The Handcrafted Masks of Majuli

Text and photos: Chayanika Priyam

I made my way off a boat, to step into Majuli, a shape-shifting island often besieged by ravaging floods of the ever-mighty Brahmaputra. It is the land of mystical fishes in the river and citrusy trees of robab-tenga, tucked away in the river’s northern shores, in AssamThe scent of the nearby river slips through the long, horizontal gaps between groves of gossiping bamboo thickets. Fields of mustard and paddy dance in the playful sand, dissipated by passing gusts of wind and the occasional automobile. But Majuli, known as the world’s largest riverine island, is also a transcendental land where prayer meets art in an earnest embrace. 

 'Let Us Live With Art' reads a sticker between a huddle of masks

'Let Us Live With Art' reads a sticker between a huddle of masks

Nowhere is this sacred relationship better observed than in its religio-cultural establishments called Xatras (monastic centres). Shaped by philosophies of the 15th century neo-Vaishnavite saint and reformer, Sri Srimanta Sankardeva, the Xatras traditionally have engaged in imparting a range of lessons from arithmetic, astrology to music, dance, and theatre. 

Of the several Xatras in Majuli, Samuguri Xatra is gaining popularity for what is known as Mukha Shilpo or Mask Art. Established in the 17th century, the art of mask making is the primary artistic expression practiced in Samuguri Xatra. Inside, in a small room, I sat facing a shelf of globular painted heads of Gods and demons. While in conversation with Samuguri Xatra’s present Xatradhikar (head) Hem Chandra GoswamiI learn that at the turn of the last century, he introduced masks as performative accessory in reenacting, through bhaona (the ancient Assamese theatre form), fables and tales from the Ramayana. In recent times, technical innovations have resulted in moving eyelids and flexible mouths are affixed, making the masksmore conducive to the performer’s will. Masks created by Samuguri Xatra’s handful of students and teachers have been exhibited at other domestic and international museums in Delhi and London. 

Sitting under clear, blue skies, and a row of betel nut trees, a few of the students are engaged in crafting a new mask. One of them, Ananta Kolita, 23, begins with cutting small strips of bamboo that are tied together with cane. Having done this here at the Samuguri Xatra for the past four years, he expertly makes a sturdy and compact star-shaped frame out of it. The entire process, however takes a good ten sunny days, he tells me, describing the next stages of the process: One coat of a mixture made of cotton cloth dipped in clay and cow dung is applied to the delicate star-shaped frame. On each wet frame, facial features of different mythological characters are carved out with precision, with the help of a set of local knives. The piece is then rested to dry in the sun, before which another layer of the mixture is splattered onto the frame to polish the carved-out features. Then, for some colour: A paste made of Hengul (vermillion) and Haithal (yellow ochre) flowers is used to define and paint the masks’s facial features— although now with the easy availability of fabric/water colours in the market, the use of the flower colour paste is reserved for specially ordered requests only.  

Only after it’s been through all these meticulous steps, is the mask finally ready to be worn for the bhaona performances. 

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When I ask Ananta what mask he’d like to wear to perform, he tells me he’d love to play Mohini. Taken from the Ramayana, the character would allow him the flexibility to adapt to the angi-bhongi, he says— the mannerisms of a woman. 

That evening, I sat amid an eager audience in the Xatra’s Naam Ghor (Prayer House). Surrounded by steely silver trees of the moon’s blessing, this sacred structure for congregational prayers metamorphized as that night’s stage forAnanta and the other students of the establishment to perform their art. 

Swaying to the accompanying khol (mrdanga), taal (cymbals) and baahi (flute)the masked performers staged Sita’s abduction and the ensuing duel between Bali, Sugreeva and demons. Ananta was playing Ravana, his mask, a blue crown of faces mount on the head of the large-eyed, moustachieod character.

The audience was held in rapt attention as binaries, characteristic of such renditions, brought in a theatrical climax. 

Good had won over evil. 

 

Chayanika Priyam is a PhD candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. It is only when she has to start writing her thesis, do poems flow from the keys of her keyboards, unceasingly.