Charida, a village in the Bagmundi, Purulia district, is the back of beyond of the back of beyond. The landscape shifts as villages fly past. Clouds of lotuses bloom in clear ponds, and in 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. This is 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.
For the past six decades or so, however, there has been no known source of employment generated for the men who roam the fields and stare at endless horizons. Surviving on wild roots, leaves and raving antics of the local politicians, these men are eager for change. Their only hope for redemption has been Chhou masks, their greatest chance against ignominy in the face of poverty. It helps keep them and a traditional tribal dance form alive, which very few city dwellers like us will have the time to patronize twice. It is, after all, a seven-hour drive on a good day from Calcutta, and we are the haloed employed people of this free country.
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 midair, silently floating on top of your head the moment you take your red plastic seat at the rim of the patchwork amphitheater, 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 colored headgear with such pride, they dance, and 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. You are surrounded by glee-infested children of the neighborhood, who are keener on 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 this evening, battling the demons with Balaram in order to win back Devlok for the sages and the gods above. He will win this battle – he is scripted to. Even as the journalists from Calcutta click away, trying to make this all look any more surreal than it already is, the battle to survive the poverty laces every single performance. How does one ever vanquish that? Maybe the photographers can photoshop that part out, 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 summersault, every brandishing of sword and bow makes for rousing rounds of applause and we too join in with shameless abandon. This is better than childhood. These people, my people, our people…the poorest of our 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 rich heritage and poor realities, their brilliant painted faces on stage and their curiously invisible lives…their lives are all so rich. They are so powerful in their will to live beyond the obvious means.
Live they do, in no small measure. They live in every single Purulian song, sung with so much passion and attention. They live in the Chhou masks that hide their ragged walls, their dimly lit porches and their cracked ceilings and lives. They live in every little jerk of an enormous mask on a tired, somersaulting body, the body that shrugs and then quivers to life every time the haunting tunes of the hymns, rooted in the mythologies of this place, match the rolling drums and rise to a warlike crescendo.
They dance because that is all they know, and they fly because they dream. They sing because they need to be heard, and 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.