From what used to be heavy and life-size masks till the turn of the 20th century, traditional mukhas used in Assam’s Vaishnavite Bhaona theatre are becoming conveniently light—and even pliant.
Of late, they have even curio varieties that come in the form of car-hangings and lockets, besides handy masks people love to take home as souvenirs from the world’s largest river island.
All these are courtesy improvisations by a middle-aged head of a prominent religio-cultural institution dating back to the medieval era. Hem Chandra Goswami, the satradhikar of Samaguri ‘satra’ in Majuli, is happy today that his innovative efforts have found public acceptability.
The result is that the colourful ‘mukhas’ are getting worldwide recognition — a far cry from their near-obscure state one-and-a-half decades ago.
It was in 2000 that Goswami began experimenting with mukha-making in a bid to reduce the weight of the masks. “It was not just about easier making,” he points out. “I wanted it to be comfortable for the actors wearing them.”
Soon, Goswami introduced moveable jaws and eyes for the masks that allowed the mukhas to be more expressive. “The change was hailed by audiences across the state,” recalls the 58-year-old administrator of the satra that has been making Bhaona masks for over 350 years.
Satras, broadly, are philosophical centres that maintain a prayer house and initiate lay people into the teachings of scholar-poet Srimanta Sankardev (1449-1568), who was a pivotal social reformer in the Northeast. Repositories of cultural artefacts, the larger among the satras house hundreds of celibate as well as non-celibate monks and hold vast lands.
As for Goswami, he learnt the art from his father Rudra Kanta. The tradition died down in many of the other satras in the second half of the last century, leading to a steep slide in the use of the mukhas employed in the entertainment play that would typically convey religious message to the rural mass.
“Since mukhas were used only in Bhaona, there began a lack of their appreciation by the people. The art of making the masks was almost on deathbed,” says Goswami. “It is here that we stepped in, and managed to infuse fresh life into it.”
Goswami’s masks, which are made with bamboo, cloth and a mixture of cow dung and earth, take four to five days to complete. They weigh around 500g — much lighter than the earlier wooden and other masks which weighed several kilos.
The innovator also noticed that both domestic and foreign tourists coming to Majuli wanted to carry home mementos. “Therefore, we started making smaller masks. You can showcase them in the drawing-room or hang them next to the steering of you vehicle,” he points out. “One can even use them as pendants.”
Even amid the alterations, there is no deviation from the traditional aspects associated with the process of making masks. “We don’t promote crass commercialization. That is why we still insist that our items can be bought only at Samaguri satra,” he adds.
Now that the festive season (October-November) is on, the masks are in greater demand again. “Even otherwise, we get orders for the miniature mukhas throughout the year,” adds Goswami.
The activity is now backed by a team of artists under Goswami.
Young Ananta Kalita is one among them, and says he earns his livelihood making the masks. “These days there is so much demand for the mukhas that we find it difficult to cater,” says the 24-year-old, who earns Rs 15,000-Rs 20,000 a month.
Goswami’s masks found world audience this year when London’s British Museum displayed five of his creations from January to August during an exhibition called ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam’. “Our effort will be to make them more modern while retaining their traditional aspects,” he adds.
The state government is setting up a cultural university in Majuli, giving still better prospect of increased popularity of the ‘mukhas’.