Masks in Indian art: Kerala and Assam
Editor’s Note: This is the first instalment of a two-part series on Indian Masks. 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.
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.
Colourful masks used in open-air performances in the coastal parts of Karnataka and northern Kerala, bayalata masks generally cover the wearer’s entire face and can be used with makeup and elaborate headgear. They feature in all forms of open-air performances, including yakshagana.
For the Badagatettu Bayalata performances, three masks are usually employed: the head of the ashvamedha (sacrificial) horse; the mask for Nandi, who is the vahana or mount of Shiva; and the face of a spirit. Characters for bayalata masks are derived from the Puranas and other Hindu mythological sources like the Mahabharata. Another mask that is commonly used is the Narasimha mask.
Bayalata performances featuring these masks continue to be held across the southwest coast of India, and more generally across the state of Karnataka.
Part of the costuming of Theyyam performers in Kerala, Theyyam masks combine face painting and masks to represent deities during performances.
Once the performer’s face and body are painted in preparation for the performance, they wear the masks and headgear in accordance with the deity being invoked; for instance, the mask for Gulikan, a local form of the Hindu god Shiva, features a trident on the forehead and a monumental headdress. Another important deity, the goddess Edalavuratha Chamundi, is depicted using masks made of wood, painted showing a tongue sticking out of the mouth.
The masks are usually made of areca palm wood, decorated with palm leaves and painted with bright colours, mainly orange, white, yellow and red. Black is used to highlight the eyes. Strong contrasts are used in the colour schemes to suggest the deities’ forceful personalities.
Also known as mukha (face), Bhaona masks are primarily made of bamboo and wood and used in the Sattriya performative tradition of Bhaona in Assam. Representing different characters from the performative repertoire, the masks are intrinsic to the larger Sattriya tradition and considered essential for expressing rasa and bhava (emotion).
According to the Sattriya tradition, the first khanikar (mask maker) was social and cultural reformer Sankardev, who laid down the process of making traditional bamboo masks. He is said to have incorporated masks in his debut play Cinhayatra in the mid fifteenth century.
However, there is evidence of wooden masks and masks made from sholapith (Indian tree-cork, Aeschynomene aspera) in the region that predate the use of bamboo. Today, mask-makers in regions such as Majuli, Assam, prepare different kinds of masks from bamboo, cane wood, fabric and earthen materials such as potter’s clay, cow dung, jute, cotton fibre, paper and natural colours, depending on the intended performative tradition.
To make the masks, a hexagonal base frame is first constructed using bamboo or sholapith, after which thin strips of cotton cloth coated with clay are plastered on the frame to form a base layer. This layer is then coated with a mixture of clay and cow dung, after which the mask is left to dry out in the sun. After the mask dries, traditionally, natural colours derived from flowers, leaves and tree bark are used to fill in details such as moustaches, eyes, eyebrows, lips and marks on the forehead. These have been replaced by the use of artificial colours.
Ornamental details such as crowns, hair and jewellery are also added at this stage. Hengul (vermillion) is usually used for red, hiatal (arsenic) for yellow, dhawalmati (white clay) for white and smoke ash collected from kerosene lamps to make black. A variation on the bamboo mask is the xaasor mukha, which is made using a base frame (xaas) coated with multiple layers of cotton cloth dipped in a gum mixture of wheat, seeds from the kendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon or Indian ebony) and hawthorn. Although it deviates from the traditional process of bamboo mask making, the xaasor mukha is lighter and more cost-effective, since the same frame can be used to make multiple masks.
Bhaona masks may feature human and animalistic elements and can be divided into two types based on the character they represent — loukik (wordly) masks, with human and animal features, and aloukik (otherworldly) masks, which depict supernatural creatures and feature exaggerated form and design. Masks are also categorised by their different sizes.
Mukh or mur mukha are masks that cover only the face of the performer and are generally used for characters such as Maricha, Subahu and Surpanakha. Contrarily, bor or su mukha masks cover the entire body and are generally used for characters with supernatural or majestic characteristics, such as Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Narasimha and Narakasura.
The masks are made of bamboo and are typically around 8–10 feet tall. The masks for the face and body are prepared separately and assembled during the performance. Lutukai or Suti Su mukha, used primarily during the Rasa festival, are similar to bor mukha masks, except that the head of the mask is separate from the body, allowing for comparatively easier movement; characters such as Taraka, Trishira and Shankhasur are generally portrayed wearing these masks.
Mask-making is an essential part of the Sattriya culture in Assam. However, the tradition has undergone a decline and are now infrequently included in performances. Today, bhaona masks are regularly made in the upper regions of Assam, in regions such as Jorhat, Majuli and Sivasagar.
The MAP of Knowledge
The MAP Academy encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts of South Asia through its free and fully accessible offerings—Encyclopedia of Art, Online Courses, and Stories. If you liked this story, you might be interested in Textiles from the Indian Subcontinent—a first-of-its-kind online short course developed by the MAP Academy exploring the histories of South Asian textiles. It provides insights into the processes of cloth production and aims to create awareness and appreciation of age-old textile traditions, examining their global impact on culture, fashion, and sustainability. This course is free, self-paced and offers learners a Certificate of Completion. To explore new and interesting stories from South Asia’s art histories, follow us on Instagram.