Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Chham – The Mask Dance



The mask dance is the integral part of any Tshechu or festival in Bhutan. It attracts older generations and together with them the younger generations get to accompany and throng the festival, whose interest lie somewhere else other than watching the Cham. Due to its entertaining properties now it can be viewed in some of the gatherings besides tshechu too. The beauty of viewing the mask dance is that even if you missed viewing the show in between you will not feel something is being missed. The interesting parts and complicated steps are accompanied with the blow of a long horn – dung. This some how attracts the attention of the distracted viewers.

The agility of the body required to make the moves and the complication involved in the steps can be best appreciated if you have tried to learn to dance. I got the chance to learn how to mask dance in school days. The counting involved are easy – it corresponds to the beat of the cymbals. “Chi – Nyi – Sum – Gi – Ja.........Baybar drum chi – Bayber drum Nyi....” The meaning of these I never dared to ask our serious looking mask dance lopen. Lopens are the most feared lots in school because they were the most ardent believer in corporal punishments to instill discipline and also to make students learn faster. Besides that when you are not good in that field you cannot make much noise with the instructor. Incidentally, our mask dance lopen was referred to as 'bayber drum'. The nick remained for a long time even after we passed out from the school because we heard our successors saying 'lopen bayber drum is coming....' and so an so.

As there was no exam for the chham, the subject was seldom taken seriously moreover girls were excused from the mask dance class and they need not attend it. This in turn makes the serious lopen more serious. The attitude of the students towards the important lesson must have been reported to the principal, as the principal comes to monitor the mask dance class in the open under the sun on the basket ball ground. The pupil with double left foot concerning the mask dance used to splash a smile across the principal's face to the consternation of lopen bayber drum. But then, some of our friends used to be really good at it. It all depends on having the knack at it. Our school could field an item or two of mask dance during every major events. The most favorites being the dance of the stags (shaw cham) or the durda cham. It may be because the dance involves only four dancers, and easier to train and manage the paraphernalia that is required to perform the dance.

However, to my knowledge none from our batch took up mask dance as a profession or a part time job. But it helped us in inculcating the sense of appreciation for the difficulties involved in performing the dance. Each steps has a significance (that only the lopen knows). Due to the lack in tactics of teaching to generating more interest coupled with the lack of future in mask dancing pupils just did it like they would with the soccer, volleyball and basketball.

Later I heard that lopen bayber drum knew the better of the profession he was involved in and seems to have become simple and strived hard only to teach the pupils who have knack and interest in it. Others were engaged in watching the practice, including the girls, which helped in honing the skills of the dancers.


The ring of the cymbals during tshechu signals the counts automatically in my mind like – chi-ni-sum-gi-ja.....jana na chi-ja na nyi.... - can be attributed to the chham classes of the yonder days.