Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

Traditional masks used extensively in Assamese theatre are made in Majuli. Madhu Gurung visits the place to learn more about the art and craft of mask-making.

The Brahmaputra flows serenely by the Nimati ghats of Jorhat, one of Assam’s commercial centres. It is from here that we board a river boat to Majuli, a mid-deltaic island on the majestic river. Chunks of water hyacinth float past the boat, as we speed along.

Jadav Payang is one of the boat’s crew on our 45-minute trip downstream. As a Mishing tribesman, his forefathers came to Majuli centuries ago, to grow rice fish in the Brahmaputra’s bountiful waters. Says Payang, “This was our ancestral land. Each year, the river took away some portion of our field, so in 2010 we left since there was nothing that remained. The river had swallowed our homeland. My brother was in the security forces and he died. With the money we got as compensation, the family moved. We now stay in Jorhat and the Brahmaputra is no longer a part of our lives.” In an ironical way, Payang’s story of losing his homeland is symbolic of everything we saw in Majuli.

Waiting for us on the banks of the Majuli is Rajeev Kumar Saikia, a bear of a man with an easy laugh and penchant for poetry. As a school teacher, he did not get paid, so he works as a guide now. He represents the sixth generation of a family of Rajbongshis who came from Bongaigaon. Says Saikia, “Some 100 years ago, Majuli was over 1,200 sq km. Extensive erosion has reduced it to just 450 sq km.”

We head down a rutted road to the Samagudi Satra, an ancient Vaishnava monastery.

According to Saikia, Majuli once had 300 satras, but now they number a mere 23. These monasteries, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, made Majuli a centre of culture, art and heritage. The Samagudi Satra, in particular, is famous because mask-making is believed to have first started there in the mid-17th century. Traditionally, these masks have been extensively used in Assamese theatre.

At Samagudi Satra, we are ushered into a grey, rectangular, cemented room which has been built by the government in place of the traditional mud and bamboo hall that had once served as an auditorium. It is here the mask makers will perform. The hall is soon swarming with men and women carrying bamboo hand fans, intricately painted with the motif of a lion and elephant. The dancers ring the room and keep looking expectantly towards the two doorways.

Performance

As if on a cue, a bespectacled Hem Chandra Goswami comes with his troupe, carrying elongated drums, cymbals, and the traditional horai (a brass vessel used to serve paan). All the men are in white dhotis, vests and shoulder cloths and they are enacting ‘Sita Haran’, one of the most dramatic scenes from the popular epic, Ramayan. The beat of the drums and the clash of the cymbals mark the start of the enactment as a thin dark man invokes the gods in high pitched Maithali. The drums pick up his fervor and the crowd stirs restlessly.

Suddenly, a dramatic white-faced Ravan makes his entry. His mask is as resplendent as it is striking. The 10 heads with heavily painted eyes are all perched around like a crown, long braids of coiled hair flow below his broad shoulders, his 10 hands are strapped on to his shoulder, and he wears an old fashioned tunic of royal blue velvet embroidered with silver over his dhoti and velvet shoes. His eyes peer from behind the mask with its heavy moustache and eyebrows, and his body is poised in a posture of defiance. He laughs aloud and leaves the room.

The singing takes on a high note as Ravan returns dragging a demure ‘woman’ in a white sari and blouse. ‘She’ too is wearing the mask of a maiden from ancient times but the fuzz on ‘her’ arms gives her real gender away! ‘She’ constantly tries to disengage herself from Ravan’s grip, but to little avail. He struts about laughing and declaring that “Sita is mine.” Explains Saikia, “Once these mask makers don a mask, they take on the character of the legend. The eyes are the windows through which they portray their feelings.”

When Ravan exits with Sita, Jatau, or the eagle, magnificent in his mask complete with a massive yellow beak, makes an appearance. Jatau, in the epic, was witness to Ravan’s abduction of Sita. The drum beats then change and become wilder, heralding the entry of a bison and a wild boar. They do a war dance with lances and swords and are from Ravan’s demon army. Following at their heels is Hanuman, the Monkey God. There is now a confrontation between Ravan and Jatau and, after a wild struggle, Ravan manages to cut off the eagle’s wing. Several fierce encounters follow, with Hanuman finally triumphing over the demons, signalling the victory of good over evil. 

Various masks make all the action and drama come alive. Mask-maker Hem Chandra Goswami takes us home to see his collection. To prepare each mask, a basic skeleton is first fashioned out of narrow, smoothened strips of bamboo woven together to form the base. It is over this frame that fine cotton cloth dipped in the grey mud found on the banks of the Brahmaputra are pasted, layer by layer, and then dried in the sun. 

When the mask is still half dry, yet another coat — a mixture of grey river mud and cow dung — is used to finely layer the eyes and facial features. Once this process is completed, the mask is left to dry in the sun. Days later, after it has hardened, a smooth piece of bamboo is used to smoothen it down. Jute or pliable barks from trees are fashioned into accessories and features like eyebrows and moustaches. After this, the mask is ready to be painted. Traditionally, only vegetable paints were used. Now the more garish hues of chemical paints seem to be popular.

Time warp

Goswami has many students engaged in learning the art of mask making and dancing. His uncle, Kushal Kant Dev Goswami, the recipient of a Sangeet Kala Academy award, is now in his 80s. A frail man with shoulder length hair and an aristocratic face, he is hailed as a master craftsman and feted for keeping Assam’s mask making tradition alive. 

But this, of course, is easier said than done. Saikia points out that one of the major stumbling blocks for mask makers is that they have not moved with the times. “They have not innovated, preferring to stick to old ways that no longer attract the younger generation, whose tastes in entertainment have changed dramatically,” he observes. 

Both the Goswamis are acutely conscious of the decline in the popularity of the form.

They admit that now the mask dances of Majuli are seasonal and it becomes difficult to even sustain a living during the off season months unless their unique art gets a wider following. Both of them have now turned to teaching as an additional source of income.

Clearly, the mask makers of Majuli are in a state of flux, having to contend with a fickle audience that is getting increasingly enticed by the all invasive television. The crowds no longer throng around the traditional all-night fare they once staged.

Hem Chandra analyses the challenges and deploys a powerful metaphor to drive his point home, “Mask making is all we know. These days the places where we can showcase our art are shrinking — it is similar to the way the river has been eating up our land, year after year, in Majuli. It is a struggle not to give in to modern ways and lose one’s legacy.” 

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