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Sleepless in Seraikela

- Before Ravi Shankar floored the world, Chhau floored him

Jamshedpur, Dec. 15: It was just three days after his 20th birthday that a youth with a shock of hair, an engaging grin and a flair for the sitar did not sleep for an entire night in the Seraikela palace after watching chhau.

The year was 1940 and the young man was Ravi Shankar, then simply globally renowned dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar’s younger brother and maestro Allauddin Khan’s student.

Ravi Shankar was yet to discover his own genius, much less convince the world of India’s greatness in the form of the raga.

Much, much before he met The Beatles or Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary musician who died on December 11 at the age of 92 had met the masked chhau dancers of Seraikela.

In 1940, he stayed at the Seraikela palace with his brother Uday Shankar to watch the chhau dance festival. He was already an accomplished dancer as a teenager in Paris with Uday Shankar’s troupe.

Brij Bhan Singh Deo (56), who wasn’t even born during the time of the 1940 visit, said he had heard countless anecdotes of the brothers from his father Nripendra Narayan Singh Deo and grandfather Aditya Pratap Singh Deo.

“The annual chhau festival was held between April 10 and 14 in 1940. The brothers stayed up for two nights at our palace, so immersed were they in the performances,” Singh Deo said. “They remained glued to their seats along with their five-member troupe to enjoy the dance the whole night. Their impression is mentioned in the letter Uday Shankar sent afterwards.”

“The trip to Seraikela still lingers in my thought like a fresh and beautiful dream,” Uday Shankar wrote. “The performance which continued the whole night was beautiful beyond words. And we should feel proud to think that in India we have Maharajas who devote so much of their time and interest for the cause of art.”

The words were Uday Shankar’s, but they could have well been Ravi Shankar’s.

Over the years, both brothers kept in touch with members of the Seraikela royal family — Aditya Pratap Singh Deo, Nripendra Narayan Singh Deo and Brij Bhan Singh Deo — with Seraikela Chhau being the enduring bond that lived on even after Uday Shankar’s untimely death in 1977.

The warmth was evident in 1963 when Ravi Shankar met Aditya Pratap Singh Deo and Nripendra Narayan Singh Deo in Delhi.

“I must have been about five or so, but I recall how Pandit Ravi Shankar hugged my father and grandfather. The occasion was also a happy one. My uncle Sudhendra Narayan Singh Deo had won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for chhau while Pandit Ravi Shankar had got an Akademi fellowship for his contribution to sitar and Indian music,” recalled the present-day Seraikela scion.

“I last met him in 1989 at GD Birla Sabhaghar during Pandit Ravi Shankar’s jugalbandi with Ali Akbar Khan, Allauddin Khan’s son. He didn’t forget to greet me and suggest ways to popularise chhau,” said the scion.

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