There are several theories on how masks came into vogue in our culture. However prolific the theories may be the accepted theory is that they are connected with rituals and mask itself or the person wearing it my seriously represents some power or spirit. Since the first creation of masks, the idea of assuming a particu1ar character, or representing a particular thought by the man who wears a mask, is always embedded in it. The making of a mask by ‘primitive’ man was also perhaps one of his first attempts to understand the puzzles of the human mind, to represent his inner reflections and to give manifestations of what is unmanifest.
Thus, the making or working of a mask is inextricably associated with the birth of ‘natyabhava’ as it
always enacts or represents a situation. This enactment of situations, in the course of time, were transformed to rituals. Apparently being merely an artifact, a static object, the mask also speaks of the dynamics of the human mind. There are areas where the mask still retains a deep and at times even a complex meaning. There is an old belief that evil spirits can be chased away once they are made visible, which is done through masks. They are also used to present animals and birds in the most vivid and lively form. Masks are, however, used not only to personify invisible spirits or supernatural beings but even ordinary humans to accentuate certain characteristics in the personality. This is noticeable in the usual Ramlila, the chou dance-drama of seraikala, Bihar, the chou of Purulia in West Bengal, the sahi jatra of Orissa, krishnattam of Kerala and the bhand pather of Kashmir. Even in plays where all character do not wear masks, certain characters do, like Ravana in Ramlila, Narasimha in bhagwatmela and kuchipudi ofAndhra. Here the element to be emphasised is not terror but the power of cosmos.
The mask is also a work of art, a medium of artistic expression of a mind or an individual. At the same time the form, the medium and the individual - all are attached to a social process belonging to a tradition and it operates within a particular narrative form - whether as a part of a ritual, theatre or dance sequence which is once again the creation of the human mind. If we believe that the mask is again the reflection of oneself, it can perhaps be said that the artist analyses through the mask the levels of the human mind in terms of divine and grotesque, superhuman and subhuman, good and bad, worshipful and deceitful and so on. To be very precise, mask is a medium of both revelation and concealment, reflecting the dichotomy of the human mind.
Indian Museum is proud to have in its collection quite a substantial number of masks of different forms and styles. This catalogue depicting the photographs of those masks would not only expose us to a different world of culture and heritage but would also teach us on how masks constituted a thread of continuity as a form of cultural practice from the pre-historic past to the living present.
Mask is an art of transformation, concealing the identity of the performer and invests the actor with an alternative identity. It is used to take on the persona of the other - a person, a deity an animal or a cosmic character. The performer in the mask dance is looked upon as an empowered person, whose socially ascribed identity is subsumed to the identity of the character that he depicts with the help of the masks.
Masks when used in performances are not just an accessory but a necessary part of the performance as they create the necessary ambience for the story and carry the narrative forward. Masks help the viewers to transcend the realities of their ordinary lives in stimulating ways by being invited to participate in the multi-faceted lives of the characters portrayed.
Masks and their use in performances and religious ritual are an ancient tradition of a wide variety of communities in different parts of the world. In the earliest traces left by man as cave drawing, we see scenes of hunters wearing masks of animal heads In ancient Indian architecture we see masks being used as motifs- Kirtimukha or Simhamukha.
Masks form a very significant mode of creative expression in. many cultures. Masks and masking practices are an extraordinary cultural phenomenon which displays an extensive typology and remains a part of the local folk theatre. Masks are made of wood, papier mache, clay, metal sheets, pith, paper and cloth. Rhythmic music and playing musical instruments of specific types are accompanied with each type of mask dance. Masks constitute a thread of continuity as a form of cultural practice from the prehistoric past to the living present.
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