Masks of Heritage: a study in Majuli

Enthroned in the heart of the mighty Brahmaputra near Jorhat ,is the island of Majuli. Known to be the largest river island in the world , Majuli is the amphitheater upholding the legacies, culture and morals of the glorious past of Assam. ‘ Majuli is a unique geographical occurrence harbouring abodes of rich flora and fauna unique to this region’- asserts the UNESCO. Assamese music, art , culture, and dance flourished in this land since the establishment of the Satras (vashnavite monastries) by sri sri Shankardeva, the great saint -reformer from the 6th century. The satras are considered as the living museums which preserve age-old art forms intricately entwined with spiritualism which adds a divine charm to the artworks. Owing to the fact that Majuli is a river island, a section of the people here are expert boat makers, while another section includes skilled craftsman who crafts wooden carvings, masks (locally called ‘Mukha’) and various musical instruments. The Hira potters of majuli date back to the pre-wheel age.

Mask

The art of mask-making has been and is still being practiced in various corners of the world and Majuli has successfully created a notable position for itself in this regard. Initiated at the hands of Srimanta Shankardeva himself, mask making is a centuries-old traditional art and craft form practiced by the craftsmen here which carry the legacy of a rich past. Under the patronage of the Ahom kings, the great saint reformer SriSri Shankardeva preached Vaishnavism – the teachings of Lord Krishna and his messages from the Bhagwad Gita. To make it easy for the general people to understand, cherish and take interest in his teachings, he narrated mythological stories from the Hindu scriptures and life of Lord Krishna and in course of time introduced the ‘ Ankiya Nat’ or ‘Bhaonas’ – the one act plays which readily gained popularity. Through these plays, he gave the stories the touch of life. To make the characters more expressive, intensive, and lifelike he came up with the idea of masks – (Mukha). This was the initiation of mask making and was successively passed down generation after generation. Characters from Hindu mythology like Hanuman, Ravana, Brahma, demons like Narakasur, Bakasur were put to life using these masks. Over the years, the masks evolved and at present, there are basically three types of masks –mukha -the face mask, Lotokai mukha -masks which are so made that the eyes, lips and hands can be allowed and ‘Bor Mukha’-which are life sized or larger still.

Lotokai mukha
Bor mukha

The making of these masks demands a meticulous procedure to be followed and are of complete biogenic origin together with being ecologically sustainable in nature. The procedure of mask making starts with the slicing of two year old ‘Jaati banh’- bamboo into sticks of desired thickness and arranged in a specific way hexagonal pattern called ‘Lakhimi Sutra’ to make a three dimensional framework for the face.

Bamboo framework woven in Lakhimi Sutra

Thereafter the framework is layered with Kumar mati – potter’s clay and covered with a cloth. After the materials have dried completely, cow dung mixed with little amounts of clay is used to make the shape of the face of the masks. The second layer of potter’s clay is then applied to the face and again covered with a cloth to give a smooth finish and is left to dry.

Layer of mud being applied to the bamboo framework

Once the masks have dried, colors extracted organic sources are used to paint these masks, and the finishing touches are added. The masks are then ready to be displayed or used for economic purposes.

A mask depicting Jatayu under progress

The art of mask making is not confined to just being a means of livelihood or a thing of fame but it is considered as a divine link which connects the people to their Gurujona (Shankardeva). Holding on to this art is their way of respecting and commemorating the great saint. The uniqueness, beauty, and associated divinity of this artwork have brought much fame to this island. The Satradhikar (head) of the Samaguri satra Dr. Koshkanta Dev Goswami was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy award in 2003 His son Hem Chandra Goswami the successive Satradhikar of the samuguri satra also received this prestigious award in 2018. ‘ Mukha’ was first sent to foreign land around 1975 and is globally recognized today. In 2016, Hem Chandra Goswami’s masks were displayed in London’s British Museum where they received worldwide appreciation. Although this sacred art form had to struggle for survival some decades back, but it is flourishing in the present time. The efforts of Dr. Koshkanta Dev Goswami and Hem Chandra Goswami had breathed a new life into the art of mask making. The popularity of the Mukha has overall increased the popularity of the island of Majuli.

The soft lapping sound of the Brahmaputra water, colorful sunsets, flocks of birds returning home in the evening, an occasional visit by guests from the wild and of course the divine, cultural aura of Majuli makes it a wonderland in the state of Assam worthy of a visit.

A scenic evening in Majuli

P.S.: We express our gratitude to Pranab Chandra Goswami, son of Dr. Koshkanta Dev Goswami for taking out some time to provide us with valuable information regarding mask making.

Pranab Chandra Goswami (on right)

4 thoughts on “Masks of Heritage: a study in Majuli”

  1. The way you presented this topic , amazing . Great work👍 oh no actually great hardwork❤️ keep glowing 🌈

  2. Chandan Bez baruah

    speciality of Assamese mask, they are not using threads to tie on face or body, they are covered with all sides.Because of that they are unique.
    Chandan Bez baruah

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