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Julie Barooah
Date of Publish: 2015-07-08

Magical masks: In search of Mukha

Masks have an enigmatic charm. Be it the wooden African masks, the rainbow Buddhist masks of the Himalayan region or the Vaishnavite masks of Assam – the magnitude of their size, the splash of colours and aesthetics make them intriguing.

In Assam, masks play a predominant role in various traditions – tribal, non-tribal and some distinct local socio-cultural processes. It is a medium of creative expression used in different masked performances held during festivals, rituals and predominantly in the Vaishnavite narrative theatre called Bhaona or Ankiya Naat.

Traditional masks made in Samaguri Sattra of Majuli river island of Assam (Photo: by special arrangement)

Deeply embedded in the Bhakti movement, the origin of the Ankiya Naat is ascribed to the great Vaishnava saint and preacher, Srimanta Sankardeva. He conceived these plays in the 15-16th century and used them as a medium of propagating his religious faith. As the deeds of Lord Vishnu and his different incarnations, especially Rama and Krishna, are enacted in these plays, they were considered not only as a form of entertainment but also as a medium of instruction for the common people about the episodes from the epics and the Puranas.

The Ankiya Naats are an amalgamation of dialogue, musical narrative, dance, and art like mask-making. The masks or Mukha, as it is called in Assamese, form an important component of the Bhaona performance and help make the play spectacular. They have a special role of enactment of myths that are fundamental to maintaining traditions and continuing the social order.

Eminent musk artist Hemchandra Goswami with his own creations

The genesis of the Bhaona masks of Assam can be traced to Sankardeva himself when he prepared several masks to portray characters like Garuda for his first play – Cinna Yatra. Realising the immense potentiality of the masks for portraying a character, he invariably and widely used it in all his plays. And the tradition continued thereafter. But today the tradition is surviving in only a few sattras or Vaishnavite communes of Majuli and Sivasagar in Assam.

The masks cover a whole gamut of characters – divine, mythical, kings and demons, sub-humans as well as zoomorphic forms. Even though both bamboo and wooden masks were used in the Bhaona earlier, only the bamboo masks are predominantly used today. These masks are made out of locally available raw materials including bamboo, cane, potters’ clay, cow dung, and gauze muslin. Thin strips of jati bamboos are prepared and woven into a hexagonal pattern to prepare the endoskeleton of the masks. A paste is then prepared by rigorously beating a mixture of cow dung, potters’ clay and lime, straining it from time to time till the paste become soft and almost of gruel-like consistency. Thin strips of gauze muslin cloth are then dipped into this paste and applied over the endoskeleton of the masks layer by layer. It is like applying the skin over a skeleton. Several layers of these cloth strips are applied after the one below is sun-dried. Embellishments are added as and when required. After being completely dried, they are painted with different colours for bright look and distinctive features of each character. Earlier, colours were prepared from minerals and natural products; nowadays mask makers of Assam, except few, have resorted to commercial paints available in the market.

Traditional masks made in Samaguri Sattra of Majuli river island of Assam (Photo: by special arrangement)

Based on their sizes, the bamboo masks of Assam are categorized as Mukh Mukha (covering only the face), Mur Mukha (covering the whole head and neck and sometimes the shoulder), Bar Mukha or Cho Mukha (covering the whole head down to the waist). There is another category of masks called the Lutukori Mukha where you can move certain portions such as the limbs or the mouth. And few others even have some mechanical devices such as pulley fitted to them to enable movement of some of their parts. There is yet another type of composite masks comprising two parts – one worn over the face and head and the other covering the torso.

There are a few interesting features of the Bhaona masks. Most of the masks, especially those of Ravana, Narasimha, Kaliya, Putana, etc., are always made three to four times larger than life-sized ones measuring 6-10 feet higher than the waist of the user. But in spite of their sizes, they are comparatively very light due to the raw material and the fine and intricate manner of making them. So much so that, the performers can dance to the accompaniment of music, wearing these masks.

Traditional masks made in Samaguri Sattra of Majuli river island of Assam (Photo: by special arrangement)

The mask maker prepares the masks according to the canon given in the scriptures and the demand of the character. And accordingly the artists bring forth the different emotions or bhavas. It is therefore important for the artist to have a thorough knowledge of the scriptures. The visualisation is in the discretion of the gifted artist who is able to bring out the emotion and give the final shape and substance to the mask.

(The author 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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