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The river island of Majuli in Assam is a hub of Neo-Vaishnavite culture. Srimanta Sankaradeva, the 15th-16th century Vaishnavite Saint, promoted the philosophies of Neo-Vaishnavism. He established the Sattra institutions for the practice and perseverance of Neo-Vaishnavite culture. The establishment of Sattras created a space for performing arts to connect with the masses. Sankaradeva introduced the use of Mukha (mask) in the theatrical performance of Bhaona to portray different expressions of mythological characters. He crafted masks of Brahma, Garuda, and Hara for his inaugural one-act play (Ankiya Naat) titled Cihna Yatra in 1468. This historic tradition of mask-making in the Sattras of Majuli reflects an artful means of interaction through performance.

A scene from Bhaona

The Sattriya masks or Mukha are made from biodegradable raw materials like bamboo, cane, potter’s clay (kumar maati), cow dung, jute fibre, paper, cotton cloth, shola pith, and natural colours. The craftsmen follow a sequential order to prepare the final product. The process starts with making the basic structure using split bamboo arranged in a hexagonal shape. For pliability it requires jaatibaah (a type of bamboo) that is two to three years old. The hexagonal structure is covered with a layer of cotton cloth dipped in potter’s clay. A mixture of clay and cow dung is further applied to the cloth and dried in the sunlight. Once the mask is dried, the craftsmen work on its appearance. This stage is followed by glueing fabric on the mask dipped in clay. When the mask is completely dried, it is painted with natural colours.

Hexagonal pattern of a mask

An artist applying the mixture of clay and cow dung on the cotton cloth

Different stages of mask making Image source: Akhai Jyoti Mahanta

These masks are made based on morphological and structural purposes. The morphological part includes loukik (worldly) and oloukik (supernatural) masks. The loukik masks represent human beings and animals, while the oloukik masks are exclusively for supernatural characters.

The structural purpose is divided into three types. Mukh mukha or Mur mukha is a type made only to cover the face of the actor. Bor Mukha or Su Mukha is another type that covers almost the entire body of the performer. The head portion of a Bor Mukha is known as Mukha, and the body is called Su. The third type, known as Lutukai or Lutukori Mukha is comparatively smaller than Su Mukha.

Different types of Mukha (Masks)

An artist along with different types of masks at Majuli

Different types of Mukha (Masks)

The traditional mask-making culture of Majuli has been a rich feature of our intangible cultural heritage over the past centuries. It is an artistic interpretation introduced by Srimanta Sankaradeva in the Sattriya culture. The expertise involved in this age-old tradition is being passed down from one generation to another. Today, the use of Mukha or masks has gone way beyond the cultural space of Sattra and Namghar, although its process of making remains the same. Apart from the traditional theatrical performances, these masks are now also used for different purposes- in modern plays, home decorations, and museum displays. The mask artists of Majuli aspire to reflect expressions of globalization through their traditional craftsmanship. This innovative experiment with the craft has popularized this tradition worldwide. These masks are also available as gifts in different sizes. It is a concerted effort to keep the heritage of mask-making alive to date.

A scene from a mask making workshop Image source: Uddipan Sarma

A mask displayed at the museum of Tezpur University