India, land of many masks

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As citizens don protective cover over their faces and mouths, the author explores how India’s diverse masking traditions have helped negotiate individual unease and communicate stories in tumultuous times.

Indian cultures have used masks as symbols as well as totems for ages. | Pixabay

The ongoing global pandemic has prompted healthcare professionals and government authorities to encourage the residents of many cities in India to cover their mouths and noses outdoors. Not surprisingly, the demand for surgical and respirator masks has outstripped their supply. Masking, though, is not a new phenomenon in India. Hundreds of face-masks are dispersed in storerooms, temples, monasteries, and museums across the country. These masks differ from each other in their colours, materials, amount of the face that they shield, and in the degree of congruity with the face of the person who might wear them. These dissimilarities hint at complex relationships among and between traditions of masking, healing, possession, and performance. Gleaning these relationships helps us sense how individual unease and social turmoil have been negotiated and stories communicated.

Masking practices abound in South India, making it an appropriate region to begin a survey. These practices include the Kutiyattam Sanskrit theatre of Kerala, Krishnanattam dance-drama performed to the Guruvayur temple’s presiding deity, and Kattaikkuttu enacted in the Tamil countryside. Many of their practitioners share an understanding of the human body as a permeable membrane rather than a hermetically sealed unit. They also accept that when infiltrated by undesirable foreign substances that threaten to smother the self and impede its functioning, support from an external power may be needed. A mask, or masklike facial makeup, is regarded as a concrete embodiment of this external power. Publicly worn, vigorously shaken, and eventually removed, it can serve as a means to exorcise a malevolent force and to hurl it to a distant realm. Perceptions of the human body’s permeability also lead practitioners to see masking and the closely related activity of guising as allowing a powerful self to project outward, transform individual status, and impact society.


Will our facial expressions demonstrate our heartfelt concern for those who are most vulnerable, or will they reveal our usual predictions and prejudices, as we aspire to rebuild India in a post–COVID-19 world?


Consider the Hiranya Nataka occasionally staged in the villages in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. As Indologists David Shulman and Don Handelman have elucidated, the member of the village community who plays the role of Narasimha is given a leonine mask without eye-slits. Therefore, there is no eye-contact between this actor and his audience. The mask leads the actor to simultaneously distance himself from others and to collect and project his inner power outward, for at a particular moment in the performance he symbolically dismembers the actor playing the role of Hiranyakashyapu and thereby safeguards his village community of artisans and peasants.

Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, a tangle of myths –– and possibly memories of the efficacy of masked man-lions –– have contributed to the custom of masking the bodies of buildings and motor vehicles alike with kirtimukhas and drishti bommais. Pointed ears, bared teeth, widening nostrils, locks of hair curling from the lower jaws, horns, and flames emerging from the tops of their disembodied heads help kirtimukhas and drishti bommais keep even more aggressive forces at bay as they guard the pinnacles of gopurams, walls of cotton-ginning factories, and fuel tanks of trucks plying along the East Coast Highway.

Travelling up the East Coast Highway a few years ago, researcher John Emigh found an enormous mask of Narasimha kept in a room at Baulagaon in Odisha’s Khordha district. Following a performance of rites intended to awaken its curative powers, the village’s ailing residents were brought into its midst to partake of its blessing. The mask’s priest reported to Emigh that his grandfather, a Tantric adept, wore the mask on village streets to protect it from an epidemic. In the adjoining Ganjam District and in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam District, troupes consisting of farmers enact the Prahlada Nataka. Through painted faces, masks, and careful modulations of language, they emphasise select emotional states and character traits and momentarily free audiences from their everyday anxieties.

In the Malda region of West Bengal, performers assume the guise of Narasimhi, the shakti of Durga, by wearing papier-mâché masks and making swinging movements. Cries of trepidation and peals of laughter from audience members greet these energetic movements, even as prayers to the goddess underscore her position as a vanquisher of demons and giver of bliss.

Masks made of bamboo, clay, cloth, tree resins, and earth colours have long been made and used at satras on Majuli Island and elsewhere in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. Here too, the story of Narasimha is a favourite one. Alongside wearing a full-body mask of Narasimha with movable parts, an actor-priest assumes highly-stylised postures, gesture sequences, and a gait to nurture the desired sentiments in his audience. Another actor wears a Garuda facemask. In doing so, he crisply conveys Vishnu’s presence to onlookers and transports them, however imperfectly, beyond the ambit of the mundane concerns like personalities and politics.

Many more living traditions of masking in India can be described. However, in conclusion, we might wish to return to the most elementary of all masks — our faces. When we are no longer required to wear respirator, surgical, or homemade cloth masks, in public, then we might want to pause at our thresholds and reflect on the faces that we will make as we walk along streets and re-enter our schools and workplaces. Will our facial expressions demonstrate our heartfelt concern for those who are most vulnerable, or will they reveal our usual predictions and prejudices, as we aspire to rebuild India in a post–COVID-19 world?

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