The Chhau dance is indigenous to the eastern part of India. It originated as a martial art and contains vigorous movements and leaps. It is said to have originated from some primitive war-hoops. Most of the tribal people perform it in an effort to please the Sun God. It originated in the mock fights of the Oriya paikas (warriors) who fought rhythmically to the accompaniment of music instruments. This masked dance form was initially performed only by males. But today, there are also female dancers who have mastered this art.
The costumes of Chhau performers used in ancient times is not known. Costumes used in present day are of various designs and colours. It comprises of pajamas in shades of green, yellow or red(worn by artistes playing the role of Gods) and a loose trouser in deep black shade(worn by artistes playing the role of demons). Sometimes, strips of contrasting colours are used to make the costume look attractive. The costumes for the upper part of the body has many designs.
The masks are made of clay and paper, and are produced by a particular group of people who have been engaged in this business for generations. These artisans, familiar with the details of the Indian epics, produce masks which bear testimony to the high artistic skills they have achieved.
As all the characters in the Chhau dance, are required to wear masks, it is impossible for the artistes to show mood variations through facial expressions. Body movements, including movements of the peaks of the masks are used to illustrate different moods. The mask movements show anger, while shoulder and chest movements indicate joy, melancholy and courage etc. Jumping in the air is another movement which serves as a gesture of attack during the enactment of a war scene. Such jumpings are high hall-mark of acrobatic skill and physical prowess of the performers of Chhau dance.
The use of drums is an integral part of a Chhau dance performance. With the beating of the drums, an invocation to Lord Ganesha is given and the dance begins. It is said that the drummers themselves make and tune their instruments. Musical part is an important prelude to the actual performance. The animated, stuporous performance of the musician team is really seen to be believed and acts as an inspiring tonic to the actual dancers to bring out the best in them. In fact the team of musicians by music and chanting of beats creates an in inexplicably wonderful environment prior to the dance.
There are three recognized schools or styles of Chhau. These are the Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj varieties. Mayurbhanj Chhau dancers do not wear masks. In recent times, Mayurbhanj Chhau has become popular as a medium of choreography, with its wide range of postures and movements that adapt well to modern as well as traditional treatment.