A history of Indian masks: West Bengal to Tamil Nadu
Editor’s Note: This is the second edition of a two-part series on Indian Masks. You can read part 1 here. These guides are brought to you by our partner, MAP Academy, a wonderful online platform aimed at building knowledge of South Asian art. Each month, we will carry an essay from their Encyclopedia of Art—a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to learn about our shared history and culture. The MAP Academy is a non-profit online educational platform committed to building equitable resources for the study of art histories from South Asia. This article originally appeared on the MAP Academy website, with due image credits for photos used in this republished piece.
A quick introduction
Indian mask-making traditions are typically practised by specific non-dominant castes or Adivasi communities. They are worn as part of a costume in a range of traditional performances from martial arts like Chhau to narrative dance forms like Kathakali. In most dance or theatre forms, masks are used as a way of maintaining iconographical consistency regardless of the performer, while in others, such as Cham and Bhagavata Mela Natakam, the mask is also a way to channel a supernatural entity. In a few traditions, the mask is also considered a sacred object, such as the Bhuta mask or the Narasimha mask used in Prahlad Nataka performances.
Most Indian masks are made of perishable materials like paper pulp or wood, and as a result, surviving historical examples are rare and much more recent than the performances in which they are used. In some cases, such as Kathakali, the mask is actually a thick and vivid layer of make-up that effectively replaces the performer’s face. Exceptions to this perishability include bronze Bhuta masks, examples of which date back to the eighteenth century. Mask-making, like many Adivasi and folk traditions, is typically inherited and is less frequently practised today due to insufficient commercial incentives.
An introduction to chhau masks
Large, colourful masks of clay and wood, chhau masks are used for chhau performances in the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. There are three major styles of chhau: Mayurbhanj, Seraikela, and Purulia. Each has a differing approach to the use of facial covering. Mayurbhanj chhau used masks till as late as the nineteenth century, but now only uses paint, make-up and costumes, allowing its performers considerable freedom of movement.
In contrast, masks are an essential feature of Purulia and Seraikela chhau. Seraikela chhau, in particular, includes subtle neck movements in its repertoire in order to animate the performers’ masked faces. Chhau masks can sometimes be very large and elaborately decorated, contributing to the arrangement of the scene and its impact on the audience.
While Seraikela chhau is performed traditionally under the patronage of the indigenous royal family and the dancers are from the Kshatriya (warrior) caste, Mayurbhanj and Purulia chhau are performed by members of the Scheduled Castes.
Seraikela and Purulia chhau masks are made with similar construction methods. Clay is layered onto a base of cane or wood to create a mould. When it dries, it is detached from the base and covered with papier mache, followed by another layer of clay. Cotton fabric strips are used to reinforce the structure. As it dries over the course of three days, jute and acrylic wool are used to add details such as facial hair. Additional decorations and paint are applied afterwards. Older masks may be polished to impart a sheen before a performance.
Purulia chhau masks cover the entire face, reaching over the top of the head until the base of the skull. Halos of wire, decorated with colored beads and sequins to signify deities, demons, or forest animals, are added around the top. Characters depicted by these masks include the goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura as well as figures from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana like Arjuna and Lakshmana, usually shown with pink faces and black moustaches. Rama is depicted with a green mask, while a blue mask is used for Krishna.
A mask for the half-man, half-lion deity Narasimha usually has a mane and large, wild eyes; an elephant mask is used for Ganesha; Shiva’s mask features serpents and ropey, matted hair; his son Skanda, traditionally believed to be handsome, is given a pink visage.
In comparison to Purulia chhau, Seraikela chau relies extensively on masks which subtly represent essential attributes of the character being portrayed. For example, Ratri (Night) is depicted with her eyes half-closed, while the Hamsa (Swan) wears a long beak. They are usually made from the dark clay found in and near the Kharkhai river, which flows through the region. Seraikela chhau masks are light but cover the whole face of the performer, with small slits for the eyes and nostrils which make it difficult to see or breathe properly.
Chhau mask makers have adapted according to the changing demands of performance as well as new consumers such as art collectors. More recently, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have also begun making safety masks for general use, basing their designs on chhau masks.
Buddhist rituals: cham masks
Worn by practitioners of the cham dance in Bhutan, Nepal and India, cham masks are symbolic and ritualistic objects in Vajrayana Buddhism. These masks are believed to embody wrathful, protective deities and inspire fear and terror in the hearts of evil forces. These deities are also believed to remove obstacles in the path to enlightenment, and thus the masks are held to provide calm and tranquillity to the devotee and free them from the delusions of the material world. In the early twentieth century, European anthropologists termed these masks “devil masks” and used “devil dance” to refer to the cham performance.
Both cham masks and the cham dance are associated with legends of the Tibetan guru Padmasambhava. Though there is some evidence of masks being used in ritual dances in Tibet from the seventh century CE, the masks used in cham today are believed to have been revealed to a guru in a dream by Padmasambhava in the thirteenth century CE. Some cham masks have been preserved in monasteries over generations and have become venerated in their own right, attracting pilgrims and worshippers to witness them being used in performances. Masks are also used for the non-ritualistic Yungdrung Shon Dance, which generally takes place as part of cham festivals today.
Cham masks are made according to precise instructions from a variety of Buddhist scriptures and may have various regional variations. One manufacturing method involves preparing a clay mould and applying several layers of cloth to it using a mixture of glue and dry soil. They are then left to dry in the sunlight. When the glue has dried, the clay mould is removed and the surface of the mask is painted or decorated as required. Papier-mâché, metal and cotton strips may also be used to make the masks, especially in the case of animal masks, like those representing the Tibetan snow lion. Some masks may have marks around the mouth signifying leftover food or saliva, or the remnants of gorging on flesh, blood and intestines.
Others, such as the shin yong (“protectors of the grave” in Tibetan) may consist of an elaborately decorated representation of a skull. The faces of wrathful deities such as Chogyel Yum, associated with Chamunda, may be surmounted by diadems featuring up to five human skulls. Each represents a negative affliction such as ignorance, jealousy, pride, attachment and anger, which are believed to be transformed by the dance into the positive virtues of wisdom, accomplishment, commonality, appreciation and understanding.
Cham masks are usually very heavy and large, making it difficult to see through them or wear them for long periods of time. Due to their weight and sharp edges, dancers wear padded caps or folded towels covering the forehead or the sides of the face in order to prevent chafing and cuts.
The masks are deeply associated with the philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism. Tibetan scholars have suggested that they have layers of meaning: they may symbolise supernatural forces that are present both within the self and in the external world; the masks may refer to the illusory nature of the self; and their terrifying visages may be an allusion to the nature of the material world that masks the ultimate reality. The symbolism of these masks has also led the cham dance to be called the mystery play, the secret dance or the magic dance.
Many traditional construction methods for cham masks are preserved only in oral histories today, owing to the destruction of texts during the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the twentieth century. In addition to South Asia, some historic cham masks are preserved in monasteries as far away as Mongolia.
Dance to entrance: Therukoothu masks
Painted facial makeup and masks, therukoothu masks are used for therukoothu performances. The makeup for therukoothu performers is related to traditions of icon production, sacred mask making and face painting in the state. Each character’s makeup has a basic colour upon which are drawn conventional motifs such as the kiruta (facial hair extending from the sideburns to the chin), which can be easily recognised by the audience. Actors wear partial face masks as well as the makeup, golden shoulder plates, bright skirts, headgear and crowns. Wooden ornaments are used, along with small mirrors for masks.
Therukoothu costumes, colours and motifs signify forces of good and evil as well as characters’ virtues and flaws. Red face paint, for instance, is frequently used in the Mahabharata cycle. Green is associated with heroism, beneficence, morality, strength and power and is used for characters like Arjuna and Bhima. Villains’ faces are covered with black and white three-dimensional dots. Demonic characters such as Hirayam and Vallakaran usually have white fangs extending from their mouths.
Various intermediate shades are also used, depicting subtle differences in personality between characters. Mal (a curved line extending from ear to ear) is used to accentuate the eyes.
The makeup session generally takes the form of a ritual. An offering is made to a lighted lamp before the makeup begins. A figure of Ganesha is fashioned from turmeric powder and painted with the word Om. The make-up is then applied to the sound of music, using colouring agents such as vermillion and talcum powder.
Therukoothu masks and makeup are believed to ritually charge the performance space and trigger sacred entrancement among the performers and audience members. They are still used in performances in northern Tamil Nadu today.