Kitazawa is one among the remaining 10 traditional woodcarvers in Tokyo

Kneeling over an assortment of oddly-shaped chisels that he examines, Hideta Kitazawa proceeds to pick out a tiny serrated one he will use to carve out features on a mask he has fashioned.

“You cannot buy these miniature saws in the market… They don't make them anymore,” says the Japanese master woodcarver whose masks are worn extensively by performers of the classical Japanese Noh dance theatre. “I inherited this one from my grandfather,” says Kitazawa, who was in the city recently to attend an international exhibition and conference on ‘Art and joy of wood', organised by the Institute of Wood Sciences, among others.

Kitazawa, by his own admission, is one among the remaining 10 professional woodcarvers in Tokyo. His masks — fearsome, wistful or humorous — are integral elements in the 700-year-old tradition of Noh that combines dance, music and poetry to tell intense stories of men, women, spirits and demons. Noh performances are often interspersed with comic relief from humorous Kyogen sketches — exaggerated portrayals of everyday human foibles.

Masks that move

Carved from cypress and painted with enamel made from ground oyster shells and resin from leather, each mask takes an average of three weeks to make, he explains. The masks may appear static at first glance “but a true Noh mask must change expressions,” says Kitazawa.

And you get what he means as you watch him move the mask to catch the light. It falls on the eyelids and cheekbones transforming a smile into a frown with the slightest downward tilt. Business, however, is “so-so”. Each mask sells for Rs. 1.5 lakh, and the buyers are serious collectors or theatre companies.

From being a form of modest temple entertainment for the public in the 1300s, Noh became restricted to official ceremonies and was saved from near-extinction in the 19th Century, Kitazawa explains. Today, Noh and Kyogen enjoy a popular following and are performed in parks, temples and urban centres. Kitazawa, who is also a Shinto temple carver, has received a number of awards, including the Outstanding Youth Artesian Award for Tokyo 1997 and the Yokohama Noh Drama Hall Director's Prize in 2003.

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