A fading grey door leads through dark little long corridors. A few old Chhau masks, an umbrella and grand old trophies stare down at you from up above. You walk out to a bright blue corridor, ladies draped in sarees of pink, walk in a hurry. An old man sits with a wide smile and neatly combed white hair. His eyes are immediately expressive at the sound of your bare feet. There is a song that’s running through his mind, you can sense it as his fingers tap on the violet wooden bed. He is a legend this man, his burst of energy and emotion have travelled the world from this little courtyard in the village of Chorida. Take a step out and a tiny trail takes you to another man playing the same song in his head, his fingers gently digging out the mud, making a face out of nothing. The first man, Nepal Chandra Sutradhar is a craftsman turned performer, the past, the master. The second man, Manoranjan Sutradhar, is a maker of Chhau masks, a student, the future.
Manoranjan carefully carves out the edges of the face from the mud. His fingers covered in a splurge of brown. Once the features of the face are put on his canvas of mud. He then lets it dry for hours on end. It takes about a day to dry, but it often depends on how yellow the sun is that day. And as the mud turns hard, he looks at the colour that surrounds him, and lets his instinct choose every other time. Every day of his life for the past forty years began this way.
Nepal walks barefoot across his humble home. You see Chhau masks of every character from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana adorned on the walls all around his house, as he thinks about the performance he is choreographing that evening. He picks a mask, puts it on and immediately gets into character. He is too old to perform now, but he orchestrates every performance in the village. And he always begins by getting into character himself.
Manoranjan was a dancer too at one time, but it was his incredible skill at making these Chhau masks that made Nepal ask him to pursue just the craft as a profession. He not only learnt every little tradition from Nepal, but he also keeps pushing to evolve this intricate craft. As Nepal brings his dancers together and Manoranjan carefully puts together the pieces of the grand mask, the whole village starts preparing for the evening by donning their favourite Chhau masks and watching by the sidelines.
Manoranjan sat in his little corner and carefully painted the white primer on the ‘Abhimanyu’ Chhau mask. He looked around and found a bowl of pink on sheer instinct and glazed the bright colour over its face. He then took a pinch of blue and placed it gently on the shadow of its eye. ‘The face is too pink now,@39; he pondered and decided to add yellow to add texture to its face. He carefully placed a bit of yellow on a paper and crumpled its contours to mix it. Once the colour of its face was toned to his liking, he took his prim paintbrush and drew the dark red Tilak on its forehead. The sharp contrast of bright colours and little details that were marked in dark was what made a common Chhau mask look like ‘Abhimanyu’. The bright colours were for his young idealism and hope. The dark details were for his strength and honour.
It is a clash of two worlds when Nepal walks into Manoranjan’s workshop. One, an expressive easily curious man and the other being calm and focussed. The Chhau masks in itself are an essential mix of calm and chaos. The eyes and expressions are sometimes in a rage and when they are in that state, the decorative elements above the face turn into a composed moment. The maker and his master are constantly shifting these roles.
All the actors of the play make their way across the Chorida village. They don their costumes with pride and walk to the farm, which will be the venue. A crowd reaches from every edge of the village in grand excitement. The musicians sit on the edge of the invisible square and the moment the drumbeat starts, the performance begins. Dusk turns to night as the epic characters of the Mahabharata come to life.
After a successful performance, the maker and his master stroll through the fields discussing their next act together. It doesn’t take them long before they both find themselves in a dance and walk alongside each other in character, finding expression together like no other.