Living culture of masks

A TRADITIONAL ART West Bengal’s Chhau mask  

It was only last year that the quaint, idyllic Majuli was declared the largest river island in the world, but since the 16th Century the tradition of mask-making has existed and flourished on this island, which is situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra river in Assam. Home to several festivals, including ‘raas leela’ and vibrant street theatre activities like ‘bhaona’, the 880 sq km island, which has been the hub of Vaishnava cultural heritage, attracts national and foreign tourists alike to witness its eclectic cultural composition. This is where craftsman Hemchandra Goswami has been making masks or ‘mukhota’ for close to four decades, a skill he learnt from his father when he was 10 years old.

“The masks that we make are mostly used for religious performances and traditional dramas where scenes from the Ramayan and Mahabharat are depicted. This is the reason why you will mostly find headgears of popular mythological characters like the Ravan or Hanuman,” says the 58-year-old.

Mask from Banaras

Mask from Banaras  

“However,” he is quick to add, “We not only make mukha (face masks), but also lotokai mukha (mask used to move lips and eyes) and even bor or cho, which usually consist of two parts — a head and a body.” The masks of this island are particularly popular because of their make — a mixture of clay, bamboo or cloth, but what makes them unique is the fact that they are lightweight.

Universal practice

This artistic practice from the northeast region is just a microcosm of what India, as a culturally rich and diverse nation, has to offer when it comes to the indigenous practice of mask-making. This tradition, however, is a universally followed practice, as art historian Alka Pande rightly points out that “masks represent a living culture and were created not only for several religious or ceremonial purposes but also for beautification (Venetian masks) or as a masquerade to hide identity”.

In India too, the art of mask making is an expression of traditions, environment, mythology and even imagination, and it is not every day that one gets to view some of the many mask-making practices that exist in our country under one roof. An ongoing exhibition titled, Mukhosh at Art Konsult that offers a rare glimpse into the fascinating world of masks from several Indian states.

“Masks greatly vary in appearance, raw materials and utility, depending on different belief systems and ecologies,” says Neelam Malhotra, curator of the exhibition, which concludes June 10. “And since our folk art and culture forms have an ethnic nature they remain within a particular geographical region.”

Mask from Odisha

Mask from Odisha  

For instance, Chhau, a martial dance form spread across West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Odisha comes with three variations depending on the place from where it comes from. Purulia Chhau finds its roots in West Bengal; Mayurbhanj Chhau is performed in Odisha; Seraikella Chhau is the Chhau of Jharkhand. Similarly, in the folk theatre tradition of Odisha, known as Jatra, performing artists use masks based on their characters, which are again drawn from mythology, and in Kerala’s traditional dance forms — Theyyam and Kathakali, elaborated costumes along with facial painting is considered a form of mask-making.

While the forms may change, one tenet that binds each of them together is the narrative. “All these performances include stories from epics Ramayan, Mahabharat and the Puranas and even folk tales. Created using bamboo, wood, clay and paper mache, each mask may have stylistic variations depending on the local community of artisans,” says Neelam.

Steep decline

However, not every mask-making tradition in India is flourishing. Take, for example, masks from Himachal Pradesh, which are made of wood and usually are carved out faces of animals like the lion or leopard and also of deities and demons. The masks of gods are placed at the entrances of the village homes to keep away evil spirits. Yet, this traditional practice is witnessing a steep decline. “Mask-making you can say is almost extinct. The younger generation is not taking up this family tradition any more because it doesn’t help them generate a decent income,” informs, Siddhartha Tagore, director, Art Konsult. An ardent folk and tribal art collector, he has been visiting village festivals across India to build an envious and prized collection of rare artefacts.

Mask from Himachal Pradesh

Mask from Himachal Pradesh  

Master craftsman, Sushant Singh Mahapatra from Saraikela in Jharkhand, couldn’t agree more. He has been at the forefront of keeping the family tradition of making Chhau masks alive despite the fact that the income is “seasonal” and doesn’t pay much unless customers are interested in an elaborate and decorative “showpiece”.

Siddhartha Tagore

Siddhartha Tagore  

“The dance is ritualistically performed during Chaitra (March to April) and this is the season when we work maximum. Our community soon realised that to make a living out of this we have to create show pieces. So, now our other source of income is this. However, we still struggle to make ends meet,” says the 65-year-old.

Yet, he doesn’t want to part ways with this tradition and teaches students the skill and has been a ‘guru’ to his son as well, who has done MCA and still practises the craft. “Sincpe it is our tradition I was sure that I would like to continue the practice. But, at the same time, I knew I had to have an alternate career. So, I am working at a local department and once I am home, I continue making masks. I will make sure that my children learn it too,” says Sumit Kumar Mahapatra, his son.

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Printable version | Jul 21, 2021 11:43:37 PM |

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