Meet Hem Chandra Goswami, a master mask-maker from Majuli

Chiselling tales: Hem Chandra Goswami with a bamboo sculpture  

Mention the name Majuli, and the image of a river island in the vast expanse of Assam’s Brahmaputra comes to mind. Majuli has the unique distinction of being declared as the first river island in 2006, but much before that it carved a niche for itself by being a repository of Assamese art and culture. The place boasts of many monastic centres or satras, preserving and practising music, dance and art.

Standing tall among these practitioners is Hem Chandra Goswami, the sattriya (member) of Samaguri Satra. Acclaimed nationally and internationally for making life-like masks, he has been recently conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2018. Be it the fiery Surpanakha or the fearsome Ravana, the masks with the contours, colours, hair and get-up, gives chills to the viewers. Likewise, those depicting Narasimha, Hanuman and Garuda, with their finely etched features, while keeping the audience in awe, convey their personality emphatically. Such is the magic wielded by Goswami.

The art of mask-making in Assam traces its origin to Srimanta Sankardeva, a social and cultural reformer, who propounded the neo-Vaishnavite movement in 15th Century. “He wrote a dramatic composition called ‘Ankiya Nat’ which is called Bhaona in Assamese. He took stories from Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana and wrote six ‘Ankiya Nat’ in Brajawali language (a mixed language of Assamese and Maithili). These are ‘Rama Vijaya’, ‘Parijata Haran’, ‘Kaliya Damana’, ‘Rukmini Haran’, ‘Keli Gopala’ and ‘Patni Prasada’. In these dramas, some characters had overwhelming personalities which could not be portrayed by a human face. Therefore, Sankardeva introduced the concept of mask and depicted them in Bhaona,” explains Goswami. Some of the specific characters for whom masks are used include that of Maricha, Subahu, Taraka, Kalia Nag, etc. “Masks help to enhance the performance and dramatic effect of these characters, which would not be possible by facial expressions alone,” adds Goswami.

Making of a master

Mask performance

Mask performance  

So fascinating were the masks and their making, that Goswami started learning the craft when he was merely 10. His father, Rudrakanta Deva Goswami, a prominent mask maker and sattriya artist, was his guru. Goswami fondly recalls his father making the masks in the namghar (temple). “Sitting by his side, we watched intently his hands moving deftly making the structure with bamboo splints. And from them would emerge the mask of Taraka, Maricha, Ravana, Bali and others. Watching him closely, we too started, being guided by him at every stage.”

While eco-friendly became the buzz word recently, these masks fitted that description perfectly. The material used to make them are bio-degradable and incidentally, available locally. Explaining the mask-making process in detail, Goswami says: “We start by using bamboo sticks to make the framework of the face. Then the sticky potters’ clay smeared on cotton cloth strips are pasted on the frame. A mix of clay and cow dung is used to etch out the contours of the specific character. Thereafter, a cloth is wrapped to complete the shape. The final step is colouring and polishing. Either natural colours from flowers, leaves and tree bark are used or those available in the market.”

Narasimha full mask

Narasimha full mask  

Goswami not only mastered the age-old skill but has also played a pioneering role by incorporating innovations in the mask. These include the speaking and movable masks and some with moving eyes. “The jaw and eye movement give a touch of realism to the masks, thereby engaging viewers,” he remarks. He made these changes when performing “Sita Haran Bali Bodh”, in which all the artists don masks, to give a touch of novelty to the performance. “I thought it will make the dialogue rendering fluent and acting easy while allowing artists to see the audience during the performance.” Some of the masks with these attributes include Putana, Bali and Sugreeva.

Mask of Subahu

Mask of Subahu  

Stretching his imagery further Goswami created bamboo sculptures. Using bamboo strips and the local basket weaving style, he came up with beautiful pieces. These depict Sattriya and Bihu dances, yoga postures, Hanuman and Garuda, etc. “I feel there is tremendous potential in bamboo sculpture as the raw material is abundant and there are many talented youngsters, who can infuse it with aesthetics,” says Goswami. He feels that since these sculptures make fine decoration and gift items, this art can provide livelihood to the young.

The artist making a Hanuman mask

The artist making a Hanuman mask  

Negating the prevailing view that the craft is gradually fading into oblivion, Goswami pins hopes on the inquisitiveness of the youngsters about this art to attract talent. “Teaching this tradition through gurukul system has drawn new and eager learners. Many have learnt this art through workshops, seminars, exhibitions and demonstration programmes.” With connoisseurs and others eager to buy these aesthetic and attractive masks as wall hangings and decoration pieces, Goswami feels the art will certainly get a fillip.

The Sukumar Kala Peeth, Goswami currently heads, too has contributed immensely in popularising mask-making. “We train people in mask-making, wood carving and sculpture. I have taught students not only from all over India but also from England, France and Israel among others. This proves that art can unify us irrespective of religion and region.” The SNA award, Goswami feels will go a long way in getting this art form recognition at national and international level.

Types of mask

Mukh mukha (face mask) Used on the face along with appropriate costume to match the specifications of the character. Examples are Bali, Sugreev , Garuda , Jatayu, etc.

Lotokori mukha (middle mask) This mask has a face part and a body part. A part of the actor's body is covered while he can use his hands and feet easily. Examples are Marich, Subaru, Taraka, etc

Bar mukha or Cho mukha (big mask) This mask is also called big mask as it covers the human body. Cho refers to hiding the natural body of an actor completely, from his head to feet . Examples are Ravana, Narasingha etc .

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 3:29:11 PM |

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