Of masks and men in Majuli

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on October 18, 2019

Face value | The masks were traditionally used in plays called the Ankia Naat   -  Dhiren Goswami

A tour of Assam gets a cultural break at a Vaishnava centre in the river island of Majuli

There are masks all around us — in shades of red, blue and green. Big masks vie for space with the smaller ones, covering every surface of the room we are in.

Our travel agency has listed sattras — Vaishnava centres — and masks of Majuli on the itinerary of our week-long tour of Assam. We are not sure what to expect, but are certainly keen to visit Majuli, a river island district at great threat of flooding and land erosion, and set out from our hotel on a bypass road in Jorhat for Nimati Ghat on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

From there we have to take the ferry to Majuli. Through a blaze of green along the roads punctuated by empty rice fields the colour of straw, we reach the ferry and are soon on our way.

Our jeep at Majuli weaves through roads lined by bamboo-frame houses on stilts — to prevent flooding — and brings us to the Sangeet Kala Kendra in Sri Sri Chamaguri Sattra, where we are welcomed by Dhiren Goswami, artiste and mask-maker and one of the proprietors of this family enterprise.

The Kendra is a startling sight — all shelves, walls and floor are covered with mukhas (masks) of mythological characters, many from the Ramayana. There are several to represent Hanuman, Bali and Sugriva, besides Rama, Sita and Lakshmana. Ravana, resplendent in blue and his 10 heads, is there, as is Surpanakha, the picture of dismay and outrage with her nose slashed. There are birds and animals, including Jatayu, the king of birds who gives up his life trying to rescue Sita from Ravana’s clutches.

Many of the masks have sharp, hawk-like noses, flaring nostrils and wide, protruding eyes — which lend them their fearsome expressions. Some are caricatures, but designed to inspire awe rather than attract laughter. Tall elephants and crocodiles span the entire length of the room.

Goswami explains that the masks were traditionally used in plays called the Ankia Naat, attributed to Srimanta Sankaradev, the 15th-century saint scholar who established the sattras, Vaishnavite centres in Assam for learning and prayer as well as traditional performing arts. The Bhaona (the performances of the plays) disseminated religious teachings through entertainment. The stories include tales of Krishna, such as his Raasleela, loss and recovery of the Syamantaka gem and the slaying of Narakasura.

The plays performed by the Kendra were scripted by Goswami’s father, Koshakanta Dev, who wrote in Brajavali, a literary language that is a mix of Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese and Maithili. There are short dramas based on fables from the Panchatantra as well as plays based on the Dashavatar, the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. Plays from the Ramayana include Sita Haran (the abduction of Sita).

Goswami shows us video clips of performances — the crocodile slithers across the floor, manned by a couple of artistes concealed inside it, and he demonstrates how the elephant is moved by someone who hides in the space between its legs.

The sattras were first established in Majuli and then spread across Assam. There are monastic sattras as well as family-run centres such as the Chamaguri Sattra, which is one of the oldest in Assam. The sattras are where the state’s classical dance form, Sattriya Nritya, originated. It started out as dance-dramas which were usually performed in the sattras’ community halls and namghars (temples containing a copy of the Bhagavata Purana).

“Sattriya is an inclusive art form with theatre, music, wooden sculpture, engraving and allied arts,” Sattriya dancer and researcher Anwesa Mahanta says.

Khagen Goswami, another artiste and mask-maker from the Chamaguri Sattra, says that masks have changed with time. Masks with jaws that move — to mimic conversation — were introduced in the year 2000.

“Traditionally, only some characters wore masks. Now we organise full mask dramas to popularise them,” he says.

The masks are made of a bamboo frame, on which layers of cotton and clay, cow dung and limestone are applied through various phases of drying, and then painted.

At the Kendra, these artefacts are also for sale, and priced between ₹300 and ₹5,000, depending on the size. An artisan takes three days to make a small mask, and 15 days or more for the bigger masks.

Dhiren Goswami says only two families in the Chamaguri Sattra are in the business of masks. His family does not follow any other profession except that of mask making and dance dramas. He has taken his plays to various venues in Assam and across India, including the Kumbh Mela earlier this year. They have three or four performances a year, he says.

Mahanta, whose family is also closely associated with the Sattriya tradition, says that younger members of mask-making families are turning towards other professions as the traditional work is not a profitable business anymore. Dhiren Goswami says that the Kendra is trying to safeguard the future of this art, and that new students have started learning mask making and dance dramas in the last few years. “We are happy to see the interest among youth towards this art. Our motto is ‘keep the tradition alive’,” he adds.

Sravanthi Challapalli is an independent writer and editor based in Chennai

Published on October 04, 2019

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