Of Theatre, Masks and Tradition – Keeping Folk Art From Assam's Majuli Alive

Hindered by climate, a dearth of funds and limited demand, Hem Chandra Goswami perseveres to keep the centuries old folk art form of mask making a living and thriving tradition.

Hem Chandra Goswami with his masks at the Rongali festival in Guwahati. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Hem Chandra Goswami with his masks at the Rongali festival in Guwahati. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Guwahati: The culture of making masks in the satras (monasteries) of Majuli – the centre of Vaishnava culture in Assam – would perhaps be incomplete without the mention of Hem Chandra Goswami.

Goswami, from the island’s Samaguri Satra, may be known for his expertise in the field of make-up used in Sattriya, the classical dance form introduced by saint-scholar Sankardeva in 16th century Assam, but it is his contribution to mask-making that makes Goswami stand out. The masks are yet another unique art form that Sankardeva introduced and Goswami adopted.

Over the last 35 years, Goswami has taught a large number of students how to make the traditional masks used in Bhaona, a folk theatre form. Sankardeva propagated this form to relate to the people the religious plays that he wrote. Goswami will be remembered for his additional contribution to this form, for creating a unique set of ‘speaking’ masks with bamboos that help the actors deliver dialogues while wearing them.

Goswami exhibited some of his distinctive creations at the Rongali festivalm, a three-day annual festival in Guwahati, which took place between February 4 and February 6 this year. Fragments of Majuli culture in the capital city attracted a lot of attention from visitors. The culture of Bhaona makes a rare appearance in Guwahati these days.

Performers from Goswami’s institute in Majuli, Sukumar Kala Kendra, obliged the interest and staged Sankardeva’s play Kalia Daman at the festival using masks.

In an interview with The Wire, Goswami speaks about his journey and the art of mask-making, from how it what it may have been like in Sankardeva’s times to the present-day challenges.

The bamboo base made for the masks. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

The bamboo base made for the masks. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty


You have been running a one-of-a-kind mask-making institute in Majuli. What courses do you offer? Who are your students?

I have been running the school since 1984. It is not the only place where you can learn mask-making in Majuli, since all the satras practice the art form – but ours is certainly the only one which teaches the basics of dance (Sattriya) and music (Borgeet) that Sankardev propagated in the island along with mask-making. We have woven these important aspects of the island’s culture to the theory and practical lessons in mask-making. The idea is to address those who are interested in the major cultural forms that the island is known for.

Having said that, I want to add that the school doesn’t have any fixed term. Anyone can start anytime. It can be in the form of a 15-day workshop, or can stretch to a six-month or a year-long course depending on how deep the student wants to go.

Though by now, I have many local students, some of whom have taken it up as a profession. And for some years now, I have also been getting students from different parts of the world, besides from other parts of India. Presently, I have about 20 students at various levels of learning from both India and countries like France, Germany and Israel.

Though some may look at the art of mask-making in Majuli as a religious form – since our characters are mostly related to the Bhagavad Gita – but I feel no art form can be confined to one religion. Its scope is much wider than that – art is neutral to religion.

Considering it is an important folk art form in Assam, does the institute receive any patronage from the state or the central government’s arts bodies, like the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA)?

It doesn’t receive any patronage from the state government or the LKA. Ideally, it is the job of the LKA to promote this unique culture of mask-making in Majuli but it has not done anything yet. Instead, it is the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Kolkata chapter that has called me a few times to conduct workshops on the art form and also on the special make-up used in Sattriya at Kalakshetra in Guwahati besides acknowledging my work in the form of an award, etc.

Apart from that, there have been some efforts at the individual level to promote mask-making. For instance, there was an exhibition of my masks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in August, 2016. The masks were exhibited in the area where a part of the Vrindabani Vastra – the drape woven by Assamese weavers at the guidance of Sankardeva on the childhood of Lord Krishna – is displayed. That was an additional reason for me to feel honoured.

I strongly feel that the Assam government particularly needs to make efforts towards preserving this unique heritage that we have. Since Majuli is now the constituency of chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, I appeal to him to do something to secure the future of mask-making.

Masks are a popular form of folk art in many parts of the country. What makes the masks of Majuli different?

Our masks are used in folk drama – they are not just for decorative purposes. The lines on the masks are very strong and sharp; there is a lot of attention given to finesse.

Also, they differ from many other forms of masks because of the materials used to make them. We primarily use bamboo and cane, no plaster of paris is used – only local mud. No synthetic colours are used. The colours are made from leaves, seeds and flowers and also stones. Interestingly, the stones we use to produce the colours – ‘hengul’ (red) and ‘haital’ (yellow) – are found in present-day Rajasthan. There are no known mines of these stones in Assam. So we have a reason to believe that Sankardeva brought those stones from his travels outside the region, which were used to produce the two primary colours for the masks. I feel we need more study on this aspect.

Also, some of the very old masks found in Majuli were made of wood. The art of making wooden masks is popular in the eastern Himalayas, so I guess wood was also used to make the masks. Perhaps, acting while wearing a heavy wooden mask must have been difficult, leading Sankardeva to think of making masks made of lighter materials, like the bamboo.

The masks of Majuli can also ‘speak’ as they are made in such a way that an actor wearing the mask also can move the jaws.

Yes, they do. But that is my contribution to the traditional art form. I worked on that technique which helped to take the form a step forward. Now, when an actor wearing such a mask delivers his dialogue, he looks more real. Though organisations like the LKA are yet to acknowledge it, I am very proud of thinking up an indigenous way of doing it without using any spring, etc. It is done by clever use of bamboo in the jaw area.

A mask on display at Rongali festival in Guwahati. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

A mask on display at Rongali festival in Guwahati. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

These masks are based on mythology. What exactly comprises the spectrum of characters?

The idea of having masks was to give more vigour, more intensity and a sense of reality to the stories related in the distinctive Assamese folk theatre form that Sankardeva came up with, the Bhaona. The Bhaonas replicate the six plays or Ankiya Nat that he wrote, mostly based on Bhagavad Gita. Though it is believed that he wrote at least 10 plays, but only six are available. So Bhaona enacts those six plays by using the masks.

Each mask is made as per the description Sankardeva gave in those plays. He described their faces, their get-up. The satras of Majuli have kept those descriptions alive through the masks.

The characters that we make are mainly based on Krishna Leela. If I give the names of the plays here, it will give a reader unknown to the art form a good idea about the characters. They are named Rukmini Haran, Kaliya Damana, Parijata Haran, Rama Vijaya, Keli Gopala and Patni Prasada. So the spectrum comprise both human and animal and bird faces – crane, snake, Bokasura, Putona, Suparnakha, Rukmini, Sita, Rama, Krishna, et al.

Since these masks are used mainly in Bhaona, so their use is minimal, considering Bhaonas are held mostly in the winter months. Doesn’t that limit the demand for mask making?

Yes, it does. This limited use has become a challenge for the survival of the art form in some ways. The artists typically get work only in the Bhaona season. Also, many of the masks, particularly the big ones, cost more money, so they are repeated in various performances and are also lent out to other groups. So the artists may only get to repair such big masks in a particular year. They end up making only the comparatively smaller masks that year. Also the budget for the Bhaona performances, particularly in the villages and small towns, is also not so high. The areas which can have a big budget Bhaona, say in cities like Guwahati or Jorhat, hardly have any performance. This limited opportunity often discourages artists to take up mask making as a means of livelihood; they end up as hobbies or at best, a seasonal means of livelihood.

Have you made any attempt to expand their use outside of Bhaona, to have it as a possible means of livelihood for practitioners throughout the year?

Yes, I have, and I am glad to share with your readers that we have been able to make a small headway in our effort. Besides making masks for the Bhaona and also taking up the work of repairing old masks for those performances, we have been successful in tapping a small market for the masks of the same traditional faces but made in smaller forms, which can be used as mementos, gifts and as decorative items. Lately, we have begun getting bulk orders for shops, meetings and other events, etc. With a rise in the number of tourists visiting Majuli, the demand for such masks has also grown.

We have also begun making masks of animal and bird faces for circuses and for mobile theatres if the story demands it. We also made masks for a feature film some years ago.

I have chosen ten of my students to take up mask making as a full-time means of livelihood. Now the endeavour is to link the art form to modern theatre so that more people can look at it as a means of livelihood. What I am looking at is creating a form of theatre which can have modern, day-to-day stories but can be told through masks, the same way the Bhaona does. In 2000, we did a rendition of Ramayana at the Guwahati Kalakshetra where all the characters wore masks except the sutradhar (narrator). It was a success. So now the idea is to take it a step forward and help it enter the realm of modern theatre.

Are the annual floods in Majuli a challenge to the craft of mask-making?

The floods have been a huge challenge. Over the years, many of my creations were swept away by the waters of the Brahmaputra. I have swum in the surging waters to bring back my masks. When the waters enter the island, the time we get to safe-keep our belongings is very little, so we always rush between saving our household things and the pieces of art that we make.

Some years ago, I built a small concrete room in front of my house with shelves on the walls to store the masks during the rainy season but they still got damaged due to heavy moisture in the air. Also, not all masks can be put on those shelves. Some masks are too big for that space. We certainly need better storage facilities for all the masks in Majuli which we as artistes can’t manage to get ourselves because they need a scientific approach and also funds. We are forever caught struggling to make a living as artistes.

You also make something that can be called bamboo sculptures – a novelty in Assam that is getting popular. How did you develop that idea?

I got the idea from the bamboo strips that we traditionally use to make the base for the masks. I felt these basic shapes can themselves be a form of art if I can refine them a bit. I added the style of local basket weaving into it, which leaves a round hollow every now and then. It gave the raw form of the masks the much-needed aesthetics to stand out on their own. Since 2004, I have made various such sculptures. The experiment turned out to be a success. It has got a lot of notice now. The possibilities of art with bamboo are immense; there is no dearth of talent either; what we need are avenues to experiment more such things and patronage from various institutions so that they can be linked to means of livelihood.