The sun’s rays are still slanting through the skies when the rickety State transport bus drops me off at Charida. The village is evenly distributed on both sides of a street that splits it in half. Dozens of shops dot the street from which angry demon faces glare at me alongside more benign visages of Hindu gods and goddesses.
I am in Mukhosh Para or the village of the famed Purulia Chhau mask makers of West Bengal. Last month, this traditional rural craft, an integral component of the semi-martial art dance form of Chhau, was awarded the GI (Geographical Indication) tag.
About 500 families in Purulia district’s Baghmundi block, some 300 km from Kolkata, are reportedly involved today in making the large and colourful Chhau masks. Charida, about 5 km from Baghmundi village, is on the scenic foothills of Ayodhya Hills, and has about 150 artist families.
Fire crackles from an earthen furnace as I sit in a tile-roofed tea-stall, munching bhajis and sipping tea. The elderly tea-stall owner is telling me that many youngsters from upper caste families are today taking up mask-making.
“In the old times, only members from the lower castes used to do it, but caste-based divisions are fading by the day,” he says.
Next door, the reticent craftsmen at the workshop barely register my presence. A young man, Bijay Sutradhar, is sent over to answer my queries. Mask-making has been in his family for about five generations now, Sutradhar tells me. Each mask takes between two and seven days to be completed and involves five elaborate processes.
First, the clay is collected from the banks of a small river flowing through Charida; then it is shaped into masks by the master craftsmen. Then, shreds of newspaper are stuck on the clay masks, sometimes 15 layers thick, before they are left out to dry under the sun for a day.
Next, a thin coating of bele mati , a special type of soil with high sand content, is applied on the mask. A cloth daubed with clay is stuck to the visor before a wooden carving tool is used to polish the mask and create facial features like eyes, nose and mouth.
After it’s dried, the cloth is removed very carefully and the mask is plastered with khori mati — soil with high calcium content. Colours are then applied and the masks decorated with beads, ribbons, artificial flowers and leaves. “If a mask is only half done before the day turns cloudy or rainy, our effort is completely wasted and the mask is ruined. The rainy season hampers our work,” says Sutradhar.
The khori mati and dry colours used for the craft are sourced from the bustling Bagri market and Kumartuli in Kolkata. The colours are mixed with an adhesive before being applied on the masks.
Not all Charida masks are used solely for the Chhau dance, however. Many find pride of place as prized souvenirs on walls of homes. And the masks are of all kinds, from Hindu gods to mythical beasts. Rates begin from ₹700, and depending on the craftsmanship involved, can go up to ₹4,000.
The dusky-hued mask of a married couple sporting traditional tribal make-up and hairdo is the most popular Chhau mask picked up by tourists. They are commonly referred to as adivasi or santhal masks. But Sutradhar corrects me here: “Tourists think these masks are inspired by the Santhals who live in the hills of Purulia but that is completely wrong. The Kirat-Kiratin avtar of Shiva and Durga is the inspiration behind them.”
Lesser-known pockets of Purulia, with their densely knotted woods and tranquil villages, opened their doors to tourists only recently. But the Chhau craft itself dates back 150 years, to the reign of King Madan Mohan Singh Deo of Baghmundi. Today, Charida hosts the yearly Chhau mask festival in the cold months of December and January, which has seen the villagers’ revenues go up. Charida’s most famous craftsmen have travelled as far as Japan and France to showcase their work and popularise Chhau.
In March and April, sales soar thanks to Chhau dance carnivals. In winter, tourists flock to Purulia, and stop at Charida to pick up souvenirs. Tourist flow recedes in summer and so do revenues.
Guided by the locals, I reach a statue of the late Gambhir Singh Mura — a man from the nearby village of Pitikiri Bamni and a Padma Shri awardee. He was an outstanding Chhau dancer and revered by the locals. His face looks down at me benignly, as striking as the masks he used to wear while dancing.
The freelance writer gets a kick out of immersive travel and sinful desserts.