhau and Ghora naach on their mobile phones on YouTube. This surprised me and I asked them, ‘Why are you watching these performances on your phone when this art exists in our village? We can watch it whenever we want.’ To this, they said, ‘Why should we go out to watch performances when we can watch it on our phones?’” Along with people losing interest in live performances, many folk artists are not equipped with the skills or the resources to navigate online platforms to promote their art.
In Faded Glory, Das takes the artists away from the stage, with the camera focusing instead on them within the land in which their art once flourished. He says, “The artists I met feel that no one is interested in their work anymore, they feel utterly neglected by even the government. These interactions affected me deeply, and that’s why I wanted to capture their natural life. You can watch their joy and dance on YouTube, but the photo series was meant to capture their real life struggles.”
In 2010, UNESCO included Chhau naach in their Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but this honour hardly brought a shift in the lives of Purulia’s Chhau artists, who are now migrating to cities like Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad in search of jobs. The knowledge of these dance forms, in many cases, is the only skill that the artists possess. If these dance forms are not revived, many of them will be pushed into unskilled and poorly paid modes of employment.
In his photographs, Das attempts to capture this sense of loss and anxiety plaguing the lives of the artists. He spoke in detail about some of his pictures and what they were meant to symbolise. “In my photo series, there is a picture of an old man sitting with a dhamsha (kettle drum) in the middle of a field. If you look at his face closely, you will get a sense of his daily struggle and pain. In another photograph, you can see a man sitting in the middle of a fallen tree. This picture is extremely dear to me because through the metaphor of the fallen tree, I wanted to denote that the artist's time has also come to an end."
Despite the struggles surrounding the lives of these artists, the tone underlying Faded Glory is not one of defeat; rather each frame presents an immersive subject with a complex life of their own. There are moments in the photo series when the artists seem almost trapped in their costumes, waiting to be freed, but Das interrupts these grim moments with pictures of the open sky and vast fields — perhaps indicating the possibility of hope and resilience even in the midst of darkness.
Faded Glory — which is the result of Das’ long and arduous engagement with the folk artists of Purulia — marks only the beginning of his journey as an archivist of a disappearing culture, as he plans to compile a book of photographs dedicated to the works of Chhau and Ghora naach artists soon.
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