Masks of Bengal…a popular prop in Bengali culture


During a visit to the Indian museum in Kolkata, I came across a gallery on masks. The gallery was recently opened after renovation and showcased masks from different regions of West Bengal and the adjoining states. The gallery had a good collection of different varieties of masks. The masks have been very important part of the culture and tradition of Bengal for many years.

The mask,mostly used for mask dance in Bengal is a work of art and a medium of artistic expression of an individual. There are several theories related to the origin of the masks. However,Most of the people agree that the masks were related with rituals and also the mask or the person wearing it represents some sort of power. It is also believed from early times that evil spirits can be chased away if made visible using masks.

Chhau Masks of Bengal
Chhau Masks of Bengal (Credits:Image by ARIJIT DAS from Pixabay )

Mask is an art of transformation concealing the identity of the person wearing it. The person wearing it is looked upon as a powerful person. When used in performances,they create the required ambiance of the story. The masks have been an important part of the culture since primitive era as evident from the cave drawings which show humans wearing the masks of animal heads.

Depending on the regions,the masks are made from different materials. The materials used ranges from wood,shola (sponge wood),clay,bamboo,metal etc.Due to the different materials used,there is a lot of variety in the masks. The different materials require different quality of craftsmanship too which makes all these masks quite unique to each other.

Gomira Dance Masks of Bengal…

Gomira masks are a part of Gomira dance,popular in North and South Dinajpur. There are two types of Gomira dance forms—Gomira and Ram Vanvas. Gomira dance starts with the entry of Buro-Buri, who represent Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The other dance form is Ram-Vanvas. It is based on the story of Rama’s exile to the forest from the epic Ramayana with characters like Lord Rama, Goddess Sita, Hanuman, etc.

These masks are prepared by craftsmen of Polia and Deshi communities. The specialty of this mask is the provision of slit openings for eyes below the painted lower margin of the eyes instead of the usual circular openings. Masks of various epic characters, gods and goddesses and animals are used in the dance. The maker of the masks as well as dancers has to observe certain ritual restrictions for preparing the mask and performing the mask dance to avoid interference of malevolent spirit. Different type of masks are used in the Gomira dances of North and South Dinajpur.

Gomira Masks
Gomira Masks ( Credits: Palashkd / CC BY-SA)

In North Dinajpur, the masks are made up of sponge wood. The masks are prepared by first creating a model from mashed paper. Then layers of cloth,mud water and sponge wood with powdered colours are mixed with water and painted onto the face. Then,it is polished with varnish and decorated with sequins, foil, and coloured paper.

In South Dinajpur,the masks are made up of wood from Gamar tree and is tri-headed. The masks look a bit scary.The main character of dance represents Mahirban,a mythical character from the Ramayana,who is believed to be brother of Ravan,the king of Lanka. Gomira masks are painted with natural dyes, red dye is made from segun (Teak), green from seem(a form of bean), violet from jamun (syzgium cumini), and black from Jia tree (Lannea coromandelica).Nowadays, chemical dyes and even enamel paints are also used.

Gomira Dance masks
Gomira Dance masks (Credits: Priyankasingha1811 / CC BY-SA)

To prepare the mask,wood from nearby forest is collected or bought from sawmills.and the logs are cut into proper sizes with proper seasoning and chemical treatment to make the wood crack resistant and free from pests. Now,the basic form of mask is created using a tool called Banshla or adze. This is then followed by the use of a broad chisel and hammer to bring out the final shape.Then, the reverse side is chiseled to fit the face of the dancer. Then, cavities for the the opening of the mouth and eyes are gouged out using chisels.Then,a fine chiseling of entire mask is done.Further,the mask is smoothened by sandpapers.The mask is then coated with natural varnishes, mostly terpenes which provides smoothness to the
mask and ensures durability.

Another mask used in the Gomira dance of South Dinajpur is Shiknidhal mask. This mask is used in the war dance, also called Mukha Khel (the game of masks).

Gilded Masks of Bengal…

The Gilded mask is made in Kushmundi South Dinajpur district of  West Bengal. It is part of the costume of the traditional Gomira dancers. The themes are mostly historical and religious. The mask weighing around 2.5 to 3 kg is made out of Bamboo and soft wood from Gamari tree . The soft wood can be easily chiselled into intricate designs. The mask is covered with Italian gold leaves hammered into thin sheets.

Chhau Dance Masks of Bengal…

These masks are used during the Chhau dance,a form of tribal dance, in the Purulia district. Purulia Chhau Dance is listed on UNESCO’s world heritage list of dances. Chhau dance is themed around a big fight and is like a non-verbal theater performance.

Chhau Dance masks
Chhau Dance masks (Credits : Bharath chandra badavath / CC BY-SA)

The characters involved are mostly Gods and Goddesses, Demons and Monsters. The participants do not speak during the dance,but use their body movements for expressions. The masks are mostly prepared in a small village of Purulia called Charida. The masks are prepared mostly by the Sutradhar community. These people work in their own houses which is also used as a shop to sell these masks. These are the people who had been preparing these masks across their generations. The mask requires some great artistic skills which these families have developed and perfected over the generations. The masks are worn with other costumes and ornaments.The masks are representations of mythological characters.

The chhau dance masks are prepared from clay. Initially the clay with loamy soil is kneaded and a clay model is made. The model is then dried and then powdered ash is sprinkled over it. A mixture of water and paper with gum is then applied on it. Further, a thin layer of clay is applied on the model and a piece of cloth is pasted on it. Then, the features of the face are carved on it with a tool called batali. After that, clay with water is added to the mask to set the clay,paper and the cloth. Then, the model is left to dry. Once it is dried,it is coated in zinc oxide and then painted with other decorations like colored foils,sparkles,beads,feathers etc.

Chhau Dance masks
Chhau Dance masks (Credits: Ghoshsoumi.49919021 / CC BY-SA)

As these masks cover the entire face,the masks become very important to show the personality and emotions of the character. Therefore,the mask are created show very exaggerated emotions with bright colors. The faces are symmetrical and geometric with large eyes. There are feathers,ornaments etc on the masks which extend upto two feet from the mask face. The different colours on the masks have different significance related to various Gods and Goddesses. For example, Devi Durga,Lakshmi and Lord Kartikeya are usually represented by dark yellow and bright orange colors.Lord Shiva,Ganesh and Devi Saraswati are represented by White while black and blue are used for Goddess Kali.A tilak is also applied on the forehead of Lord Rama and Krishna. The Asuras or demons are painted in black or deep green with thick mustaches and protruding teeth and large eyes.

Gambhira Dance Masks of Bengal…

The Gombhira dance is popular in the Malda district of West Bengal during the festival of Chaitra Sankranti. This mask dance is performed with Gombhira song which has its origins in Maldah district. It is a solo dance revolving around mythological characters. Like the Chhau dance masks,these masks are also prepared by local Sutradhar community. A very special feature of these masks are the three-dimensional crowns.

Gambhira Dance Mask of Ravana in Indian Museum ,Kolkata (Credits:Xopolino / CC BY-SA)

The masks are made out of neem and fig trees and sometimes also of clay. The trunk of the tree is kept in rain and sunshine for a great length of the time. Then, with the help of a chiesel,it is hallowed from within.Openings are made on the front and rear portions and behind the ears. Then, the facial features are carved out from the piece of wood and then coloured according to the character. Varnish paint is applied on the mask. The hair,made with jute is coupled with soot.Mustard oil or varnish is used as a gloss to touch up the mask.

Clay Masks of Ghurni…

These masks follow a contemporary style and are popular in the Ghurni region of Krishnanagar in Nadia district. It is very popular because of the colourful, firedclay dolls. These masks follow a contemporary style.

Dokra Masks of Bengal…

Non–ferrous Metal casting by the lost wax process known as Dokra (also spelt Dhokra) is a unique folk art of West Bengal. This sort of metal casting has been used in India for over 4,000 years. In Bengal,Mostly hollow casting is used unlike south India which uses mostly solid casting. Solid casting uses a solid piece of wax to create the mould without using a clay core whereas hollow casting uses the clay core.

Lost wax hollow casting is done by developing a clay core first,about the shape and a bit smaller of the final cast image. The core is then left to dry either in sunlight or burnt to be baked.The clay core is then covered with a layer of wax composed of pure beeswax, resin from the tree Damara orientalis, and nut oil. The shaping and carving of wax in all its finer details of design and decorations is then done. It is then covered with different layers of clay. The clay takes the negative form of the wax on the inside and becomes a mould for the metal that will be poured inside it.

When the clay is cooked,the wax melts away through the drain ducts left over for this purpose. Further,The wax is replaced by the molten metal, often using brass scrap as the basic raw material.The liquid metal poured starts hardening between the core and the inner surface of the mould. The molten metal is filled inside the mould, taking the same shape as the wax. Then the mould is cooled in shade and then the clay cores are broken to reveal the original artifact. The metal icon is polished and finished as desired after chipping off the outer layer of clay.

Shola Masks From Murshidabad…

This mask is popular in Murshidabad and is made up of Shola or sponge wood. The mask is made by pulling out shola from the water and drying.
The designs are then created by cutting with a knife.

Clay Masks of Kumartuli…

Kumartuli is famous for its clay idols of deities. The masks are also made up of clay.They are then sun-dried, and coloured before finally decorating with sponge wood or foil.

Bagpa dance Masks of Bengal…

The Bagpa dance is a part of tantrik Buddhism.The Bagpa dance,also called Lama dance as they are performed by Buddhists, is war dance based on the theme of the destruction by evil and for the well-being of humanity. They are crafted from wood in different colors depicting different characters. The major colors used in these masks are red, blue and white with other colors for detailing.

Banabibi Pala Masks of Bengal…

The Banabibi pala is a short folk play popular in the Sunderban region . The theme is the fight between Banabibi, the guardian spirit of the forests and Dakshin Ray, a demon king,with the former emerging victorious. Earlier, the play was performed in the light of lanterns but, now bright costumes and musical instruments have added to the spectacle. The masks of the tiger and crocodile are very popular in this play.

Rabankanta Masks of Bengal…

This mask is popular during the dance performed during Durga Puja in Bishnupur of Bankura district. The theme is the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil Ravan. This dance form started more than 350 years ago, between 1626 and 1656 B.C. This dance form uses six masks.The first four are used directly in the dance, while the other two are ritualistic.

References / Further Readings…

  • Wooden mask (Mukha)- The ancient Folk handicraft of Kushmandi block, Dakshin Dinajpur district,West Bengal- A Gographical analysis,Arup Kr Saha, Arpita Saha, Sankar Mondal,International Journal of Social Science and Economic Research, ISSN: 2455-8834,Volume:04, Issue:01 “January 2019”

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