Mask Making of Majuli: A Positive Economic Approach
Majuli is a focal centre of Vaishnavite culture. It holds an indispensable place of importance in the preservation and promotion of the vaishnavite way of life and culture. The immortal works of Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhabdeva in the genre of Naat, Bhaona, Borgeet and others are practiced not only in the Vaishnavite Sattras but also widely preserved all over the riverine island of Majuli. It is a tradition of every village in Majuli to hold the annual Bhaona performances. Ankiya Bhaona, Matribhasha Bhaona and Sri Krishna Raasleela thus became noteworthy annual festivals.
In these festivals, the use of masks is considered to be indispensable. In this respect we can presume that the art of mask making or rather mask industry has a potential market. Although at present this industry is substantial enough to be included in the realm of indigenous cottage industry, it has been successful in creating a nische in the national as well as in different parts of the international arena. Even though masks are made in different parts of Assam, the contribution of Majuli in mask making is unique.
Due to different natural calamities and the subsequent migration, the number of sattras dwindled to thirty-two from the erstwhile sixty-five and these sattras has been striving to preserve the history and tradition of the vaishnavite culture.
Mask is one of the ancient achievement of man and can be often considered as a forerunner of art in the formal sense. Masks take on the identity of another being and reveal personalities and moods which the human face might not be able to portray. In this process it has been recognized as an art form. In Assam, masks were prevalent since time immemorial. From the scarecrow- whether it is the clay pot smeared with lime to a bunch of straw and in the effort to create something frightening, we find the rudimentary examples of masks. Imbedded in the bhakti movement, just as the vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardeva uplifted the Assamese people in the cultural realm with the Bhaona, geet, naat and musical instruments, the masks were also given a separate identity and uplifted it to a form of art. The Bhaonas are conceived as a medium of propagation of his religious faith by Sri Sankardeva. In these Bhaonas, masks were born and developed. This art form is still practiced in few sattras which at one time were the torchbearers of cultural renaissance in Assam. At present the Natun Samaguri, Purani Samaguri, Alengi Narasingha and Bihimpur Sattra are primarily involved in mask making.
The dictionary meaning of mask or mukha, as it is called in Assamese, is a covering of the face worn to disguise oneself. In other words masks have been worn to conceal one’s identity and put on another’s and through the passage of time it has been recognized as an art form. When we talk about masks, we generally refer to the bamboo masks. We still find remnants of such old bamboo masks in few sattras. Apart from the bamboo masks, we have the prevalence of wooden masks too. For each Bhaona, the masks makers strive to carve out the different characters with their characteristic features and in that endeavour the mask makers strive to preserve their skill and knowledge and develop it into a distinctive style. And gradually it developed into a tradition.
The masks of Assam have a distinctive style. These masks are prepared out of locally available raw materials including bamboo, cane, potters clay, cow dung, and gauze muslin. Later, different newer materials are also been used. Use of open hexagonal pattern as a basketry technique in Assam is very old. The mask makers referred to this as Lakhimi sutra as the agrarian people of Assam preserve paddy seedlings in similar wicker baskets believed to be the abode of goddess Lakshmi.
The process of mask making is as follows:
In the first stage, pieces of long, immatured jati bamboo with 3-4 nodes are selected and kept under water for 4-5 days. The soaking of bamboo pieces in water prevent insect attack and provide more flexibility to the bamboo tubes. The making of masks starts with the weaving of the hexagonal endoskeleton called Lakshmi sutra as already mentioned. Bamboo strips are fastened with cane strips at regular intervals in order to keep the mask erect to give the required shape. A paste is then prepared by rigorously beating a mixture of potter’s clay and then thin strips of gauze muslin cloth are dipped into this paste and applied over the endoskeleton of the masks layer by layer and sun-dried later.
The next step involves the preparation of a mixture of cow-dung and sticky clay. With hands or koroni (bamboo scraper), the features or chehara is given by wrapping gauze muslin cloth dipped into this paste and applied layer by layer and left to dry. Before they are dried completely, the mask is scrapped with a koroni.
In the third stage, the masks are painted with different colours to give it a bright look and give the distinctive features of each character. Colours were prepared out of minerals and natural products like Hengul-haital, indigo and others. Earlier dried gourd skin was burnt and the ash is used for black colour and later it was replaced with the soot collected from earthen lamp. As adhesive, lac or the gum of the seed of wood apple is mixed with the paint and applied to the masks. Red colour is obtained from Hengul, yellow from haital, blue from indigo and white from dholmati. Extraction of natural colour is strenuous and the process is very time consuming as the mineral colours are grounded in mortar and this takes around a week’s time.
Earlier this whole process used to take around a one to one and a half months time. The more the colours are grounded, the more it shines and the quantity also increases. But nowadays due to the availability of commercial paints available in the market, the use of mineral colours has dwindled to a large extent.
Three types of masks are found in the sattras of Majuli- Cho Mukha, Lutukori Mukha and Mukh Mukha. Cho Mukhas are oversized masks covering the whole head up to the waist. The head and the body portions are prepared separately. Both the parts are secured together and the wearer rests the same over his shoulder and plays his part accordingly. From the waist onwards a skirt like garment is fastened so that the feet of the wearer are not visible. Holes are made at appropriate places to facilitate the wearer to see outside. The popular Cho mukha includes the characters of Ravana, Khumbhakarna, Moidanab, Narakasura, Narasimha and others.
The second category of masks is called the Lutukori Mukha. It is similar to Cho mukha with few variations. Here the head and the body portions are also prepared separately. Certain portions of the masks like the limbs and head can be moved. Just as Cho mukha, the wearer gets inside these masks and fits the hands of the mask over his own hands and moves accordingly. Unlike Cho mukha, the head portion of these masks are not secured to its other parts but the wearer simply places the head portion over his own head. A skirt like garment is fastened from the waist onwards. The popular Cho mukha includes the characters of Putona demoness, Taraka demoness, Shankhasar, Jakhya and others.
The third category of masks- Mukh Mukha covers only the face. Masks cover the head while the performer wears colourful costumes during the performance. The popular Mukh mukha includes the characters of Marib, Subahu, Chakrabat and others along with the various zoomorphic characters like Aghasur, Bokasur, Dhenukasur, Bokhsasur, Ananta kali Naag used during Raasleela.
The main sattras of Majuli involved in mask making are the Natun Samaguri, Purani Samaguri, Narasingha and Bihimpur Sattra. The art of mask making was prevalent in the Samaguri Sattra since the last three centuries. Sri Puroshottam Thakur's daughter Keshabpriya's son Chakrapani Deb established this satttra under a Som Tree in the year1663 (1585 Saka). Since its inception this sattra has been practicing the art of mask making. If we flip through the pages of history of this sattra, we can find the immense contribution of personalities like Tonkeswar Deb, Jogeswar Deb Goswami towards this art form. In 1902 a branch of this sattra was established around 10 miles north from this main Samaguri sattra and this new sattra also practiced mask making since its inception.The erstwhile Satttradhikar, Late Sri Rudrakanta Goswami has been awarded the Artist Pension in 1988 by the Govt. of Assam for his contribution to the art of mask making. Noted art critic, Sri Nilamani Phukan also acknowledged the contribution of this artist in his article published in Prantik (Vol 2: 19 Issue). Later, the sons of Late Rudrakanta Goswami- Late Dharmakanta Goswami, Hemchandra Goswami and Krishna Goswami carried on his legacy and strived hard to preserve and promote the art of mask making and other forms of Vaishnavite art and culture.
At present, Sri Hemchandra Goswami has established Sukumar Kala Pith- a mask making training institute in 1980 at Samaguri sattra, Majuli and has been training promising art- inclined persons. This institute works not only towards the promotion of this art form but at the same time it also strives to take up mask making as a means of attaining economic independence amongst the younger generation. At present Raas is celebrated in around 55 places in Majuli with pomp and gaiety and during this time we see masks being extensively used. In that case we can consider Majuli to have the potential of being a centre for establishing an mask industry. At present, the widespread promotion of sculptural art form taking the support of mask making is also another encouraging mutual step in the economic realm. The gateway of Naamghar, schools and colleges; sculptures of Gajendra, Peacock, Naamsinha and others are made with iron rod and cement using the vaishnavite artistic canon and skill is noteworthy. Apart from these bamboo gateways are prepared during different festivals in Majuli as well as in different parts of Assam. On one hand, we come across beautiful sculptures with different bhavas while on the other hand the economic viability of this art form is evident.
The present Sattradhikar of Natun Samaguri sattra, Sri Koshakanta Deb Goswami and his sons- Pradeep and Dhiren Goswami are actively engaged in mask making. It is a pride for Majuli that the masks of this Sattradhikar have reached as far as Indonesia. Along with this sattra, the Purana (Old) Samaguri sattra and Bihimpur sattra is also actively involved in mask making. According to the requirement of Bhaona and Raas, various new masks are prepared which is quite encouraging. The work of the artist of Bihimpur sattra is noteworthy. Alengi Narasimha sattra of upper Majuli is also engaged in mask making. The erstwhile Sattradhikar Late Lilakanta Mahanta and Priyakanta Mahanta’s masks were of superb quality. Their legacy is preserved at present by Lalit Mahanta and Golap Mahanta. A bhaona with masks prepared by these two artists were staged in Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra in January, 2006. These masks were appreciated by the audience and it is a pride for Majuli that a Cho mukha of Ravana made by this duo is preserved in the museum of Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra
In the present competitive economic policy, the art of mask making can solve the unemployment problem to a large extent. Apart from the masks used in the Bhaonas, masks of Durga, Saraswati, Biswakarma is widely used in festivals. Till now idols of these Gods and Goddesses are made outside Assam. In this regard, if idols and masks of Gods and Goddesses made by the youths of Assam in an indigenous way can be used, the economic growth would be stable to a large extent and at the same time the variegated vaishnavite culture propogated by the two saints would be preserved and a nische in the international arena would be created. Known as the abode of the Mahantas and the centre of vaishnavite culture, Majuli should attract the younger generation to this art form and the call of the hour is to devise new methods of production and attract national and international market. For this, different workshops and training programs should be initiated.We can hope that the Government and other organisations would take positive steps to give a new direction to this exquisite art form of Assam.
Dr. Brajen Chandra Neog
Translated from Assamese by Julie Barooah
(Dr Brajen Chandra Neog is an author and Associate Professor, departmnt of Economics, Majuli College. He can be reached at - firstname.lastname@example.org)
(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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