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Collectors’ Corner: Masks Of Menace



Collectors’ Corner: Masks Of Menace

Shopping for the most fearsome masks made in India

Collectors aren’t just ‘people who collects objects’; they are more like another species. Especially when they are the dogged types with collections spilling out of their houses and into conversations. Our generation evidently boasts the biggest ever collections of tweets and posts, but in this new series we explore not only the existing but also suggest fresh ideas for things you can go on a shopping binge for. Beginning with masks that instil fear in the heart.

Unfortunately, the contemporary arts can’t shake a stick at what the traditional crafts have achieved in this field. The newest we have are in fact fashionable face masks to save ourselves from the disaster called pollution! But there are some interesting experiments too. Like folk theatre masks blended with cubism in Assamese artist Nandan Purkayastha’s art exhibition held in Delhi last year. Or Kolkata-based artist Sharmila Sen’s collaboration with artists in Bengal countryside which resulted in an exhibition at the India Habitat Centre in January this year.

Turning to the old, we find that everyone buys masks made in Nepal (you know, the ones sold in tourist ghettos), but India’s tribal communities have been making exquisite, borderline Halloween style masks since centuries. They come in all varieties, made of anything from cow dung to bamboo to newspapers and mud. Below are some that will surely scare the pants off any evil eyes glaring down your door.

Karnataka for Yakshagana

Yakshagana is literally ‘the song of nature spirits’ practised along the Karnataka coast. This dance-drama dates back to 16th century and was traditionally organised by temples. Masks are a major part of the roles played by the characters, and much remorse was felt when recently a renowned mask maker passed away. Since it is steeped in Hindu mythology, the fiercest mask belongs to Rakshasa (demon). Oklipura near Bangalore is where you can watch these masks being made and hope to buy too.

Ladakh for Mahakala

If you’ve been to any of the Himalayan Buddhist regions like Spiti or Ladakh you would’ve probably seen or attended one of the Chhams, which are masked dances such as this one at Spituk Monastery near Leh. The stories they narrate revolve around the life of Guru Padmasambhava. Of all the characters it is Mahakala, the God of Death who is the most fearsome. And common too, because you can easily find it in the Tibetan markets of Leh.

West Bengal for Kali

Who can be fiercer than the goddess Kali? So intriguing is this goddess’s story that even the Rolling Stones got inspired into creating a logo after her. A Kali Nach performance or Kali Puja time are the best to witness her being depicted in motion. Kolkata’s Kumartuli neighbourhood has been accorded heritage status and is famous for the generations of families who live and create idols and masks there. You can pick up a Kali mask made from a number of materials there.

Odisha for Chhau

In the nearby states of Odisha and Jharkhand is the legendary Chhau dance, which is more tribal in nature. Although also based on Hindu mythology, it’s more folksy and often involves the driving away of an evil spirit. Needless to say the rakshasas win hands down here as well. Purulia is where you need to go to find these masks. Read more about them here.

Arunachal Pradesh for Monpa

Further east is the mountain state of Arunachal known for its varied tribal population that mystifies everyone who travels to the state. One of the biggest ethnic groups is the Monpa people, and it is their masked dances that are the deadliest as they depict the souls of the dead being initiated into the ‘other’ side. To get one of these exotic masks head to Tawang.

Image Credit: (1) Chhaudance, (2) Craftcanvas, (3) Tawangtourism




Mineli Goswami is a 24-year-old Assamese-East Indian, which usually translates into pretty good weekend feasts. When she’s not at her desk struggling with poetry – more often than she’d like – she’s seen wasting time on an assortment of things such as lugging an antique SLR, breaking nails climbing boulders, and chasing turtles. She’s graduated in history and has an unofficial PhD in Bandra-style jiving.

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