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Julie Barooah
Date of Publish: 2015-08-11

Assam’s folk performers cling on to the last of the wooden masks


Julie Barooah


Bhaonas apart, Assam has a rich tradition of wooden masks and masked performances in various local performing art forms and a few tribal traditions such as Khuliya Bhaona, Bar-dhuliya or Dhuliya Bhaona and Bharigan.

The Ankiya Bhaona has over the years inspired offshoot traditions in the state. They have developed their individual identity while retaining some aspects of their parent form. Take Khuliya Bhaona of Darrang district for instance. This form of theatre uses wooden masks representing characters such as Ravan, Hanuman and Sugriv, and there are no life-size masks unlike in Ankiya Bhaona.

Bar-dhuliya, prevalent in Kamrup district, is basically a medium of folk entertainment that includes singing and dancing to the beat of drums and cymbals, acrobatic performance, masked dance and an unwritten skit based on epic themes as well as contemporary social themes. Here, masks are used to accentuate a message and make the show striking.

Within this tradition is a more sombre and textual form in which a choral group sings an epic narrative commonly based on the Ramayana. Here, masks of Dasarath, Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Ravan, etc., are used. Performers wearing masks come on stage and dance, but their performances are devoid of any dialogues. The verbal element is complimented by the choral singing only.

Use of masks is not popular among the tribes of Assam. The Rabhas, a plain tribe belonging to the Tibeto-Burman group and inhabiting the western districts of Assam, are an exception. They have an Ankiya Naat-like distinctive folk theatre tradition called Bharigan. The themes are invariably based on the Ramayana, though there is immense local fervour in it. Episodes from the Ramayana such as Sita Haran, Ravan or Mohiravan Badh, Taronisen Badh and Bali Badh are the subjects of Bharigan. The performers wear heavy wooden masks, dance to the beat of the drums and deliver the dialogues.

Because of the weight of the masks, the rhythm of the dance is slow. Here, masks representing Ravan, his ministers, Vishnu, Mahadev, Kali Bhagavati, Durga, Jam Raja, Mora Ketua, Bibnisan, Sugriv, Hanuman, Jambuban are generally used. It is most likely that the Rabhas adopted the tradition of Bharigan from their non-tribal Hindu neighbours of Goalpara and Kamrup districts for whom Bharigan was a must in religious festivities till a few years ago. In Bharigan, each character of a play wears a mask. Interestingly, these masks do not have an opening for the eyes and there is a person who prompts the movement of a mask-wearer from behind.

As wood is a harder material, masks fashioned out of this material is simpler and less intricate. The mask-maker selects the type of wood that is easy to carve on. Pieces of light wood are hollowed from behind the mask so that a performer’s head can fit in. The facial features are carved boldly and one can see a certain degree of raw workmanship in some of the masks belonging to the tribal societies. Wooden masks are more rigid, have a fixed gaze and lacks expression. But there are instances where distortion of the facial anatomy lends expression, as in the case of the Benga mask of Dhuliya Bhaona. Holes are made through the eye balls so that the actors can see while performing unlike in the case of the masks used in Bharigan. Traditionally, these masks are painted in bright colours prepared from natural and mineral elements.

It is hard to ascertain the origin of the wooden masks of Assam due to the absence of any written records. But they are said to have been used since the days of ‘our forefathers’ or ‘our great, great grandfathers’; vague assumptions, in other words.

The Tiwa tribal community also has a tradition of using bamboo masks with ritualistic connotations. Masks play a pivotal role in the ritual associated with the Barat Puja dedicated to Goddess Kalikha. Here, people dance in front of the deity wearing the mask of Lord Shiva. Zoomorphic forms are common in this particular tradition. The dance does not have any fixed set of rules or performance text. The process of making the bamboo masks is similar to that of the Bhaona masks.

The western Assam districts of Goalpara and Dhubri have a folk tradition of making sola pith masks. Mention may be made of the mask of Goddess Kali with graphic paintings on the sola pith surface. This is used in the Kali-Chandi Nach, a ritualistic folk dance held during Charak Puja. Sola pith masks of monkeys, bears, tigers and other animals are prepared too for people to wear during the ritual dance.

Thus, the masks of Assam are variegated in terms of tradition, context and texts, materials and connotations. Masks in Assam are works of art in their own right, but they also have an important role as conveyors of spiritual significance connected with traditional beliefs, rituals and ceremonies. At the same time, they serve as a strong medium of theatrical expression.

Over the years, the art of mask-making and masked performances has lost much of its social and religious importance. This can be attributed to the gradual loss of its significance in religious propaganda. The process of mask-making as well as the medium has changed too. Natural colours have given way to more easily available synthetic colours. And the wooden masks are no longer prepared; they have found their way into the different museums of the state.

The tradition of mask-making is on the verge of being lost but there are some groups that are still using wooden masks in Bharigan and Bar-dhuliya.             

(Julie Barooah researched masks of Assam under Nehru Trust Grant for Small Study and Research Grants 2002-2003 and with assistance from the Ministry of Culture for Promotion and Dissemination of Tribal Folk Art and Culture 2004)




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