“In the deep of a jungle in Bengal, tucked miles away from the reach of human civilization, a coven of witches, in giant painted masks dance in frenzy around a big fire; some have swords in their hands, others have axes. In a corner bound and gagged is a pretty young lady – the offering to Satan.” depicts a Bengali novel, written as early as 18th century.
Mask or Mukhosh, as it is known in West Bengal has a mysterious history, too vague to be chronicled in perfect sequence, both in terms of advent and influence. Rumour has it that in ancient time the witches started the practice of wearing the masks. In an attempt to camouflage, the witches built a sublime weapon, a facial veil that prevented them from getting exposed. These were colorful ornate faces made from wood or paper, a bait to attract innocent people, who were then sacrificed with the belief that their life span would be transferred to the witches grating them immortality.
However, there are various other theories regarding origin of mask culture in Bengal - one of this propagates that mask wearing started during the time of the great migration that took place in Bengal delta during pre-historic times; another associates masks with symbols of negating geo-political boundaries of the world.
Diverse civilization and cultures met in the Bengal delta. Various races entered India during pre-historic times through the north-west of the Indian sub-continent and lived there until they were driven further east.
The ancient people of Bengal were different in race, culture and language from the Aryans. The original inhabitants of Bengal were non-Aryan. And it is this culture that is largely reflected in Bengal’s long running tradition in mask artistry. Though is a lot of ambiguity about the origin of masks in Bengal, it is evident that masks were of great religious importance owing to the belief in spells. Tribal priests would wear these masks and exhibit various magical skills.
Thus over the timescale of hundred thousand years, masks became a popular prop in Bengali culture , many of them being used in various dance forms performed to appease the demon gods and to usher in peace as well as prosperity.
For instance the Gamira mask, which is the ecstatic wooden mask of Kushmandi primarily associated with the Rajbangshi community of the area, is an essential part of the Gamira dance performed in the northern parts of the state. This mask is used to depict various epic characters, of animals such as the tiger and deer as well as of gods and goddesses to act out Mythological stories that are the main theme of this dance. Popularly known as Mukha Khel’ meaning the game of masks this particular dance form is dedicated to Gramchandi, believed to be the saviour of a village. Similarly in other local ritualistic dance like Gambhira or Bakpa we find significant use of masks all establishing the fact that the ancient world treated masks as instruments of revelations - a pathway to the world of gods and other invisible powers - by giving form to the formless.
Thus though primarily, the industry of mask making was dictated by demands of religious functions, folk theatre and folk dance – yet even in other facets of regular life masks held a special significance. Owing to its multifarious uses, the kinds of masks in vogue are diverse- each of it fulfilling a particular purpose or function. So while the shola (sponge wood) masks are used often for decorating the deity, especially the mother goddess, the terracotta or the Dokra masks are used for décor and as symbols to ward off an evil eye. The clay masks of kumortoli on the other hand are being used to craft figurines uses in worship or décor purposes.
The mask artisans shape out the desired model from materials like bamboo, wood, sponge wood, clay, paper, etc. and then paint it with different colours. Each mask has a different craftsmanship technique that is typical to the art form and known only to the select local community of artisans. The Biswa Bangla initiative that aims at reviving, preserving and promoting Bengal’s heritage has preserved all these diverse techniques of mask making and taken initiatives to showcase them under one umbrella.
The masks of Bengal are acclaimed for their craftsmanship. However no concrete initiative had been taken so far to revive and collate this art form and give it a comprehensive marketing platform. Each of these techniques of mask making survived in localized pockets. Under the aegis of Biswa Bangla this signature craft of Bengal is being showcased across the globe with an aim of giving recognition to this art form and at the same time uplifting the life of these talented craftsmen by providing them sustained means of livelihood.