Dr. Gautam Chatterjee  




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by Dr. Gautam Chatterjee

Generally speaking, every person has at least ‘two selves’ one is ‘a self’ without any ‘guise’ and another is a ‘non-self’ which may not be a pretention always but an ‘alternate self’! To fathom self and the ‘other’(non-self) is a subject of psychology especially the behavioural one! But for common man the search for ‘self’ and to find out its reflective imaginations sometime in ‘disguise’ or otherwise has remained a very essential social exercise since the dawn of our civilization. In this process he discovered the ‘mask’ codified scores of ‘guise’ which were miles away from self but very close to the mind! But those masks were not simple ‘covering’ but a vehicle for ‘imaginations’ of mind of the mankind which remained a powerful object of reverence for all especially amongst aboriginals and traditional people.

The Mask-culture which dates back to the pre-historic rock-paintings of c.30,000 B.C has travelled down the ages and got expressed some time as ‘magico-religion’, "sacred enactments in Monasteries" or at folk theatrical levels and even through epic depictions, or in carnivals with a touch of festivity. Thus we see mask remained an integral part of universal culture surviving in its own way with every face around us.

In recent past, an International Mask Festival was organised at New Delhi jointly by Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Indian Council of Cultural Relations, Sangeet Natak Academy and National School of Drama. This unique festival was conceived by Dr. Kapila Vatsayayan, the living legend of multi-disciplinary study and an Indologist of rare credentials who once said that this mask-festival is to relate the ‘cosmic-man’ or Purusha to the micro-cosmic man with and without ‘mask’!To explore its dynamism Dr. Vatsayayan has initiated collection of masks from world over under IGNCA’s ethnographic collections.The festival started its rhythm with ‘mask-dances’ from India and abroad which finally culminated into the IGNCA’s exhibition of Rupa and Pratirupa (Man and Mask) which displayed around 400 masks from 21 countries of the world . The Mask dance, the exhibition were finally linked with a seminar ‘Mind, Man and Mask’. All these provided us with the entry point to fathom the mask in its unique dimensions whose pulses are discussed below to uphold an holistic view of Mask and its universality.

The first record of Mask we find in the pre-historic rock arts from different sites of the world which includes the cave engravings of Caverne du Volp, France; Altamira Cave of Spain, Kundusi of Tanzania, Niger, Algeria, Lybia, Russian Kazakistan, New Mexico, Sweden, Siberia, Canada, Peru and Bhimbetka in India etc. Thus we see almost from every part of the world the reference of mask is found. Scholars from Italy Emmanuel Anati and Ariela Fradkin Anati said "Luckily our early ancestors, modestly named as Homo sapiens, had the gift of producing art and among the subjects they have depicted in the walls of rocks and caves there are depictions of masks. From that we learn that since 40,000 to 50,000 years ago our ancestors used to make and wear masks."

The logo of the festival with a masked-stick man is from the Bhimbetka Rock art sites. This figure shows a ‘shield’like face with elaborate semi-circular ornamental necklaces and feather like head-gear with a movement oriented figure. Thus so lyrical was mask for the ancient man! One find various references of world-rock art analysis from the "World Archives of Rock Art" This WARA has documented around 2 lakh photograps and drawings from various sites of 100 countires.

Dr. M. Leaky analysed four figures from Tanzanian rock art of Kundusi said "Four beings with hidden faces,all have a distinctive oblique line on their head. They seem to make a team for dance or some other performance"(WARA Archives 94-95) Similarly one find a typical herd of ‘deer and bison’ in France being followed by a man who is sporting animal head and ‘playing the musical bow’. Does it not enthuse the Indian psyche where Krishna playing the flute while following the cow-herd?

Another powerful observation is hunting animals with a ‘disguised’mask which is found in Algeria. Thus we see in the pre-historic era the early man almost got besmeared with the world of animals and used mask to ‘hunt’ ‘tame’ and again ‘dance’. Thus mask has always remained very ‘dear’ and ‘loveable’as the self!

From the Mohenjodaro excavations one finds the terracota mask namely Pasupati seal which dates back to 2500 B.C. which in later years manifested and got dimensions from the standpoint of shape to the materials of mask. In Africa one find mask as divine heritage encoded in Mummy Mask of Trebes c.1295-1069 B.C. Furthermore, we find the Roman Mask of golden touch with a pair of eyes but without lips which dates back to 2nd century A.D. The comic mask from Greece and Rome enthused a ‘laughter’ within. The Mexican masks of 900 B.C. of rod shape is also unique which touch the other aspect of human mood namely ‘pain and agony’. Thus mask remained a functional symbol beyond the face and the mind encompassing the mood. Does it mean mask has a relationship with the ‘mind and mood’? Let us try to understand it!

Our faces are the index of mind and function as mirror to ventilate emotions or state of mind in varied dimensions! What are those hidden recesses of our psyche? Those are love, anger, hate, fury, joy, fear and disgust, the sadness and depressions etc. These emotional lines are universal in actions and feelings which encompass all caste, creed and nationality.

Those body languages are adopted in and displayed as ‘abhinaya’to give a emotive punctuation to a particular character in a play in theatrical dimensions or in real life endeavour. Those moods give a varied kind of reflections come out on the face in real or unreal manner. So the man created ‘masks’for all moods. Some of the very powerful emotive sadness is seen in the Korean masks, similarly the laughter in Sri Lankan or in Mexican, and Goanese Masks are some other the examples. Similarly the Greek mask’ comical expressions are some pointer. According to Dr.A.K. Das, an Anthropologist referred that in North Eastern India the clownish mask are seen like the dummy Yak made in bamboo frame enveloped with black cloth and two person manipulate the Yak-mask which evokes ‘laughter’. The image of anger and fury is really widespread world over. The ‘spirit-fox’ of Japan the mythological power masks of Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia are few which enthuse fury and fear when accompanied by traditional music. So we see there are hordes of masks which are perfect aesthetic expressions of human mind’s hidden recess. Another aspect is the world of animal in the mask which loomed large since ancient times.

The faces of animal their power and fury kept a close proximity with man since prehistoric era so is today. And those animals mythological or otherwise remained a ‘powerful’ component of ‘folk religion’ and occupied a ‘sacred space’ in the mind and endeavour of indigenous people. In Nepalese mask dance we see the ‘Jangali Dance’ which comes from the world of tribes knittting the ‘spirit’ and ‘power’ of the other world and on depiction we find scores of mythlogical animals and birds. Same goes in the Himalayan Kingdom --Bhutan where we find ‘fearful’mask of animal spirits which are codified with very high aesthetic connotations of colour and shape. In India the Lion mask of Purulia and Jackal from Gambhira, West Bengal linked the world around in simplistic tradition of masks with dull colour temperatures.

Elaborating the Mask tradition amongst the tribal people in North-Eastern India Dr.A. K. Das said " Most of the myths connected with these pantomime give impetus for secular mask tradition in this pocket. In Ajilimu dance among the Sherdukpen, the masks representing Nyapa and Nyaro, the two demons, with terrific facial expression and flowing hair are very striking". Thus we see the encoding of demonic power in mask-dance away from modern theater, but within the mind-scope of traditional people lives as heritage with connection from the other world.

The role of world of animals, is very prominent amongst the wooden masks of traditional people of Madhya Pradesh. Here on the ‘face of mask’we find carved out images of animal world, snakes, insects and even the cosmos is depicted. The ‘balance’of judgement is found on the chin of a mask as if to depict the natural balance and deliverance of justice.

However, mask remained an integral part of mankinds’ eternal search for ‘macro and micro cosmos’ through the concept of ‘spirit’ and linkage is established between ‘seen and unseen’. The practice of sporting masks to invite spiritual powers namely ‘ancestors’ to cure an ailing, to evade ill effect of evil spirits or to bless an occasion or a newly born. Thus invoking spirit through the mask is a continuous tradition world wide. Talking to mask-dancers of Zimbabwe it was gathered that people of varied ethnic origin believe that ancestor soul do come down through mask and play the role of philosopher and guide. Lucky Mayo said that "senior people nurture the concept of family spirit mask and contribute to protect the culture. Generally, grandfather sport this mask to imbibe the ‘family spirit’ so that the whole family can be taken care of....this is surviving despite of technological development and it (mask dance) functions mostly as a pleasant retreat from the techno-dynamics" .In Zimbabwe itself there are around 17 groups who believe in this concept of ‘mask spirit’. Lucky Mayo further said that through this mask one can communicate with dead people and that ‘spirit’ do visit people and dream as well. Those masks are very sacred and those are made of wood, natural fibre, seeds, cane, jute .Those masks are of natural colour. In Zimbabwe, masks are created after invocation with sacred songs etc.

The renowned scholar Balan Nambiar traced the ritualistic dance of Western coast of India from Gokarna to Kanyakumari . He said that that mask dances such as Patayani, Teyyam, Bhuta,Tira and Kummatti are in vogue. Amongst rural population there is a strong belief of ‘masks apparently to these souls of ancestors’ which is quite near to the African experience we have observed above. Balan Nambiar said "Mask dancers, who propitiate the spirit and in a state of trance give manifold blessings to the gathered devotees, both heal the sick and entertain the spectators. Within their context, mask-wearers are auxiliary spirits which, when aroused, lead in a trance to the world of spirits."

Similar belief system is in vogue in Sri Lanka where the healing spirit mask is an unique example. The mask known as Dahaata Sanniya or ‘eighteen disease’ is studded with 18 diseased faces atop a pair of their gods and two spirits one the spreader of pain through disease and other the saviour is placed vertically apart. Prof. M.H. Goonatilleka explained that in folk religion this is in vogue. He explained that "Pritiatory magical and therapeutic effects of mask and attendant rituals of Sri Lanka are still not forgotten in the remote parts of the country. The dancer donning demon masks may not be aware of the significance of ritual transformation and the assumption of the role of the disease-causing demon."

Those masks are: 

  1. Buta Sanniya which is associated with derangement, distortion and listlesness of limbs; 

  2. Jala Sanniya relates with vomitting, dysentry etc;

  3. Gulma sannya refers to lack of appetite, swelling of the abdomen ;

  4. Kana Sanniya relates with blindness; 

  5. Kora Sanniya and 

  6. Bihiri Sanniya relate with Lameness and Deafness respectively;

  7. Vata Sanniya is related with Flatulence provoked by aerial humour;

  8. Slesma Sannya is associated with Phlegmatic diseases; 

  9. Pneumonia is represented with mask Kola Sanniya;

  10. Maru Sanniya is wallowing and contortions in the eyes etc.

  11. Amukku Sanniya relates with running with the head tilted to the left trembling of the limbs;

  12. Golu is Dumbness; 

  13. Vevulum Sanniya is associated with shivering and feats; 

  14. Gini Jala Sanniya is about burning sensation,headache and fatigue;

  15. Pissu or Kapala Sanniya is related with madness and delirium; 

  16. Demala Sanniya is also related with madness with distortion of the body; 

  17. The Naga Mask is related with swelling of the faces and peeling of skins and 

  18. Deva Mask is related with epidemics and infectious diseases

(For further details read ‘Sanni Yakuma:Its mythical dimensions and religious interaction’,By Goonitilleka printed in Ananda,Essays in honour of Ananda W.P.Guruge,Srilanka 1990.)

Prof.Goonatilleka traced the Sri Lankan Mask tradition and said "A ritual, I believe, is a network of beliefs, a set of rigid procedures which are normally conventionally sanctified, popularly accepted, and collectively adhered to by a community of people. In Sri Lanka, these are partly the result of the ethos, temperament and value orientation of the rural populace." Thus we see the concept of spirit and mask kept close proximity with any region of the world and slowly they attracted a wider act to play the role of ‘sacred-mask’amidst the changing religio-cultural nuances.

Mask a reflective identity of ‘folk religion’ coursed its way in universal religion like Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. The birth of Christ remained a source of inspiration for mask performers. Historically speaking soon after the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the 16th century Spanish Monks tried to inculcate Christian belief through the use of religious plays, frequently using masks. And people of Micha can have evolved a particularly lively festival by incorporating mask. Today those masks encapsulate the European and American world on the score of festivity and celebrations.

However, prior to the Christian era we find in ancient Greek drama the use of masks.

Mexican rod shape mask which depicts pain is as old as 900-600B.C.Roman Mask of gold colour temperature dates back to 2nd century B.C. The Rain God of Aztec with four teeth with skull like look dates around 1200-1590 A.D. Similarly, the radiance Gold mask of Columbia C. 500-1500 A.D. is the eye catching example. All these age-old tradition continue in modern world as well. In northern America we find masks of man and animal with the inter-play of hand movements. Sometime two faces are found in single masks as we see in Sri Lanka or in Bhutan. Even one mask depicting two identities or two moods namely sadness and happiness is created with otherwise lip movement.

Mask and carnivals are almost synonymous today as we see festival masks in Germany, "VOLTO" Masks and Belgium masks are seen with goggles. Modern Mexican mask are simple realistic and become powerful socially with beards of modern times. Thus we see masks entered the life of the West with the concept of ‘natural god’ and then transformed itself in the mainstream religious phonetics which later took the shape of ‘festivity’ which is in currency! After having a cursory look at the occidental worlds of Mask let us retreat to the oriental world to arrest the pulses of its ‘religious and sacred’ masks!

In oriental world the masks hover around the ‘icon’ of any level from the concept of ‘protective deity’ to the ‘demonic identity to undo evil world’. Those concepts of power are encoded in the masks which are records of ongoing ‘belief system’ within the ambience of religious codes be it ‘folk religion’, ‘devi and devas or demi gods of Hinduism’ to the ‘Buddhist’concepts contextually incorporated within their traditions.

Masks of Siva and Durga and her manifestive look in the form of ‘shakti’ remained one of the powerful iconic masks in India. Three eyed ‘shakti’ in the Shape of Durga and Kali is very common on the eastern belt of India .The narrative ‘play’ to kill the ‘demon’ is the centrestage of these performances of Mask Dance. In Andhra Pradesh, the Narasimha icon in the Bhagavata -mala is very popular. Masks on the one side depicts the power of ‘deity’and alongside depicts the pet or ‘vahana’ of the respective god. Like in Bengal one sees the lion and Durga in coupled depiction wherein ‘asura’the devil is killed by Shakti.

Thus mask is linked with natural power with ritualistic connotations to strike a harmonious balance with the forces of nature and spirit of the world.

Apart from Shakti one finds the Ramayana theme which is a living tradition in India, Thailand, Indonesia, South East and Central Asia, Mogolian, Iran, China, Japan etc. Wherever Ramayana went it arrested the inner psyche of people and masked depiction of character even away from ritual but within the social ambience the encactment continues either through Ramlila procession or a theatrical enactment. A research scholar from France Anne Vergati had worked in the Himalayan region to fathom the interplay of mask and said "Today, at certain festivals, inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley hold theatrical performances which are of a popular character. In Nepal, in certain areas of Tibetan culture, masks are, of course, worn by participants in Tibetan masked dance (cham), which used to be known in the west as ‘devil dances’ and are performed by monks wearing masks which instruct the faithful concerning the deities they will meet after their death in the Bardo, the intermediate state before their next re-birth."

The tradition of Nepal to another Himalayan kingdom Bhutan would create an awe for the search of masks. Masks are studded in the life and rituals of all monasteris in the Himalayan range starting from Tibet, Ladak, Bhutan to Sikkim. The cham dance of Tibetan monks is sacred one. Interestingly in Indian and Tibetan dance the amalgamation of theme like the wild pantheon of fierce protector to the local spirits with elements of comic character shows the unification of culture. The Cham can take many forms but one of its most popular theme is commemoration of the last guru Padmasambhu. It is believed that He descends as representative incarnate of all the Buddhas to bestow grace and improve the condition of living. The mask dance usually consists of two parts; the first honours and pays homage to the eight aspects of Padmabhava. The second part of the performance shows Maha Dongcren,a horned masked figure slaying and putting an end to the demonic force.

Interestingly enough the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism survives only in Bhutan. Historical tracing would tell us that by the middle of 15th century Bhutan had developed its own sacred dance traditions associated with great saint Pema Lingpa, the ancestor of the present royal family. His autobiography gives a good account of this living tradition of Bhutan wherein he describes the dances performed in Padmasambhava’s heaven.

Today many Pema Lingpa’s compositions portray different sets of divine attendants and acrobats, who prepare the path to heaven. Dasho Sangay Tenzin said that mask dance are the part of religious cultural traditions and the holy scripts which dates back to the 8th century A.D. codified the ritualistic colour of these dances which are hereditarily followed till date. He further explained that some masks which are used in the courtyard of religion are never re-used and monasteries have today very old masks known as ‘kathrup’. Mask tradition in Bhutan lies deep in the social fabrics and those traditions are also surviving within the frame work of state patronage. Thus mask is surviving within the powerful conotation of Buddhism in Bhutan which is however missing in Sri Lanka and Japan which are predominantly have Buddhist tradition.

Apart from Himalayan tradition the mask thrives with vigour in Indonesia wherein the Hindu tradition still thrives in the forum of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ dance. The sacred masks are created on ‘auspicious’ day and finished on ‘auspicious’ hour only. Those manufacturers of ‘sacred masks’ perform rituals and lead a pious life especially while creating those masks. On the other hand ‘secular’masks are created by all and performed and participated by all without any dictum of religion or ritual. Interstingly the sharp edged face with intricate lacquer work on the ornamentation of headgear are functional punctuations of aesthetic mask-tradition of Indonesia which surpasses the artistic trend of any given country of the world.

In modern India mask dances at theatrical and ritualistic level are thriving well. The Krishnattam the ritualistic dance-drama of Kerala is a great eye-catcher today. In Krishna temple of Guruvayoor, Kerala a cycle of eight plays tend to depict the Krishna-lore from his birth to death. This Krishnattam is based on 17th century Krishnageethi. The Krishnattam troupe today belongs to the Guruvayoor temple.

Similarly Seraikella Chhau dance of Bihar is another powerful centre of modern Mask dance. The sophisticated masks made of paper- mache with awe inspiring headgear adds to the folk tune and steppings of mask dancers. The dance motifs and themes are interrelated with of myths and history covering animates and inaimates as well to depict the sentiments. It is said the technique of this dance was evolved from the shield and sword dance of Pharikhanda.

Purulia Chhau of West Bengal is the symbol of Sun God worship through masks. The central theme of this dance is to depict how evil is punished based on mythological stories. This is performed especially during the Chaitra Parva festival.

During the festival of Mask the performance of Thanatomorphia by Astad Deboo and Dadi Pudumjee of Ishara Puppet Theatre evoked tremendous response. The central idea was to depict the many faces of Death within the light and shade of hide and seek. It showed that Death as seductive dancer, a passionate lover, the liberator and finally joyous celebration. Thus is the vividnes of ‘self’ and ‘mask’ in the world of performance.

Barring Islamic world, mask has always remained a second identity of the world and academic people often tried to define this ‘guise’ phenomenon but mostly in vain. However, modern mask maker Michael Meschke and Maria Oona Meschke tried to give an analysis which goes "a mask is not a photography, a portrait. Agood mask is an extraction of essence, a selection of expressions which have undergone a purification, meaning both exaggeration and simplification. We call that procedure stylisation .It means to give a style, as opposed to nature. Such masks correspond with the myths, they too have this purified structure. Myths could be called strylised narration".

This explanation goes well with the global context and concept of Mask which can be sported and removed at will.

But modern days’ mask has taken further shape closer to the face and manipulation within that face gives a newer identity. Imagine a middle aged beautiful lady before retiring to bed washes her face to remove those extra layers of cosmetics and takes off her coloured contact lenses and removes those lyrical eye-lashes and wigs to become natural to the self at least while resting away from social world of ‘self’ and the other ‘self’. Are these part of modern masks? It’s a question to be answered by ourselves! Nevertheless, the art aesthetics and imaginations to create the ‘new’within the ‘self’ has remained a close encounter of mankind in the past so it would be in the future!.

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