On the island Majuli, Ashis Dutta interacts with the makers of traditional masks who belong to unique cultural & religious setups
The sea-wide Brahmaputra river, as it flows down in Upper Assam near Jorhat, has kept Majuli, the largest riverine island of the world, remote, and has in its oyster demurely preserved its prized pearl. That of the unique Neo-Vaishnavite culture of Majuli, practised through its Satras.
Satras are religio-cultural institutions established by the 16th century social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciples. Interestingly, each Satra of Majuli has its unique cultural attribute in music, literature, dance, drama, handicraft or artefacts.
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I met the venerable Koshakanta Dev Goswami, the Satradhikar of Natun (New) Samaguri Satra, in what I presume was his drawing room. Incidentally, Natun Samaguri Satra is among the grihasthi Satras, where people marry and the tradition of the art form is carried forward through family lines. Other Satras, on the other hand, are udasin, which literally means ‘carefree’, but figuratively means ‘of celibate monastic order’.
Natun Samaguri Satra is famous for mask making, and remains the flag-bearer of Mukha-Samskriti aspect of Neo-Vaishnavism of Majuli. Little wonder, the walls of the room I was in were all covered with masks — heads of Hanuman and Ravana, Surpanakha and Jatayu, and of many others. Goswami is a Sangeet Natak Academy awardee as a master mask maker, and naturally, is the toast of entire Majuli. He was squatting on the floor beside a four-feet, full-body and luminous white mask of Narasimha, which he had created to present to the then-president Dr Abdul Kalam while receiving the national award. But the logistics of carrying it in one piece from remote Majuli to the darbar of Delhi proved unmanageable.
We came out of the room to the long courtyard where masks were in different stages of creation. Goswami picked up a grid of a stripped bamboo framework of a mask, in the shape of what fencers wear as face guard. This, he said, is the first stage of a complex process that demands skill, diligence and patience, apart from the aesthetics of the art.
Onto this skeletal framework, strips of cloth dipped in Brahmaputra clay are draped over and dried. A paste of paper-pulp, clay, gum and cow-dung is applied in places to bring about the crests and troughs of the face, the character of the lips, cheekbones and jaw. Jute and bark are used for hair, beard and other facial accessories. The mask thus made, still wee crude, is smoothened with a wooden file. Finally paints, mostly of vegetable dyes, are applied, bringing about the right emotion of the character.
“Traditionally, these masks are not stand-alone entities,” said Goswami, “but integral to the expressions of the Bhaona they are associated with.” Bhaona is a form of drama started by Srimanta Sankardeva, the creator of the Satras of Majuli, to spread Neo-Vaishnavism through entertainment and folk art. The stories are mostly of episodes from the Ramayana and the life of Krishna. Most of the masks, therefore, relate to the characters played out in Bhaonas — like Kaliya Daman, Ram Vijay, Narakasura Vadh.
“Depending on the Bhaona it is part of, a mask needs to be mukha — face only, lotokai mokha — face and shoulder, or cho-mukha — whole body,” said Goswami. He then picked up a mask of Hanuman and asked his college-going grandson to put it on and show how the jaw of the mask can move, parting the lips, as Hanuman would speak in the Bhaona. “
Though we stick to the fundamentals of tradition, we are also constantly innovating, like the jaw movement,” said Goswami. The tradition, it seemed to me, is in good hands, where the next two generations have already taken up the mantle with élan.
It was dark outside when I took leave of the Satra. In the dim of a crescent moon, walking up to the car some distance away, I wasn’t sure if one of the demons from Goswami’s drawing room wall was not shadowing me. I didn’t dare to look back, but rested my case on the faith that in an ardent Vaishnava land, Krishna and Ram could never be too far away.