Majuli mask making

One of the renowned traditional crafts from Assam’s river island Majuli, mask making, is nearing extinction. Although the craft is known by art enthusiasts and connoisseurs across the globe, it is now struggling to sustain itself in the modern world.

Mask-making takes intricate bamboo work, requiring a lot of patience, and that is where most people tend to fail. This results in minimum involvement of manpower in the process of mask-making in Assam. “Out of the 25 youth who come to learn mask making, only three become capable of doing so,” Prassana Goswami, a mask maker, shared with EastMojo.

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The tradition of mask-making in Majuli dates back to the period of Srimanta Sankardeva. Majuli is the hub of Neo-Vaishnavite culture in Assam. The immortal works of Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhavdeva are not only practised in the sattras of Majuli but are also preserved on the island. With time, different sattras focus on preserving different works of ‘Gurujona’, likewise, the Samuguri sattra mainly focuses on the art of mask making which was introduced by Srimanta Sankardeva.

To teach his preachers about the various characters that he has mentioned in the ‘Kirtan’ and ‘Ghukha’ Srimanta Sankardeva wrote a play named ‘China Yatra’. In this play, he introduced masks to portray certain characters. “Like today, during that period there were no images, so the followers of Sankardeva were not aware of what certain characters looked like. To give them an idea, Sankardeva made masks by using bamboo, clothes, cow dung and mud,” Goswami adds. 

He further says, “Gurujona made masks of Shiva, Rudra, Vishnu, Saraswati, Lakshmi and so on. Those masks were big so that the people could get an overall idea of what they look like. Earlier only a few characters wore masks but to pave the way for mask making, my father, Hemchandra Goswami wrote a few plays where each character was represented by a mask.

“His first play was ‘Kolonko muson’, written after the famous story of a lion and a mouse, where he incorporated the use of a mask to portray the story. The play based on the story of the lion and the mouse became very famous among the kids and gradually his plays were shown in different parts of the state as well as the country” says Prassana Goswami.

He went on to explain that Hemchandra Goswami not only mastered the age-old skill but also added certain features to the mask. Apart from making it weightless by making masks of paper, he also innovated the mask in such a way that the movement of eyes and jaws. “To add realism to the masks, the eyes and the jaws were made in a way that they could be moved to keep the audience more engaged.”

At a time when ‘vocal for local’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are creating quite the buzz, this craft uses raw biodegradable materials found locally. Immature Jati bamboo, clay, cow dung and colours are used to make a mask. As the demand for these masks began to increase, paper masks came into existence. Today people from all over the world come to Majuli and the Samuguri Sattra, they try their hands at mask making. 

When asked about what makes this art a tough one to learn, Prassana Goswami said, “The art of mask making needs a lot of patience.” He further added that mask making is not an easy task. First, bamboo sticks are used for making the frame of the face. The bamboo work is the toughest part where you need a lot of patience and practice. Then, pottery clay and cotton strips are pasted on the framework. A mix of clay and cow dung is used to give specific details of the character. After that, a cloth is wrapped to complete the shape and at the end, colours are used to highlight the features of the character. 

Despite the advent of science and technology, this craft has still not been upgraded the way it should have. “Science and technology have gone too far, but only if we were provided with such technology, which could cut the bamboo and strip it down, the process of mask-making would have been easy and many more people would have participated in this process,” says Prassana Goswami. 

Role of women, and calls for new techniques

Talking about the role of women in mask-making, Dayal Krishna Nath, a theatre director and a senior fellow with the Ministry of Culture, told EastMojo, “The culture of mask making is being associated primarily with Assamese Bhaona and Sattriya culture. The role of women in this culture has not been prominent ,so traditionally, one struggles to see direct involvement of women in mask making. But after gaining national recognition, several workshops were conducted where we saw women participating. They focussed mainly on exhibition, preservation and research.”

Dr. Geetanjali Goswami, an independent researcher concurs with Nath. “Though women were not engaged in mask making as a part of their livelihood, of late we see their increasing presence during mask-making workshops.”

Some observes believe updating methods of mask-making would make it easier for more people to get involved. Dr Nayak Amritanand, Assistant Professor, Department of Art Education at the Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan Teachers Training and Research Institute, Nalbari, told EastMojo: “while keeping the style of the traditional mask as the base, one can change the elements used in mask making for the benefits of the maker. No wonder the process of traditional mask making is a tough one. The bamboo work is considered the toughest part of mask making. But instead of using the bamboo, if one can come up with alternatives, it would be a big help.”

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