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Not because of Covid: Why the World's Largest River Island Gets Masked on a Festive Full-moon Night

By: Niloy Bhattacherjee


Last Updated: November 18, 2021, 15:42 IST


The three-day 2021 Majuli Raas Festival will be observed in the island district from November 18 until November 20.

The three-day 2021 Majuli Raas Festival will be observed in the island district from November 18 until November 20.

The mask embodies the rich culture and identity of Majuli in Assam, which during Raas festival days becomes the abode of Lord Krishna and other divine figures.

It’s that time of the year when on a full-moon night, the world’s largest inhabited river island Majuli wears its unique mask. The mask that embodies the rich culture and the identity of the island, which floats proudly as the granary of Vaishnavite culture of Assam in the mighty Brahmaputra.

Majuli possibly is the only place in Assam where the Raas Leela of Lord Krishna is celebrated through the plays enacted by the devotees. During these Raas festival days, Majuli becomes a veritable place for pilgrimage. For the believers, the island becomes the abode of the Lord and other divine figures often represented by the mask and its men.

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The pandemic restrictions of 2020 limited the extravaganza of Raas and the masks as well. However, Pradip Goswami of the mask-making centre of Samuguri Satra this year has created a 12-feet tall mask (bormukha) of Kumbhakarna (the brother of Ravana), which the master craftsman expects to attract people visiting the island during the Raas festival.

“The Kumbhakarna bormukha took me around three months to create. It is 12-feet tall and is donned to incarnate the character of the demon king during the Bhaonas (folk plays). Our entire family at Samuguri Satra is involved in mask-making and it’s this art that makes the monastery unique. People from England, Germany and the United States come here to learn the art, as we make the mask from bamboo, hessian cloth, cow-dung and mud paste. It’s feather-light and has a long shelf life. Our masks glorify several prestigious international museums, including the London museum that displays the famous ten-headed Ravana mask or the Dasa Mura,” says Pradip Goswami.

The Natun Samaguri Satra or centre, has practised the tradition of mask-making since the mid-17th century. It makes headgear for the Raas Leela festival and for Bhaona, a style of vibrant street theatre from Assam.

Traditionally made, the mask absolutely suits the tag of being completely eco-friendly and biodegradable. The intricate process of mask-making starts by using bamboo sticks to prepare the framework of the face. Then the sticky potters’ clay smeared on cotton cloth strips are pasted on the frame. A mix of clay and cow-dung is used to etch out the contours of the specific character. Thereafter, a cloth is wrapped to complete the shape. The final step is colouring and polishing. Either natural colours from flowers, leaves and tree bark are used or those available in the market.

“Though in the Raas festival the bormukhas are not used as here we use masks that depict the manifestation of Kansa (evil uncle of Krishna), the bormukhas are one of the most fascinating masks that Samaguri Satra has been making for over a century. There are three sizes of masks. Mukha bhaona, which covers the face, lotokoi that extends to the chest, and cho, which usually consists of two parts: a head and a body. Once the mask is complete, a kordhoni or bamboo file is used to smoothen the surface, and finally, vegetable dyes are brushed on. Eyebrows are raised, nostrils flared, and eyes take on a sinister, bloodshot hue as the masks assume the characters they will portray,” says Pradip Goswami.

As change is the only permanent, Majuli masks too have modified themselves with the changing times. These include the speaking and movable masks and some with roving eyes. The jaw and eye movement give a touch of realism to the masks, thereby engaging viewers. Some of the masks with these attributes include Putana, Bali and Sugreeva. Based on their make and use, there are three types of masks. The Mukh mukha (face mask) is used on the face along with appropriate costume to match the specifications of the character as in Bali, Sugreev, Garuda and Jatayu. Lotokori mukha (middle mask) has a face part and a body part. A part of the actor’s body is covered while he can use his hands and feet easily. Examples are Marich, Subaru and Taraka. And the last form is the Bar mukha or Cho mukha. This mask is also called a big mask as it covers the human body. Cho refers to hiding the natural body of an actor completely, from his head to feet, as in the Ravana and Narasingha.

The three-day 2021 Majuli Raas Festival will be observed in the island district from November 18 until November 20, inaugurated by the chief minister of the state Himanta Biswa Sarma. Soaked in the resplendence of Bhakti ras in these three days, Majuli will transform itself into a world stage of song, dance and dialogue in a performing art form depicting the story of the life of Lord Krishna.

Raas is a celebration of 500 years of cultural and artistic contributions of the various sattras (the seat of Vaishnavite preaching introduced by medieval saint Srimanta Shankardev for an all-inclusive form of religion) in Majuli.

The jatra is an annual festival that involves song, dance and dialogue in a performing art form depicting the story of the life of Lord Krishna. It begins with the birth of Krishna, his growing up, his tending to the cows at Gokul along with his fellow cowherds, his childhood, and his vanquishing of demons like Bakasur, Putana, Kaliya, and Kansa. The entire performance happens without a break and is a continuous process involving more than 60 actors playing various roles.

This is where the masks come into play. Srimanta Shankardev, apart from being a preacher, was a dramatist, philosopher, social reformer, artiste, painter, linguist and actor. He used dance-dramas to share the stories of Krishna with his followers who did not understand texts written in Indian languages, impressively using masks to make common people relate to the character easily.

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He wrote a dramatic composition called ‘Ankiya Nat’, which is called Bhaona in Assamese. He took stories from Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana and wrote six ‘Ankiya Nat’ in Brajawali language (a mixed language of Assamese and Maithili). These are ‘Rama Vijaya’, ‘Parijata Haran’, ‘Kaliya Damana’, ‘Rukmini Haran’, ‘Keli Gopala’ and ‘Patni Prasada’. In these dramas, some characters had overwhelming personalities, which could not be portrayed by a human face. Therefore, Sankardeva introduced the concept of masks and depicted them in Bhaona. Some of the specific characters for whom masks are used include Maricha, Subahu, Taraka, Kalia Nag, etc. Masks help to enhance the performance and dramatic effect of these characters, which would not be possible by facial expressions alone, experts say.

The first Raas Leela was performed at Dakhinpat Satra in 1840 and it is continued with full ritual ways. These constitute Assamese classical music and dance. Raas Leela was made into a stage performance by Pitambardeva Goswami of Garamur Satra in the year 1934. In 1950, he permitted the girls of the Satra to take roles in the Raas Leela and dance.

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first published:November 18, 2021, 15:33 IST
last updated:November 18, 2021, 15:42 IST