Bhaona Play Masks of Majuli Assam

Assam, known for its natural beauty and cultural richness, is home to the ancient mask handicraft tradition. This tradition is closely associated with Bhaona, a popular form of traditional theatre in Assam.

Bhaona performances, based on the scriptures of Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankardeva, often feature religious themes. The masks used in Bhaona represent a range of mythical characters such as Ravana, Garuda, Hanuman, and other epic figures. Additionally, masks of animals like deer, monkeys, wild boar, and birds are also created as needed. These intricately crafted masks, along with costumes and jewelry, play a significant role in bringing the characters to life during Bhaona performances, which are held in both rural and urban settings in Assam.

The masks are meticulously made using locally available materials such as bamboo, cane, cloth, clay, and vegetable dyes. The process involves using bamboo and cane for the frame, followed by applying layers of clay (local mud) as the base. The masks are then painted with vegetable-based colors, emphasizing the artisans’ commitment to eco-friendliness and environmental awareness.

Despite their large dimensions, these masks remain lightweight. The entire process takes approximately 10 to 15 days, depending on the size and materials used. The result is a stunning collection of masks that showcase the rich cultural heritage and craftsmanship of Assam.

The process of mask making in Assam involves three main stages: bamboo work, skin making, and coloring. The craftsman selects a local bamboo variety called jatibanh, cuts it into pieces, and soaks them in water to enhance flexibility. The bamboo splits are then woven in a hexagonal pattern to create the mask’s base. Layers of cloth dipped in sticky clay are applied and dried, followed by shaping the features using a clay and cow-dung paste mixture. Bamboo pieces are used for ears, and natural materials like tree bark or jute are added for hair and accessories.

The mask is smoothed using a bamboo file and then painted with earth and vegetable dyes. This meticulous process results in beautifully crafted masks representing mythical characters and animals from Assamese traditions and folklore.

These masks, which represent mythical characters like Ravana, Garuda, Hanuman, monster bird called Bakasura, Sugriva, the fiercest demon of them all, the many-headed Ravana and other epic characters, are in demand only when the bhaonas (portions of the epics adapted as dramas) are performed or during raas festivities in November.

Masks of animals like deer, monkeys, wild boar and different birds are also made as required.

Cheriyal Masks

Cheriyal painting, originating from the village of Cheriyal in Telangana, India, is a unique form of storytelling art. It is known for its stylized scroll paintings depicting scenes from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Within this art form, Cheriyal masks hold a special place. These masks are crafted by skilled Chitrakara artisans using a special cloth canvas and natural colors. The masks showcase local characteristics and emotions, with flat figures facing each other. Cheriyal masks, along with smaller scrolls and paintings on various mediums, are created by artists like D. Vaikuntam to preserve and evolve this ancient art form. Recognized with a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, Cheriyal painting and its masks hold cultural significance and are a cherished part of India’s artistic heritage.

The masks are made using a variety of materials. The process involves using khadi cloth as the canvas for the mask. Rice starch and tamarind seeds are utilized for sculpting the shape and as natural hardeners. Tree gum extracted from specific barks and white mud known as “Sudda matti” are used in mask making and canvas preparation. Goat and squirrel hair brushes are employed for painting in the traditional Cheriyal style. Stone colors obtained from rocks, turmeric for yellow, sea shells for white, and kerosene lamp ash for black are used as pigments. Coconut shells serve as containers for color mixing and as a base for the masks. Pencils are used for marking the primary outline of scenes from Indian epics and mythology on the canvas.

Mask making involves scraping and sanding the coconut shell to create a smooth surface. A paste made from boiled tamarind seeds and sawdust is applied to shape the mask and give it a three-dimensional structure. The mask is then covered with khadi cloth using a mixture of white mud, rice starch, and tree gum. Once dry, the mask is painted with base and detailed colors, and then left to dry again before it is ready for use.

Cheriyal painted masks are used as decorative purposes in interiors of houses, commercial spaces and in exhibitions etc. Sometimes these masks are also used as toys for entertainment purpose.

Chhau Masks

The Chhau mask is a traditional cultural heritage of Purulia in the Indian state of West Bengal. The Chhau mask of Purulia is registered on the List of Geographical Indications. As the basic difference of Purulia Chhau the mask is unique and traditional.

The mask allows the artists to morph into the character — therefore Anusua Mukherjee notes that when an artists wears a particular mask, he or she “gets into character immediately, transforming into mellow Kartik, fierce Ravana, or Durga’s ferocious lion”. Chhau artist Anil Mahato says, “Shiva danced the tandava : wearing his mask brings in that frisson for me.” One could perhaps imagine the centrality of the mask to Chhau dance with the Thalia or the Melpomene masks used in Greek Comedy and Tragedy theatres respectively, or perhaps the masks used in mystery plays during the middle ages.

Chhau masks are crafted using a variety of tools and raw materials. Tools such as chisels, hammers, files, sandpaper, brushes, pliers, and drills are employed in the process.

The masks are primarily made from lightweight wood or bamboo, with clay used for the initial mold. Papier-mâché is applied to strengthen the structure, while natural colors derived from minerals and plants bring the masks to life. Gold and silver foil, along with decorative elements like beads and feathers, are used for embellishments. Skilled artisans skillfully utilize these tools and materials to create intricate and expressive Chhau masks, which play a significant role in the captivating Chhau dance tradition.

First a clay model of a mask is made and dried in direct sunlight to make it hard. It is then covered with powdered ash and layers of papers moistened with gum are pasted on this powdered mask. It is again covered with clay. On drying, clothes are pasted on it effectively. The mask is then polished.

Once dried the first initial layer of earth is removed. Then the first coat of white paint is applied. Finally, the mask is colored and decorated with embellishments according to the characters they represent. Wool, jute, foil, bamboo sticks, plastic flower and beads are used for ornamentation. Both the male and female members of a family are involved in mask making. Even young boys and girls are also engaged themselves in it.

Chhau masks are most often used during dance performances or dramas and can be used as home decor as well.