Theatre

Unmasking the mask theatre

A scene from the play. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: 05dfr bajeli

The hardy people of Uttarakhand have evolved over the centuries a rich and varied repertoire of folk and traditional art forms. With the change in socio-economic conditions, some of the rare forms have vanished and some are on the verge of extinction. But there are still large bodies of theatre forms like Ramman and Hill Jatra which are very much alive and vibrant. These two are rare mask theatre forms of the hills which featured at the ongoing ‘Akhyan: A Celebration of Masks, Puppets and Picture Showmen Traditions of India' jointly organised by Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi this past week.

In its original form Ramman is performed in some villages of Chamoli district, in April every year. It begins on an auspicious day decided by a priest. For nearly two weeks performers wearing masks of various sizes, colours and expressions enact stories about local deities evoking their blessings to ensure rich harvest, safety of cattle and welfare of villagers. The narrative is interspersed with tales of brave of sons of the soil who fought against Gorkhas who ruled Uttarakhand before the British occupation of Uttarakhand in the 19{+t}{+h} Century. On the last day during day time episodes from the Ramayana are enacted. Local, deities, including Ganesha, and dancers wear masks but characters from the Ramayana act without masks.

On the make-shift stage in the premises of IGNCA Saloor Dungra Group presented a few episodes from this ritualistic form of theatre. It opens with the entry of the character of Budh Deva followed by Ganesha and Kalinki. Dance steps are remarkable for intricacy and slow rhythm.

In this presentation orchestra and vocalists play an important role. The music is rendered by four singers. Its form is based on Jagar singing, a form prevalent in the entire Uttarakhand with variations. The singers narrate story accompanied by instrumental music consisted of dhol, damyun, bhokari and cymbals. Two trumpet players occupying position in different places of the venue who blow long and typical hilly drumpets to heighten dramatic impact. As if in trance the performers give dramatic expression to the narrative sung by the chorus to the accompaniment of the highly evocative music. The costumes and masks are made of material available locally. A unique experience of a ritualistic theatre, the show is remarkable for its dynamic flow of action evocative music and inspired dance movements.

Hill jatra

Another Mask theatre from Uttarakhand showcased at the festival is Hill Jatra presented by Nabodaya Group. It is said that this form was brought from Nepal to Pithoragarh district by a warrior community from Nepal. In Nepal it is known as Indra Jatra. Hill stands for the soil of the field mixed with water to symbolise the preparation of agricultural field for sowing seeds. The songs are sung in praise of Lord Shiva, his consort Parvati and their attendant Lakhiya Bhoot worshipped as Bhumiyal Devata. The highlight of this theatre is the introduction of animal characters in masks which form the centre stage and worshiped like deity. This is the theatre dedicated to mother earth and agriculture that provide sustenance to human beings. An array of local instruments accompanied the movements of the performers. Lot of comic interludes are included to keep the audience in good humour.

What is important for a modern theatre practitioner is the use of elements of this ritualistic theatre to mould a new theatre idiom. There have been some successful attempts in this direction. The late Mohan Upreti recreated Hill Jatra as a people's movement for the preservation of environment. He reinterpreted Jagar, ritualistic theatre, as a theatre of guilt, revenge and forgiveness.

Conceived as an opera, Upreti presented the Mahabharata in Pandav Jagar style, a most important ritualistic theatre of Uttarakhand. D.R. Purohit presented the episode of Chakravyuh from Pandav Jagar revealing its magic through music, rhythmic chants, and the stylised acting of performers as the medium of the characters of the Mahabharata. Ramman mask theatre has immense potential to be recreated and interpreted by modern theatre director. But so far no such experiments have been made. This is one of the ways to preserve and enrich traditional forms.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 5:01:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/Unmasking-the-mask-theatre/article15675584.ece

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