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MASKED APATHY

Purulia, one of Bengal’s least developed districts, has made Mamata Banerjee proud. Bengal’s tableau won the first prize in this year’s Republic Day parade, thanks to the performance by skilled Chhau dancers from the district. Purulia is known as much for its impoverished folk artists as its ignoble development indicators: the literacy rate is low (64 per cent), while the infant mortality rate, migration and unemployment remain high.

One does not quite know what the chief minister’s plans are to erase these blots on Purulia’s development card. But what we do know is that she is keen to ensure that Purulia’s folk arts survive and prosper. To this effect, in October 2012, the Trinamul Congress government declared that folk artists would be tagged under the ‘backward classes’ category. The move, it was hoped, would help Chhau dancers, Bauls, as well as those performing Jhumur, Bhatiyali, Gambhira and Kabigaan access Central and state welfare measures with ease. The Bangla Sangeet Mela, the chief minister said, is an endeavour to provide indigenous, but marginalized, folk artists with a bigger platform.

A conversation with a Chhau dancer, a member of the troupe that performed in Delhi, exposed the myopic nature of the government’s conservation efforts. There are 570 Chhau teams in Purulia, each comprising 40 members. On an average, each year, these teams perform in about 24 government functions. Palas — private soirées— are far greater in number and are held in summer (March-May). The individual remuneration for troupe members is, approximately, Rs 70 for a pala and Rs 200-400 in the case of a government function. The equipment — the ornate masks and costumes are purchased from Baghmundi — cost Rs, 4,000, but do not last an entire season. Percussion instruments — dhol and dhamsa — also drain an artist’s meagre resources.

Lip service

Cosmetic measures are unlikely to help endangered art forms. Instead, what can benefit Chhau artists is a monthly allowance. (The doles wasted on neighbourhood clubs can certainly be put to better use.) There is a need to subsidize the cost of costumes and masks. But this has to be done without further reducing the profit margins of cooperatives engaged in the production of these items. The absence of storage facilities (the masks get spoiled during the rains) and practice venues need to be looked into as well.

Penury is just one of the problems faced by folk artists. Chhau’s survival also hinges on institutional investments in research to retrieve and fortify the links between this art form and the community. Chhau, like any other folk art, is not merely a form of recreation for its practitioners. In the face of an unequal competition from popular entertainment such as cinema, Chhau’s existence depends on the community’s ability to perceive it as a conduit to preserve its unique identity and dignity. Significantly, Chhau does not form a part of the curriculum in Purulia’s schools. Research institutions, if any, remain crippled because of the lack of resources.

Policy towards the conservation of indigenous art forms can be faulted on two counts. First, such interventions remain ill-equipped to meet the difficult, and often contradictory, demands of art and livelihood. Second, the government remains unwilling to admit that State patronage — organizing folk festivals as opposed to exploring vigorous tools of dissemination — is designed to restrict Chhau to the margins of public consumption.

This fact is borne out by a poignant anecdote. When asked what had struck him the most during the Republic Day celebrations, the veteran artist said that none of the dignitaries recognized him once he had taken off his mask.