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.
Mask making is one of the most famous traditional crafts still practiced in Majuli. It is mainly practiced by the ‘Satras’. The ‘Samaguri Satra’ has worldwide acclaim in making exquisite masks. It has been practiced by the ‘Bhakats’ here for centuries. Masks are an integral part of Sattriya culture. Traditionally, masks were used for religious dance and drama. They were conceptualized as a tool by Shrimanta Shankaradeva to make and depict the characters of ‘Srimad Bhagwat’ to the devotees. Masks helped to provide a physical form to the puranic characters. They also helped people to associate with the character and expressions of the mythical heroes. Shri Hem Chandra Goswami at the Samaguri Satra of Majuli has been practicing this art since the last 20 years and he continues to train artisans of the island to learn the art of mask making thus keeping alive this tradition.
Masks are used for religious performances and traditional dramas. Mainly materials like bamboo and cane, cloth, clay and rock color etc are used for making masks. In some case wood may also be used. Traditionally three types of masks are prepared viz.
- Mukha: these are face masks.
- Lotokai mukha: this type of mask is used to move lips, eyes hands etc.
- Bor mukha: this is nearly life size or even larger in special cases.
Traditionally, first the frame of mask is prepared using bamboo and string etc, then using color and cloth the final finishing is done by the master craftsmen. Bhakats plant trees as per their requirement and maintenance of these trees are also their responsibility.
There are two types of masks based on frame material used:
- Made of bamboo
- Made of paper
Bamboo is spliced into small pieces and long thin sticks are crafted into a skeleton of bamboo shaped as per requirement of the character. Over that, a layer of cow dung or clayey soil is applied for minute details such as nose, eyes, ears and others. A piece of cloth is stuck over that with gum and dried in sun. Hengul, Haital, Neel, and Balichanda (mica) is applied for accentuation.The paper mache masks are made with clay cast. The clay is shaped with a knife, seeds of Bihmana or Kendu is crushed for making the gum which is applied over the pieces of paper. They are then soaked and cast on the clay cast. Hengul, haiatal, Neel, Dhalmati etc are powdered on a brass plate with stone and they are applied for color. The brush used is made of cat’s hair stuck on a pointed bamboo. The colors and dyes are stored in small bamboo nodes.
The paper masks are used only for making headgear. For other parts bamboo, mud, and cloth are used. The masks that are made for the characters of Brahma, Hansa, Ganesha, Gaduda, Jatayu, ten headed Ravana, Kumbhkarna, Taraka, Maricha, Subahu, Putana, Chakravat, Kaliya Naag, Bakasura, Aghasura, Dhenukasura, Batsasura, Hanuman, Jambuban, , Baraha, Nar Simha etc. Masks for Krishna, Rama, Lakhshmana are not made. For the day of the performance they are regarded as the God’s incarnation. Apart from these the craftsmen also prepare Dadhishal, rathas (chariots) for war, swords, Gada, Bow and arrow, axes, trishula, Vajra, Chakra, Head gear, Nupur, full sized cow, horses etc are also made as per the need of the story being recited.
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