SUNDAY FEATURE: In the Island of Masks – Majuli

Throughout the world masks have been prevalent in rituals and festivities since antiquity. Hollywood movies and popular English Literature has much familiarized us with masks at the masquerade parties in the West. But not many know that India too has a unique cultural legacy of masks and mask making. This fantastic mask craftsmanship has been preserved and is being passed on from generation to generation on a tranquil riverine island of Majuli on the Brahmaputra River in Assam. Today Majuli has carved a special place for itself amongst culture aficionados across the world, especially for its art of mask making.

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Beauty of Majuli lies in its remoteness

Inside Majuli

The island of Majuli can be accessed by ferries via Jorhat city. The dock on the island gives it a barren and desolate look but do not fall for this mirage because as you wheel inside, Majuli welcomes you with lush greenery and offers you the colours, tastes, music, art, languages and traditions of Assam and its tribal communities, especially if you visit it during the festive season around Dussehra and Diwali. Inside Majuli, the island is best enjoyed on bicycles and bikes. The rustic thatched bamboo huts in traditional Mishing style on river side or in the fields create picturesque scenes that calm the mind. As you traverse across Majuli, it is worth observing the everyday life of the agrarian folk here. Homestays are quite popular on this island where the local freshly brewed rice beer and authentic delicacies like Porang Apin (rice cooked in tora leaves), Pamnam (fish baked in banana leaves) among others provide a new experience to the palate.

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Performance at a Satra in Majuli

The island of Majuli is also the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture of Assam that houses Satras or monasteries that have been established here by Mahapurush Sankardeva in late 15th century. The fine details on the decorative wood panels on some of the ancient Satras here represent the tribal art, folk culture and also the heritage of Ahom Kingdom. These Satras are now important centres of traditional performing arts. Each Satra has a distinct identity and serves as a sanctorium to a different art form. For instance, the Auniati Satra stores ancient artifacts and is famous for traditional Mishing tribal dances and Paalnaam which is form of congregational prayer.

The Dakhinpat and Garamur Satras stage raas leela and bhaonas which are theater performances that make use of the popular dramatic masks made exclusively in Majuli. The most renowned amongst these is Shamaguri Satra that has brought Majuli to the foreground for its art of mask making with some of its remarkable folk creations also being exhibited in Victoria and Alberta Museum in London.

Use of Indigenous material

Majuli is world renowned for its folk art of mask making

What differentiates these masks from other folk masks across the country is that they are made from indigenous material of the island and not plaster of paris, and without the use of synthetic colours. The techniques used for it are in fact being used since medieval times where special attention is paid to the intricate details and technicality (now there are also new kinds of masks that have movable jaws making dialogue delivery easier). The traditional art of making masks is passed down from father to son or from the guru or teacher at the Satra to the students.

The technique involves making a three dimensional bamboo framework onto which clay dipped pieces of cloth are plastered. After drying it, a mix of clay and cow dung is layered on it for adding details and giving depth to the mask. Jute fibers and water hyacinth are used for beard, mustaches and hair. Once the mask is complete, a kordhoni (bamboo file) is used to burnish the mask. And finally, the zeal and drama is given to the masks through deft painting. The mask makers of Majuli preferably use vegetable dyes and colours derived from hengul (red) and hentul (yellow) stones.

The three dimensional bamboo framework

There are three different types of masks that are made. The ‘Mukha bhaona’ covers the face, ‘Lotokoi’ which is bigger in size extends to the chest and ‘Cho Mukha’ is a head and body mask. The masks are made exactly the way luminary Sankardeva described the characters in his ‘Ankitya Natya’ from which bhaonas have emerged. These bamboo masks are very light in weight, making it convenient and comfortable for the performers to put them on. It takes approximately ten to fifteen days to make them.

It is but natural that when you visit this Satra, you have faces of gods, goddesses, demons, fiends, ogres and all kinds of interesting otherworldly characters with raised brows and flared nostrils from Indian mythology and folklore, as attendees either smiling or scoffing at you, spicing your visit to the otherwise peaceful Majuli.

Masks of Majuli
 Fact File

Where: Majuli is the first island district of India located in the Brahmputra river that passes through the beautiful and enthralling Assam.

What else to watch: Majuli is a birdwatchers delight. Rare species of migratory birds arrive here in winter.

Best time to travel: The Island is open throughout the year but October-November is the best time to experience the island in its full vibrancy and festivity.

How to reach: It is a 15km drive from the city of Jorhat to Nimati Ghat from where the island of Majuli can be accessed through ferries. If you’re in luck you can catch a glimpse and enjoy the extraordinary scenes during sunrise and sunset (although ferries generally start by 8:00 am and end by 4:00 pm; timing varies according to season).

Where to stay: There are many hotels and homestays in Majuli. The Satras also offer guesthouses to the devotees and tourists alike.    

Published in The Tribune on 29.11.2020

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