I was travelling to Ranchi from Kolkata. I saw traditional Bengali masks were being displayed at the departure terminal of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport by Biswa Bangla Marketing Corporation, promoted by Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Textiles of the Government of West Bengal. It’s a nice way to promote the ancient craft of mask-making in Bengal.
We wear masks for many reasons: for fun, for protection, or to make a statement. In turbulent public settings, obscuring one’s face can protect an individual from retaliation while evoking fear and uncertainty in others. Masks have been used since antiquity for both ceremonial and practical purposes.
As per Wikipedia, the word “mask” appeared in English in the 1530s, from Middle French masque “covering to hide or guard the face”, derived in turn from Italian maschera, from Medieval Latin masca “mask, specter, nightmare”. This word is of uncertain origin, perhaps from Arabic maskharah “buffoon”, from the verb sakhira “to ridicule”.
The earliest known anthropomorphic artwork is circa 30,000–40,000 years old — but insofar as it involved the use of war-paint, leather, vegetative material, or wooden masks, the masks probably have not been preserved. they are visible only in paleolithic cave drawings, of which dozens have been preserved.
Throughout the world, masks are used for their expressive power as a feature of masked performance — both ritually and in various theatre traditions. The ritual and theatrical definitions of mask usage frequently overlap and merge but still provide a useful basis for categorisation.
Mask (or mukhosh in Bengali) has a mysterious history, too vague to be chronicled in perfect sequence, both in terms of advent and influence. As per a Biswa Bangla pamphlet, there are various theories regarding the origin of masks in Bengal — one of them says that the wearing of masks started during the time of the great migration that took place in the Bengal delta during pre-historic times; another associates masks with symbols of negating geo-political boundaries of the world.
Rumour has it that in ancient times, witches started the practice of wearing masks. To camouflage themselves, the witches built a sublime weapon, a facial veil that prevented them from being exposed. They wore colourful ornate faces made from wood or paper, a bait to attract innocent people who were then sacrificed so that the witches would be granted immortality. Quoting from a Bengali novel, written as early as 18th century:
In the deep of a jungle in Bengal, tucked miles away from the reach of human civilization, a coven of witches, in giant painted masks dance in frenzy around a big fire; some have swords in their hands, others have axes. In a corner bound and gagged is a pretty young lady – the offering to Satan.
The culture-historians are of opinion that a distinct mask using zone is found in South and South–East Asia. This zone extends uninterruptedly from Indonesia to Kerala (India) all along the coastal belt. Geographically West Bengal comes well within this mask-using culture zone.
Diverse civilisation and cultures met in the Bengal delta. Various races entered India during pre-historic times through the north-west of the Indian sub-continent and lived there until they were driven further east. The ancient people of Bengal were different in race, culture and language from the Aryans. The original inhabitants of Bengal were non-Aryan. And it is this culture that is largely reflected in Bengal’s long running tradition in mask artistry.
Though there is considerable ambiguity about the origin of masks in Bengal, it is evident that masks were of great religious importance. The ancient world treated masks as instruments of revelations — a pathway to the world of gods and other invisible powers — by giving form to the formless.
Mukhosh-making is an ancient craft form that dates back centuries. Although a craft shared throughout Bengal, the masks are fiercely individual. Each region utilises different techniques to create their individual mukhosh, and the materials used are bamboo, wood, clay, paper and metal all part of the process of creation. Each mukhosh has a different craftsmanship technique that is typical to the art form and known only to the select local community of artisans.
Masks in Bengal are mostly used in performance of many folk dances in Bengal like Chhau dance in Purulia, Gamira dance in Dinajpur, Gambhira dance in Malda, Banbibi pala in Sunderbans, Rabankata dance in Bishnupur. Masks are also worn in the Bagpa dance, a part of tantrik Buddhism, which was conceptualised by Guru Padmashambhava (Guru Rinpoche). Bagpa dance is also known as Lama dance in the Himalayan region of Bengal.