Mask mystique
Navneet Kaur

Masks are an integral part of the mukh-bhaona performances of Majuli Island in Assam

MAJULI Island is one of the most wonderful places God created on the earth. It is the world’s largest river island in the Assam state of India. It came into the prominence in the 16th century with Sankaradeva propagating a new form of Vaishnavism. Sankaradeva’s Vaishnavism was simpler and less ritualistic than the Hindu religion. It was rooted in faith and prayer.

The masks depicting Lord Brahma
The mask depicting Lord Brahma

The masks depicting Ravana
The mask depicting Ravana

In Assam, masks play a predominant role in various traditions. Tghey are a medium of creative expression used in different performances held during festivals, and in the Vaishnavite narrative theatre called the Bhaona. Deeply embedded in the bhakti movement, the origin of the Bhaona form of theatre is ascribed to the great Vaishnava saint, preacher and reformer Srimanta Sankaradeva.

Sankaradeva conceived these plays and used them as a medium of entertainment in a religious way. Through these Bhaona performances or plays, the common people get to know about the stories and episodes from our great epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. Mukh Bhaona is musical dance drama. Masks play a vital role in it. The mask or mukha forms an important component of the Bhaona performance, which helps in making the play attractive, expressive and in putting the message across.

Sankaradeva, realising the immense potential of the masks to portray a character, invariably and widely used it in all his plays. He made wooden masks, a few of which are now kept in the museum of Patbausi Sattra, (Barpeta) Assam. And the tradition continued thereafter.

The masks of Majuli have a uniqueness. Despite the size of the masks, these are quite light in weight. The masks are made for the characters from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas. The tradition of mask-making is a hereditary skill passed down from father to son or teacher to students in the Sattras. The materials used for these masks are wood, bamboo, jute, cloth and cane, as these are readily available in Assam. Masks of bamboo and cane follow the structured weaves of basketry, which is a common item in every Assamese household.

The initial form of the masks emerges when bamboo strips are loosely woven together, and joined together into the desired shape of the face. Once the frame is complete, pieces of fine cloth dipped in sticky clay are pasted over it in layers to cover the structure, which is then dried in the sun. When half dry, a mixture of clay and cowdung paste is used to shape the eyes and other features. The ears are usually made of bamboo pieces, which are then stuck on. Later, a smooth piece of bamboo, kordhoni, is used to file the mask and smoothen the surface. The jute or bark of the tree is used for the hair, eyebrows and other accessories.

The mask is now ready to be painted. It takes about 10 to 15 days to complete one mask. Earth and vegetable colours are now being supplemented with chemical dyes. The masks, as a result, look garish but are striking nevertheless.

Majuli Island is very rich in art and culture. But the people by and large are not aware about this. UNESCO has been approached for the declaration of Majuli as a world natural site and, above all, a world heritage site. It is the home of the world-famous mask-craft in India, but the art is at present dying due to a lack of artists and proper preservation.