Students try their hands at mask making

The motley group chatters in gay abandon, till Velu Saravanan lets out a shrill "Hohhhhhhhhhhh..." from one end of the vast hall. The group merrily returns the call, and what follows is deafening silence. "Do you know why Gods and Goddesses have many heads and hands? And why they are so colourful?" Velu Saravanan gets a `no' from puzzled faces. "Earlier, the Greeks and the Romans gave performances from hill tops. To make themselves conspicuous to the thousands assembled downhill, they played Gods in costumes with generous helpings of colour. They had lots of heads and hands, and yes, colossal masks too." After a pause, he adds: "And do you know what we are going to make today? Masks."

Getting ready

Amidst excited chatter, Velu Saravanan, theatre artist and founder of the Puducherry-based Aazhi Children's Theatre Group, prepares for the demonstration. The workshop is part of Kaleidoscope a weeklong intensive exploration of arts held by Isha Home School, Velliangiri foothills, near Coimbatore, for its students. As many as 107 students from ages five to 14 are divided into groups of four, and Saravanan goes around the hall choosing one face from each group to produce the mask. After each selection is one thrilled face, and three, crestfallen ones! However, in minutes, the enthusiasm is palpable. And, with one cup of water, one cup of paste and sheets of old newspaper unfolds a joyous saga in mask making. Saravanan begins the process on a volunteer sitting in front of him motionless, if a trifle diffident. "Close your eyes, do not smile", he tells the `chosen' ones. The hall bursts into a cauldron of activity, even as the students cling dearly to every word he utters. Shredded newspaper bits are dipped in water, and pasted on the volunteer's face. As he says: "And oh, please don't close their noses, they'll die, you know," peals of strident laughter resonates across the hall. After a layer of paper in water comes several others coated in glue. "Give as many as layers as possible. The mask must be as thick as a clay pot." As you walk around, you catch little Sashwatha whisper to no one in particular: "I'm happy they didn't choose me." While most of them sit stiff holding their breath, a few lie flat on their back to ensure the perfect mask transpires with no hassles. One goes to the extent of lying snugly on his team-mate's lap! The pasting goes on for a while, and voila, the first one is ready to be removed. They wait for Saravanan to extricate it with his practised fingers. Waking up, as if after a reverie, the `models' are duly delighted."Hey, mine says Father of the Nation on the forehead!" cries Abinand. Each one runs outside the hall to dry the mask under the sun. Though Rushub is happy his face was used, he's sad his friend's wasn't. Anugrah is plain happy with his "sticky fingers". Vishwa and Rajendran are disappointed they were not chosen, but Madhumitha is glad to have just helped out. Having grown impatient seeing only `face' masks around, tiny tot Sri Harsha tells his Science teacher he wants the same on his hand. And, has his way too! And now it's time to leave the masks alone.

Riot of colours

Next morning, the dried masks are painted in an assortment of cheery shades. The little ones walk around joyfully wearing them. From happy bunnies, fiendish draculas to colours indicative of their favourite cricket and football teams, it's a jolly riot of paints. And, those without a mask, willingly make their faces a canvas for painting. Mask or no, behind every vibrant face is unbridled pride that knows all that goes into mask making!W. SREELALITHA

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