Masked to Reveal

From chhau in eastern India to cham in the north, masks are an important part of several of India’s ethnic dance forms, in which these are used to portray a character, says Poonam Goel

It is often said that each one of us wears a mask sometime or other to hide our true feelings or identity. While this may be metaphorically true, Indian dance heritage has a uniquely different notion of what a mask symbolises. Several Indian classical and tribal dances use decorative and elaborate masks, not to hide, but to reveal the character being portrayed. Chhau, one of the well-known mask dances, belongs to eastern India. The martial dance form chhau has originated from the tribal belts of West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘chhaya’, and its most celebrated forms are Saraikela chhau (Jharkhand), Mayurbhanj chhau (Odisha) and Purulia chhau (West Bengal), the last also listed on UNESCO’s heritage list of dances. Purulia chhau dancers use earthy and theatrical masks, made by artists from the Sutradhar community. The central theme often depicts how evil is punished, based on mythological stories.

Saraikela chhau masks are simpler, though the narrative remains akin to its Bengali counterpart. These masks are made of papiermâché with awe-inspiring headgear. In Odisha’s folk theatre tradition jatra, artistes also use masks to depict characters from mythology. In Kerala’s traditional dance forms theyyam and kathakali, elaborate costumes with facial masks are equally prominent.

Says Thulasi Kakat, a professional photographer who has extensively documented the disappearing traditions of theyyam for a photo project showcased at the second edition of Habitat Photosphere, “I was born and raised in north Kerala where theyyam is a regular feature. We believe that theyyam is not just a dance form or performing art, it’s a divine ritual that brings us closer to god. Theyyam is considered divine, like a god, with whom we can share our grief and also get blessings”.

In almost every dance form that uses masks across India, the narrative includes stories from epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Puranas and myriad folk tales. The clothes, ornaments and masks are created to transform an ordinary person into a god.

Another ritualistic dance form, cham, is performed by Buddhist monks as a regular part of monastery festivals, especially in Lahaul, Spiti, Ladakh and Kinnaur in northern India. The masks are bright and intricately patterned, making the character appear larger than life. Dancing to the booming sounds of drums and other percussion instruments, cham dancers can often be intimidating and dramatic as the purpose of this dance is to appease deities and ward off evil.

The Assamese folk dance mukha bhaona originates from the idyllic river island of Majuli, where the tradition of mask making is said to have existed since the 16th century. These lightweight masks crafted from bamboo and cloth are called mukha or mukhota and are significant for their eyelids and lips that are controlled by the performer (lotokai mukha). Says art curator Neelam Malhotra, who had recently curated a show on masks: “Masks are an essential component of folk tradition. They have been used for dance, both ritualistic or celebratory, since times immemorial.”

Sometimes, masks are used especially for the villainous character alone. For instance, according to dance historian Dr Sunil Kothari, in Kerala’s Krishnattam dance form, characters like the death God Yama and demons like Puthana (sent to kill Krishna) are depicted with masks. Says he: “Masks offer several identities. The person behind the mask could be a bird, an animal, a joker, a prince or princess, a demon, a demoness, ghost and even god. Masks are believed to have magical powers.”

Since masks perform various roles and embody diverse sentiments, they visibly differ in size, dimension, carvings and looks. Some may have bulging eyes, protruding nose, tongue jutting out of mouth – features enhanced to portray fear, other worldliness, create fantasy or to deceive other characters in a dancedrama. In Tamil Nadu, therukoothu or street theatre uses partial face masks, colourful costumes and crowns. Instead of using dialogues, music forms the basis of this performance, where characters sing and enact scenes from mythology.

Since masks perform various roles and embody diverse sentiments, they visibly differ in size, dimension, carvings and looks. Some may have bulging eyes, protruding nose, tongue jutting out of mouth – features enhanced to portray fear, other worldliness, create fantasy or to deceive other characters in a dancedrama. In Tamil Nadu, therukoothu or street theatre uses partial face masks, colourful costumes and crowns. Instead of using dialogues, music forms the basis of this performance, where characters sing and enact scenes from mythology.

Somana kunitha of Karnataka is a celebratory trance-like dance performed to honour a village deity. Dancers wear elaborate red sandalwood masks (soma) painted with fangs, flaring nostrils, and big, curly mustaches. A benevolent deity is represented by a red mask while a yellow or black mask suggests the opposite. According to Malhotra, “The bhuta (ghost or spirit) masks have been used in ritualistic ceremonies for ages.

The performer begins with a dance and reaches a trance like state, when he is said to be possessed by a spirit and answers various questions of the spectators and bestows blessings.”

Another dance which is performed using wooden masks is Kali nach, performed in West Bengal, in honour of Goddess Kali. The performer wears a mask and dances with a sword, making prophecies. Masks are also used in the traditional fagli dance of Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. Performers here dance as demons and gods.

Padayani, also called padeni (derived from the Malayalam word for military formation), is a traditional folk dance mainly performed in honour of the Bhadrakali deity. In this art form, the performance blends music, dance, theatre, satire, facial masks and paintings.

 

The author is an art enthusiast and the views expressed in the article are her own

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