You all have heard of well known dance formats like Bharata Natyam, Mohiniaattam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and many more. But in those art formats, each person is associated with usually one of the task among singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. Of course, all these formats are Indian classical dances. There is more in our culturally rich country apart from the mentioned ones. Have you ever witnessed a folk art where in every artist in the group sing, dance and play music all at one go? If not, read through this to know more! Let me introduce to you all an unique form of folk art that still exists in Andhra Pradesh called ‘Chekkala Bhajana’.
‘Chekka’ means a wooden piece in Telugu language, similarly ‘Chekkalu’ is the plural of ‘Chekka’ meaning wooden pieces. In the context of this folk dance, it is a pair of wooden pieces specially crafted with the help of carpenters to be used as the main percussion instrument. These wooden pieces are usually about one feet long and about 3 inch wide to the ends of which two round brass or iron pieces are fixed. Bells are placed in the center by making holes. They are held against each other in between the palm, yes just one hand here! The jingling music produced when the palm is opened and closed. According to the rhythm of this instrument, the dancers will dance and sing in unison.
Chekkala Bhajana group will usually have 16 or 20 people while performing the art. The artists are dressed in simple most of the times, yet colorful costumes consisting of a dhoti, waist cloth, colored hankie around the neck, garland and flower bracelets on the hands. Apart from that the recognizable stuff they wear include ankle bells. Each dancer carries his own ‘chekkalu’ with much pride and love! Before starting the play, all these artists pray by placing all their musical instruments in front of a God’s photo, perform pooja and wear the ankle bells and pick up their ‘Chekkalu’. Another important part of this pray is that each group member takes the blessing of their troupe ‘GURU’ (master) by touching his feet. It is nice to see, so much of respect for Teachers here!!!
Troupe members create a circular formation with master being in the center. The master starts with a Bhajan (Devotional Song) along with a music from his wooden pieces by striking them in a rhythm and the rest follow their master in chorus. See the short video that I shot at a Shiva Temple near my native place on a ‘Shiva Rathri’ night. Sorry for the bad light, I couldn’t capture it any better. This is just to give you a flavor of how the art being performed.
Expert artists would have a good understanding of about 100 different steps (variations in their foot and body movement) in this form of art. But most of the current existing troupes hardly know a dozen at the max. Master in the middle keeps singing while guiding and facilitating narration of episodes from Epics and Puranas. Rest of the group jump and dance according to the steps as the master directs. I was glad to have spent a good amount of time on Shiva Rathri night watching this folk art for about 3+ hours!
It is fun to watch them making all kind of humorous episodes in between to entertain the crowd. Apart from respecting the master, there is more to learn from these folks. The master usually delegates the center stage to a fellow troupe member there by encouraging the team members to bear the responsibility equally while mentoring them to become a Master one fine day! More than all, they don’t refer to any book or any such written chit to read out even though the program usually runs for hours together, everything comes natural through their devotion. Do you recall any such art which is not so well known in our culturally rich heritage?