Stories behind the masks

An exhibition in New Delhi that gives a glimpse of diverse storytelling traditions in India.

November 04, 2010 06:25 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 09:48 am IST - NEW DELHI:

IGNCA lay enveloped in an eerie silence during the mega cultural festival held during the just-concluded Commonwealth Games in the Capital. Security issues are believed to have spoilt the party. However. with ‘Akhyan', an exhaustive month-long event put together by SNA and IGNCA presenting the fascinating storytelling traditions of India, the cultural centre seems to have regained its lost vigour.

The venue was abuzz with film shows, daily performances and live demonstrations showcasing the three varied performing traditions — masks, puppets and picture showmen. The three distinct artistic expressions meet on the ground that the stories they narrate either come from the Ramayan, the Mahabharat or the Puranas.

While the daily performances and film shows have come to a close, the exhibition is on till November 20. Some highlights:


“Every mask has a story to tell,” says Molly Kaushal, Head, Janpada Sampada Division of IGNCA, pointing at the Gambhira masks from Maldah district of West Bengal. In one of the oldest Bengali dance dramas performed with masks, Kali stands at the centre. The goddess's wooden mask — a long thrust-out tongue and a high ray-shaped crown — and Shiva's white mask with a third eye on his forehead and a knot of hair wound up with snakes are specimens from Gambhira tradition.

Heart-shaped Seraikela worn in Chhau dance, or the eight masks showing the manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava, Thane masks from Maharashtra, Lakhia Bhoot masks of Hill Jatra from Kumaon and various others are displayed here.

“Masks were ritual objects and there were so many taboos and ceremonies associated with it. Since Narasingh Devta's mask worn in the Ramman performance in Garhwal is considered sacred and kept in the temple, we have got a mask specifically made for us. The opening of the eye of a mask is an extremely important step, for with this it is believed to come alive with spirit and energy. The round brass masks of Varanasi made by the Muslim artisans point to the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ,” elaborates Kaushal.


While the oldest form of puppetry is presented through Orissa's shadow puppets called ‘Ravan Chhaya' and Kerala's Tholpavai Koothu, India's string puppetry tradition is highlighted through Bommalattam from Tamil Nadu, considered the heaviest and largest puppets. Pava Kathakali puppets of Kerala representing the glove puppetry tradition in India are also part of the exposition. It has fascinating puppets carved in wood in Kathakali style. The viewers also get familiar with a reatively lesser-known style of Yakshagana puppetry of Karnataka which was shaped by three brothers Laxman, Narasimha and Manjappa Kamath three centuries ago.


It is in the Patua scrolls of Kalighat that one witnesses traditional artists sans any interference negotiating contemporaneity for a long time. Jyotindra Jain, Member Secretary, IGNCA, says contemporary events began finding their way to the scrolls as early as the 1950s. “Nobody commissioned it but Kalighat painters made a scroll depicting the detrimental effects of cinema on the society of West Bengal in 1950. In a Santhal scroll displayed here, you see Shiva visiting a devotee's house accompanied by two gunmen. The artist imagines him as a VIP and this was done almost 25 years ago.”

Patuas depicting the 9/11 attack and tsunami can also be seen. “Osama Bin Laden has been personified as an airplane and, like in the traditional mythological scroll where you have a scene depicting reward or punishment, Osama is depicted regretting what he did. “In the Pabuji ki Phad religious scroll style of Rajasthan, a few years ago an artist even painted the life story of Amitabh Bachchan which is now at a museum in Amsterdam.”

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