Dr. Gautam Chatterjee  




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MASK - a Universal Language of Cultural Aesthetics

by Dr. Gautam Chatterjee

International Mask Festival 

To fathom Mask, an ancient creation of Man and to find a universal definition an International Mask festival was organised at New Delhi during 12-28 Feb.1998 by Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Sangeet Natak Academy and National School of Drama. Mask a concept beyond the ‘guise’ is a heritage of the world and works as a powerful punctuation in any culture beyond the stipulated geo-political boundaries! This festival was an exposition starting from the Mask dancing rituals across the world and then through an unique exhibition of mask from world over. This was followed by a seminar "Mind, Man and Mask" to redifine the world heritage of Masks.

Mask Dancers from Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and Sweden demonstrated the Mask as Univeral heritage and language never mattered for the audiance. Varied types of Masks with character speaking loudly, spaced with traditional music created the aroma of ‘oneness’ ‘one forum of connectivity’ for races who are otherwise given a compartmantalised ‘identity’,at least at global political scenario.

The festival started with the traditional mask dances of Nepal. The ‘Mahakali Mahatmya’ ‘Kumari Dance’ of Newara community and the ‘Mahalaxmi Dance’ ‘Khicha Dance’ ‘Yama Raj’ were classed apart as classical dances of Nepal. The lucidity of music of Himalayan echo and rythmic lure of footsteps evoked tremendous response from people. Nagada, Dholak to Tah are the some instruments which gave those sacred masks a musical expression value!

Another international participation was from Bhutan whose leader Mr.Sangay Tenzin said "We belive Mask Dance as religious cultural tradition which dates back to the 8th century A.D. Masks remain as hereditary symbol within the parameter of religious function". Bhutan where Buddhist Mahayana tradition survives with vitality ,which are cultured by trained monks and laymen . Bhutan demonstrated mask dance ‘Durdag’ the dance of the Lord of the cremation ground; ‘Dramitise Ngacham’ and the dance with swords in ‘Driging Kaycham’provided the audiance with rare sacredness of this Himalayan Kingdom. Mr.Tenzin explained that mask are made of wood and only men can create those but sometimes ladies are involved.There is a tradition of offering masks to Gods which are never to be used again . In monastries there are masks which are existing for over hundred years. Thus the tradition of masks continues within the ‘sacredness’of the man sometime within and sometime outside those religious phonetics. The costumes of Butanise dance troop are unique as those are said to be codified in sacred canons of Buddhist traditions. At the inspiration levels the masks and its associated ritualistic story line represents a powerfull comprehension of nature within the psyche and outside as well!

The ‘Black Umfolosi’ from Zimbabwe was mask troop with diffference. In their performance we find modernity and traditional concept of ‘spirit’of the family live together. In their enactment a modern boy goes for job-hunt and the family spirit guides him, redirects and takes him to the destination. Here the spirit is not supposed to be seen by others remain ‘protector’for the boy. Finally the ‘Spirit’ make him a ‘singer’. Lucky Ali head of Black Umfolosi said that "Culture knows no barrier where words can no longer communicate, Music and dance take over". Further Lucky said ‘ people in Zimbabwe retreat from technology in this dance as this mask dance works as software of human mind and one gets relief from the stress of life. Thus we see Mask has not taken the back-stage rather those are again interwovened with changing times.’
Coming to Indonesian panorama the festival saw the Topeng masked dance-drama which is most popular art form of Bali. This masked dance is a form of a theatre integrating dance, storytelling singing and music with a la costumes project the rich cultural heritage of Indonesia. Head of the troop Mr. Nyoman Astita said that Masked dance is part of sacred temple performance but also there are secular mask dance beyond the temples amidst people at a theatrical level. Tracing the Indonesia tradition Mr. Nyoman said that on auspicious occasion after performing puja mask makers approach the jungle to select wood and those days they do fasting and take non-vegetarian food and lead very sanctified life until the mask is made, and that too must finish on an auspicious occasion. In Indonesian language Mask is known as Topeng, Tapel and Tapuk which mean to cover the face.

The mask dance from Indonesia presented the 16th century story of King Sidhakarya. The play script depics the adoption of a powerful but physically ugly brahmin of Kelling(Kalinga) as a member of the royal family by King Waturenggong of Bali. The varieties of masks and some with intricate details not only enthused the audiance but left a mark in the mind of the people beyond their masks. The lyrical orchestra with a break of laughter created by one character ‘mein Madhuri Dikshit from Bali’ the acting of this Mr. Lady amused all and forced to throw of our ‘Masks’!

The Japanise Mask dance perforemed by Chichibu Shachu and Nakadai Hayashiren groups opened up-- a new horizon with the touch of Community participation.

The Nakadai Hayashiren group leader said that mask dance remained a part of annual community festival. The repertoire included ‘fox dance’ gave a fiery movement which represent the state of breaking restraint, exorcising evil spirits of peace to prevail in the world. The flute and dance with the main character throwing sweets to the audiance gave the community feeling within the mask dance which are not only functional but very much engrossed in social culture.

In the rare cultural treat of Ivory Coast depicted the mask as ‘departed ancestors’ who is also given the status of god the creator. For the people of Cote d’lvore mask remain a powerful link between two wrolds namely seen and unseen. The ‘Gbapleu’ dance focuses the ritual conotation and sacred alliance between men of all ages and status. This was a powerful mask tradition of West Africa.

Mask Dance of Sri Lanka expanded the horizon of knowledge of traditional art which is sandwitched between ‘dying and living’ rural art of ancient Lanka. Prof.M.H.Goorutilaka traced the tradition of Sri Lankan mask dance to at least 1000 years. Masks are depictions of Gods, Demons, Animal and mythological types. Interestingly there is no Buddhist temple tradition of temple mask dance as we see in Japan. Prof. Goorutilaka explained ritual masks are traditional excorestic mask dance where healing mask looms large which are still belived by people. It also reflects the ‘folk religious’ pulses of Sri lanka as living tradition. The fiery dance with conch blowing and sacred invocation created the riutal aura even on stage. The break of laughter and the demonic influence of the exorcist with fire play made the audiance spell bound.

The ‘Faust’ performed by the Marionetteatern company of Sweden presented marionettes and masks wherein a scientist sells his soul to the devil to get back his youth as his scientific quest became frustrating. But the scientist realised the ‘illusion’of his desire but it was too late to recover and finally has had to go to hell.

Likewise we see mask at ritual and theatical level is thriving world wide and those masks proved much more than mere ‘guise’but often referred the ‘other’ of the self as reflective character .The similar ethos were echoed in the Indian mask dancers like Krishnattam, Seraikella Chhau, Purulia Chhau and then Thanatomorphia wherein death got redefined as seductive danger, passionate lover ,the liberator etc. Thus some glimpses of Indian mask dances projected the ‘sacredness’, ‘mythology’ and ‘history’ and ‘philosophy’and all are surviving with mask but without ‘betrayal’! Mask dancers from all parts of the globe showed their functional elements and evoked fresh responses to revitalise the ‘mask dance’ world wide.
The Mask festival was given a new turn with the opening of an exhibition ‘Mask & Man’ or Rupa Pratirupa by IGNCA which was followed by "Mind, Man Mask" an internatonal Seminar though it meant only to intellectualise the understanding amongst the chosen few. Nevertheless, focus remain the exhibition which was one of its kind.

The exposition concentrates to conceive the ‘mask’ right from the cosmic principal of Purusha and its manifestation within the course of civilization’s life stream. Since the era of Rock paintings mask remain a close reflective concept of man and ventilated his mind through those ‘mask’to depict the ‘unseen’ world. Ritualistically speaking mask remained an integral part of human endeavour to ‘connect this world with the other’ so is the case of ‘self and non-self’ to the ‘other’.

Some 400 masks from 21 countries were shown in this exposition and those were punctuated as ‘Natural Power’; ‘emotions’; ‘Narratives’ of the epics; ‘Social world’ encompassing ‘Celebrations’ and finally focussed at Ritual.

Perhaps, the primitive man who first feared the ‘natural power’ around them copied the world of animals and birds around them. Along side they feared the dynamism of ‘nature’within and outside so they created ‘masks’as a potent linkage between ‘this world’ and ‘the other world’ and coined rituals around those be it Zimbabwan ‘family spirit’ or Indonesian ‘sacred masks’ or Srilanka’s ‘healing spirit’. Those masks are no isolated objectives but enthused with traditional music of traditional people and costume to depict the related psyche. Those depiction of ‘natural world’ depicted one side actual imitation of world of animals and others in manifestive forms especialy Masks from Indonesia. The Brazilian monkey, Prego Kukoire depicted the natural fiber mask which is ritualstically close the the ‘mind’but again that is a ‘reflection’ of natural world.
Masks to explore human emotions are of very wide nature, which depicts the life and its mood curved out in those masks. The varied sad moods of Korean masks are much closer to the human experience--as if very natural mask without ‘guise’. Again the four ‘crying’woman of Greek word on white showed the ’melancholy’of tears with eye lids!

shut! The ‘ anger’ from Bhutan and ‘laughter’of Mexico and Goanise mask remained an eye catcher! Think how a man with paralysis would look like, that is depicted in the ritual gallery wherein Sri Lankan ‘Healing spirit’ is shown. This is also ‘forced situational’ emotion of man placed separately.

Another important gallery was the ‘Narrative’section which weaved the world be it Christian, Buddhist,Hindu in its dimenstions with powerful interplay of theme, charatcer and aesthetic sensibilities as well. The hidden feelings of ‘icons’ could find the artistic touch is seen here. The story of Italian monks with mask and the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana and its manifestation in Indonesia are some powerful ‘stop-overs’! The Buddhist legends of Bhutan Sikkim, Ladakh to the birth of Christ in Pastorela from Mexico provided the world-view of ‘belief systems’which is cultured by people world-wide alike. The addendums are the character, physical appearance like sharp noses, detailed headgears and mask within mask to depict superimposition of characters are few observations.

Mask also remained a close associate of mankind from the theatrical dimensions to the spirit of european ‘carnivals’. Today much of the traditional masks have taken the back seat and only window for viewing them remains the stadia or processions. But mask remains a subject of great admiration for people who some time took mask as spritual expressions and some time provided ‘laughter break with satire’as a relief from the technology which is musking the modern man !Nevertheless, ‘Masks’ from world-over proved the universality of ‘mind’ and depicted the power of ‘human imagination’ which actually re-knitted them on a modern fabric.

The exposition concentrates to conceive the ‘mask’ right from the cosmic principal of Purusha and its manifestation within the course of civilization’s life stream. Since the era of Rock paintings mask remain a close reflective concept of man and ventilated his mind through those ‘mask’to depict the ‘unseen’ world. Ritualistically speaking mask remained an integral part of human endeavour to ‘connect this world with the other’ so is the case of ‘self and non-self’ to the ‘other’.


Copyright © Dr Gautam Chatterjee