How would you feel if we tell you – “Bid Goodbye to the city hustle bustle and come lets seek a life by the Banks of one of the greatest Rivers in the World – the Mighty Brahmaputra. Lets spend our days fishing on the fresh waters of the Brahmaputra, practice the lost art of Pottery and Mask making, indulge in Organic Farming, weave out Exquisite Handicrafts of Bamboo and Cane and spend our evenings savoring freshly brewed fine local wine and Barbecued delicacies of meat and fish.” To some this piece of advice may seem to be one of the craziest in the World whereas to some it may seem like an endless pleasure to seek the utmost solace in their life. To tell the truth, this is the actual life of the people who inhabit one of the most pristine and breathtaking location in the World – the World’s Largest Inhabited River Island of Majuli surrounded by the magical waters of the River Brahmaputra.
The island of Majuli, has a very rich heritage and has been the abode of Assamese Vaishnavite culture with tremendous option for spiritual and eco-tourism. This island has been the cultural capital and cradle of Assamese civilization for the past five hundred years. The ‘Satras’ of Majuli preserve antiques like weapons, utensils, jewellery and other items of cultural significance. The handloom work of the tribal people of Majuli mostly the Mishings are renowned internationally. Although handloom is a major occupation of the people of Majuli it is mostly a non-commercial occupation. Weaving is exquisite and intricate with the use of a variety of colours and textures of cotton and silk, especially the Muga Silk. Fishing, dairying, pottery, boat making and mask making are the other important economic activities of this island.
The mask making art of Majuli Island is practiced at the Samaguri Satra in Majuli. These Satras of Majuli are Neo Vaishnavite Monasteries that were initiated by the holy Saint reformer and Guru Srimanta Shankardeva who practiced the spirit of ‘Ek Sarna’ that said that all human beings are alike irrespective of caste and creed. These Satras were institutions that preached the life of Lord Krishna and allowed young boys to lead a disciplined life in the praise and dedication of the Lord and also taught them in arts and literature turning them into scholars of Assam. In his years of preaching Neo Vaishnavism across Assam, Srimanta Shankardeva had found patronage from the Ahom Kings and so the kings helped to establish various Satras across Assam based on the principles of the teachings of the Saint reformer. In order to teach his religious discourses and also to narrate the various epics of the Hindu mythology to his followers Srimanta Shankardeva introduced the play for of Bhaona and to depict the various stages of Lord Krishna’s life in a dance form he introduced the ‘Sattriya Nritya’ that later become one of the 8 classical dance forms of India. During the enactment of the Bhaonas, across the various stages of the Namghars of Assam, Srimanta Shankardeva noticed that if he was able to put the figures of the mythological characters in the forms of a mask then the masses would be able to relate themselves more closely with the characters in the Bhaona and this was when he came up with the idea of traditional mask making with hands so that the artists could adorn these masks and enact the characters with more impact.
And the results came out to be outstanding with more number of people coming to attend the Bhaonas and learning about the Indian Epics. This introduced the art of mask making with hands across the various Satras of Majuli but over the years this art had lost its grandeur until the Satradhikar of the Samaguri Satra in Majuli Island decided to take this mask making art to a new dimension and he not only preserved this dying art form but took it to a global stage as well and today the mask making art of Majuli Island is not only renowned in Assam but across the World as well. One new dimension that was added to this mask making art of the Samaguri Satra introduced by Dr. Hemchandra Goswami is the movement of the jaws of the mask that move in tandem with the movements of the jaws of the artist that would provide a more lifelike enactment of the mythological character in the Bhaonas. Earlier the jaw didn’t move and so it looked artificial and this feature gained popularity immediately. These masks of the Samaguri Satra in Majuli Island are made using bamboo and a special clay. At first the shape of the face of the character is carved out using bamboo and a frame is built with it. Later a special mud that is dug out from the deep soil of the Brahmaputra is mixed with cow dung and this mud is allowed to be smeared on the bamboo frame.
Later a thin muslin cloth is wrapped around the mask and the structure is allowed to dry out in the sun. Once it is dried, the final touches of the colour are printed in these traditional handmade masks of Majuli. The colours are organically derived from the leaves, roots and barks of certain trees and this completes the final masks that are later sent across the various performing Bhaona groups. These days the masks of Majuli are in demand across the World and so miniature versions are made and send to all around the World as well and the money collected is used to train local artisans who help keep this dying art form of traditional mask making alive. There are mostly three types of masks that are made at the Samaguri Satra in Majuli Island viz. ‘Mukha’ – face masks, ‘Lotokai Mukha’ – masks to move lips, eyes, hands, etc. and the ‘Bor Mukha’ – life size or even larger masks. The frame is generally built of bamboo but sometimes even paper is used to make these masks. The various mythological characters represented using these masks are Ganesha, Jatayu, Ten headed Ravana, Brahma, Bakasura, Nar Singha, Kaliya Bag, Hanuman, etc. A visit to the Samaguri Satra in Majuli Island is a must on your tour of Assam to learn about this mask making art of Majuli Island.
Jungleideas welcomes you to India’s North East to revisit the Lost art of traditional Mask Making ~ the Island of Majuli, the State of Assam, Incredible India!
Artists perform a demonstration of ‘Bhauna’ ~ the art of story telling wearing the traditional masks in Majuli Island