Mask makers reap rich dividends

Elegant work of Charida artisans gets popular

Mask makers reap rich dividends
Masks sell quite well at fairs in various places

The blackness of the recently-tarred road that passes through Charida village is accentuated by the bursts of colour on either side. The road is a gift from the Mamata Banerjee government, which came to power in 2011, paving the path for Charida’s colours to spread around the country and  the world.

The town is best-known for its many mask makers, who create them with clay and papier mâché for Chhau dancers, the pinnacle of which was reached under Gambhir Singh Mura, probably the most prominent exponent of the dance form that has become one with the name of the district.

The arid town, tucked in a corner of the western district of Purulia in West Bengal, is pressed closer to Jharkhand on the map. Like much of the district, Charida hardly has any agricultural activities and the search for water often leads locals to dig deeper than anywhere in Bengal. Amidst such extremities, Purulia gave form to Chhau, a martial dance form with its roots dating back to the indigenous population of the region.

Chhau has been popular among certain tribes in Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand, with Purulia, Seraikella and Mayurbhanj being the respective centres associated with the fold dance form. Although the dance form’s exact history has faded into oblivion, some modern scholars believe the word Chhau is derived from the Sanskrit word “Chhaya”, meaning shadow but could also stand for the mask.

Chhau is exclusively performed by men and usually during religious festivals, particularly Dasara, with stories depicted through the dance borrowed from the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. This lends credence to the belief that Chhau was meant to be rehearsal for war, where physical exercise and spiritualism blend in with the invoking of mythical heroes like Rama and Arjuna. Most dancers are keepers of legacy, with their forefathers belonging to traditional Chhau dancer families as they sweat it out under the night sky, dancing to haunting, old notes, coming from folk instruments like flutes, reed-pipes, large kettle drums and dhol, a two-sided cylindrical drum.

Purulia Chhau stands apart in its technique because unlike the Seraikella and Mayurbhanj schools, which enjoyed royal patronage, the dance form in Purulia was a more populist form, with common people helping it to survive changing times. Unlike dancers of Mayurbhanj, who do not wears masks, Chhau dancers of Seraikella and Purulia don elaborate and colourful masks.

Masks worn by dancers from these two regions, however, are different with Seraikella masks having a more elaborate headgear, decorated with beads and zari work. Masks used by dancer in Purulia are less elaborate and more functional. If the traditional masks depicted Rama, Hanuman, Ravana and other mythological characters, designs have evolved over the years.

A walk into the one-horse town is an introduction to a riot of colours, the effect of which can be more dazzling than the sun looking down on a scorching and parched summer afternoon. The mask-makers’ workshops, which double up as stores, are on both sides of the thoroughfare and on a dizzyingly hot afternoon, every store can look like Impressionist paintings from a distance. Most mask makers are men, who sit on their haunches, busy over a bowl of papier mâché and clay concentrate, working out the right consistency, painting the masks or assembling decorations for headgears.

Most of the men, from the Sutradhar community, intent in their objective of creating a beautiful work of art – these works adorn walls at urban living spheres in Kolkata, Delhi, Bengaluru or Mumbai and even abroad -- are hardly aware their names have travelled much farther and wider than they ever will. Uttam Sutradhar at Charida deconstructed the manufacturing process: first, the mud mould is dusted with fine ash powder, several layers of soft paper and immersed in glue diluted with water, before these layers are pasted over the mould. The mask’s facial features are made with clay, with a layer of mud and cloth applied on it before the mask is sundried.

“After it’s dry, the mould is polished and again set down under the sun for another round of drying before we separate the laden layers from the mould. The mask is then coloured according to design and decorated, after holes for nose and eyes have been drilled,” Uttam said. Once completed, these masks are not just functional for their original purpose, providing faces to dancers who have remained faceless for centuries, these also work as vibrant decorative items, sold from stores, both physical and online. Dharmendra Sutradhar, another leading mask maker, agrees that once confined to Purulia and adjoining districts, the popularity of their masks has increased.

He feels this happened particularly after the state government took up their cause, promoting the masks, among other handicrafts, under the Biswa Bangla brand.

Dharmendra is quick to agree that Mamata’s move has made the lives of mask makers like him easier. “Every month a large percentage of our work is taken up by the government. In fact, sometimes its difficult to keep up our production,” he says. Since creating individual mask is hard work and takes time, Biswa Bangla officials have all the mask makers of Charida on contract but take masks from each of them in turns.

He and the others point out that even in 2008 most of them were finding it hard to convince their children to follow in their footsteps since mask making was hardly lucrative. “Although it’s still not a high-income job, at least now we’ve two square meals a day and our traditional art form will be saved and probably reach more people than it ever has,” says mask maker Dharanidhar Dutta. His words are echoed by many others, including by Manoranjan Sutradhar, one of the oldest mask makers at Charida.

“The government asks for more designs but we sometimes find it difficult, it’s a stretch on our creativity. We’re used to making traditional masks like Durga, Ganesha, Shiva, Rama and Ravana. Every day we have to think of newer designs and varieties,” Dutta said. The walls of his workshop, just like many others like his, have an array of masks, giving a glimpse into the designs they follow.

The face of the Buddhist deity of death, etched out in the Tibetan style common at places like Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan was developed a few months back as an offering to urban patrons. These constraints aside, Charida mask-makers are not complaining.

   “These days our masks sell quite well even at fairs in Kolkata and other cities. Earlier, we hardly managed to sell 50 even at a fortnight-long fair but now we have to carry at least 5-6 crates of masks just to keep up with sales,” said Jagadish Mukhopadhyay, one of the few Brahmins involved in the trade.

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