About the Book:
The presence of masks as both ritual and art objects is attested among the traditions of mankind's oldest civilizations. Cutting across cultural and geographical barriers, they have exhibited a remarkable range and diversity of meanings throughout history.
The present study focuses on the masks worn in the Kathmandu Valley by the main ethnic group, the Newars. A specific aspect of the Newars is that, despite the political dominance of Hinduism, Buddhism is still alive. The masks represent gods, goddesses and demons, but never the dead or the ancestors. The author argues that the reason for the absence of figurations of the dead or ancestor is to be explained by the funerary rituals. There are no memorial monuments or other objects which perpetuate the memory of the deceased: It is through rituals performed after their death that the memory is preserved.
The distinction is made between statue-masks and the masks worn during ritual dances. The author focuses on the contexts in which the masks are worn by professional dancers and draws attention to the legends, which explain the origin of the dancers and their ritual role. Detailed descriptions are given of the dances performed during different festivals in the localities of the Kathmandu Valley.
The masks then worn are destroyed and re-made ritually each year by painters. Anne Vergati explains the relation between the dancers as a social person with a social identity and the mask, which represents a god or a goddess. The mask is not supposed to hide the face of the dancer but to transform his identity in such a way as to make of him a deity.
Supported by numerous illustrations in colour, the book will appeal to historians and connoisseurs of art as well as to scholars of the cultures of the Himalayan regions.
About the Author
The author is a member of the Laboratoire d'Ethnologie at the University of Paris X, Nanterre and is Research Fellow at C.N.R.S. (National Centre of Scientific Research) in Paris. She is the co-author of Newar Art. Nepalese Art in the Malla Period (Warminister, 1979) and author of Gods, Men and Territory. Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley (New Delhi, 1995).
Over the past thirty years the art of Kathmandu Valley has been studied in depth. However, in these studies, masks and ritual objects have received little attention. When described, masks have been considered more as ritual objects than as art objects. This is perhaps because art historians are interested primarily in objects which are old: the masks worn today during particular ceremonies are never old: they are generally made of wood or papier mache. Moreover such masks are destroyed after use and re-made the following year. I intend to study here the living traditions relative to masks rather than their styles. Masks are worn during festivals in the Valley and, in this context, I shall also investigate the relation between the mask, the dancer who wears it and the gods. This has today become possible because of the large number of studies in the fields of the history of religions and anthropology which have focused over the past twenty years on religious life in the Valley of Kathmandu its rituals and its major festivals. Masks have social and religious functions and it is important to understand in what contexts they are used. A remark made by C. Levi Strauss in his study on tribal masks of the North American Indians is very relevant for the methodology of my present study on masks: “Since to each type of masks are attached myths, the aim of which is to explain their legendary or supernatural origin and to justify their role in ritual, in economy and in
society, a hypothesis consisting in applying to works of art (but which are not only that) a method which has proved its worth in the study of myths (which are also that) will find its justification if, in the last analysis, we can trace between the founding myths of each type of mask, transformational connections homologous with those which, from the plastic angle alone, prevail between the masks themselves.”
In the Himalayan regions masks are more often used in processions and in rituals rather than in theatrical performances, as is often the case in India. In north India the most popular theatrical performance is the Ramlila : the annual performances of Ramlila in Ramnagar, Varanasi, Mathura, Ayodhya are spectacular. It seems that during the medieval period there were such theatrical performances in Nepal also. In the fourteenth century at the courts of the Malla kings when a royal child was born or initiated a theatrical performance was held. The king Siddhinarasimha Malla (1620-61), the first king of Patan, started the kartika dance drama depicting events and incidents in the epic Ramayana.
Today, at certain festivals, inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley hold theatrical performances which are of a popular character. In Nepal, in certain areas of Tibetan culture, masks are, of course, worn by participants in Tibetan masked dances (cham), which used to be known in the West as ‘devil dances’ and are performed by monks wearing masks. These dances instruct the faithful concerning the deities they will meet after their death in the Bardo, the intermediate state before their next re-birth. In the following pages I shall not take account of these masked dances which are still performed today in the East of Nepal and in Sikkim.
The main ethnic group which inhabits the Valley of Kathmandu is known by the name of Newar. Until the conquest of the Newar kingdoms of the Valley by the kingdom of Gorkha in 1768, the term ‘Newar’ referred simply to all those living in the Valley of Kathmandu, then known as ‘Nepal’. The Newars share a common language and they have an indigenous written history extending back to the fifth century C.E. For centuries they have created remarkable temples, palaces, and statues
which are today well-known all over the world.
Cultural objects are meant to serve various
composite functions in a given society.
Categorisation of these objects into
‘religious’, ‘secular’, ‘artistic’, ‘social’, etc. may be
necessary to have a certain academic
understanding of a particular cultural trait, such a
categorisation has often led to reconstruction of a
fragmented picture of the society or its cultural
expression. The modern museum and exhibition
dominated society as ours is used to displaying
cultural objects of ‘other’ societies as ‘art’ in one
context and publishing lengthy discourses on their
artistic merit, and a few months later, the same
object is shown in another exhibition where its
‘ritual’ context is glorified without any comment on
the object’s artistic merit. James Clifford’s
observation that “the concrete inventive existence
of tribal cultures and artists is suppressed in the
process of either constituting authentic, or
traditional worlds or appreciating their products
in the timeless category of art” brings to us new
understanding of the art-anthropology divide.
We often tend to lose sight of the fact that there
are other criteria too — the criteria of the ‘insider’.
This is not to say that the ‘insider’ has a ‘better’
understanding of his/her culture but there can be
no doubt that the insider’s view can be
illuminating as much as the outsider’s view can be
sharply analytical due to the requisite distance
that the outsider has from the culture he/she is
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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