Mask is a three dimensional facial portrait used as a covering for the face either as a protective screen or disguise. Use of mask is universal. But its origin is obscure. It is found in both the advanced and the simple societies. Functional role of mask in advanced societies is superficial. Its use is restricted to festive or ceremonial occasions predominated by fun and frolic. It has nothing to do with the events of socio-religious if. Mask has, therefore, failed to make deep penetration in urban culture. But it is widely used among the illiterate mass of simple technology with special reference to the tribal and the rural folk. West Bengal enjoys a unique position in the Indian cultural map in this perspective.
Mask and mask dance
Different forms of traditional mask dance are in existence in many parts of West Bengal. Out of 16 districts of the State, this dance is prevalent in seven districts-Purulia, Bankura, Midnapore, Malda, West Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.it is widely practiced almost all over the districts. Such dance in Midnapore is performed in a few selected places like Jhargram, Chikligarh, Dubra and chandri. The performance of mask dance is very much restricted in Bankura. It is strictly confined in Bishnupur. There it is performed only in one place and that too, once in year Use of mask both in dance and folk drama was very popular in Jalpaiguri District. But these performing arts have now dwindled down to vestigial form. Only the defunct masks may be found in one or two places, if searched thoroughly,’ Kalinach’ is ritual dance of East Bengal (new a sovereign independent country Bangladesh). After the partition of Bengal, the immigrant Hindus are practicing this ritual mask dance in West Bengal, particularly in bordering districts like Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, West Dinajpur, Malda, Nadia, North and South 24 Parganas. Here in these regions the concentration of the immigrant people is more and cultural elements of East Bengal are traced among the local population. Commenting on the predominance of mask dance in West Bengal, the cultural elements of East Bengal are traced among the local population. Commenting on the predominance of mask dance in West Bengal, 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.
Mask in West Bengal is mostly used in dance. Rhythmic music and musical instrument of specific types are associated with each category of mask dance. Again each one has its own distinct choreography. It is thus apparent that mask dance of each district has peculiarity of its own. For their individual salient feature in three basic aspects like dance form, accompanying musical instruments and rhythmic music, mask dance of each district has been specified by specific name for their individual identity.The name of some of the specified and well known dances are ‘Chho’ of Purulia, Rabankata of Bankura, Gambhira of Malda, Gamira of West Dinajpur and Devil Dance of Darjeeling. In their existing form they enjoy relative importance in the performing arts of west Bengal. Not to speak of the dance, even the masks prepared in respective structural form. They, therefore, markedly differ from one another. The masks of each district are identified by the name of the dance with which they are associated Distinguishing features are also notably observed among the masks prepared by the tribal and the nontribals.
Tribal and Nontribal mask
The Santals of purulia, Rabhas of Jalpaiguri, Bhutia, Lepcha and others of Darjeeling participate in mask dance among the tribal. Mask dance among the Santals of Purulia is an innovation. Though very much limited, they practice ‘Chho’, the regional dance following other ethnic groups of the regional population. But they themselves do not prepare the mask.
They purchase them from the local craftsmen as the nontribals do for the purpose. But the Rabhas of North Bengal prepare their own mask. The Buddhist Bhutias and the Lepchas of Darjeeling also do the same.
The no tribal mask are prepared by the hereditary professional village carpenters. They are, therefore, very beautifully carved. On the contrary the tribal masks are carved by the tribal themselves who are not so efficient in wood carving. The no tribal masks are colorful and are, therefore, very beautiful to look at. With conceptual form of Hindu deities backed up by excellent carving and painting, the no tribal masks assume more or less classical form. The tribal masks are painted by the tribal themselves as there is no hereditary features not only in carving but also in painting. At the sometime the tribal masks are given shape in conformity with the conception of their deities different from the Hindu gods and goddesses. As such the tribal masks exhibit marked difference with the no tribal masks almost in every aspect.
Different categories of material are used for the preparation of masks in West Bengal. Leaving aside the Chho mask of purulia, wood is the principal constitutuent material for the mask in rest of the districts. Substitute materials are casually made use of. Rituals purity and and convenience in carving are the two primary factors taken into account in the selection of wood for this purpose. Masks of Purulia are made exclusively with three materials-Clay, old cloth and paper by process which is peculiar of its kind. Clay and pith are the two additional materials made use of for mask in Malda. Pith is the principal substitute material in West Dinajpur District. Paper pulp as an additional material is also put to use in the preparation of tribal mask in Darjeeling District. Big size mask like Dragon and others which cannot be executed with wood, are given shape with the help of paper pulpe. The tribal folk of Jalpaiguri District use bambook strips as the material in giving shape to their masks. Though these additional material are made use of, but the wooden masks are mainly used in all these districts by both the tribals and the nontribals.
The value of mask in society cannot be comprehended without assessing their functional role, in this context it may be mentioned that belief in spirit plays a very important role among the rural folk. They propitiate both the benevolent and the malevolent spirits. It is though the structural form of the mask they try to give concrete shape to their ideas on the anthropomorphic form of diety. Folk beliefs are integrally associated with the functional role of mask. The rural folk believe that masks enjoy the potentiality of harboring the spirit. Not all the masks have the same capacity. Certain powerful deities can only cast their spell on the masks specified for them. Therefore the illiterate rural folk try to propitiate the spirit possessed by mask by various ways and means of which worship, dance etc., are by far the most conspicuous. Mask dance is, therefore, counted as an inseparable event in some of the annual tribal and folk festivals. It is counted as ritual dances and is performed in specific period of time. Masks are often used in religious procession to enhance its glamour with a view to attract the attention of the on-lookers. Sight of mask sometimes entertains the assembled gathering and helps in rousing their religious sentiment. This sentiment often paves the way for involving people in the festival in their respective capacity. The old wooden masks believed to have spiritual influence are kept in the temple as a sacred object. These temple masks mingled with religious sentiment are never used in dance performance. The masks of Sakti icons occupy the most significant position in mask dance both in folk belief and dance performance. Predominance of Sakti in this field Leads one to think about the influence of Tantra in the mask dance of West Bengal. Being impregnated with religious beliefs and practices, the masks has made deep penetration in the cultural life of the simple folk both tribals and nontribals. Study of mask is therefore, counted as an important channel for understanding the folk way of life.
The masks in West Bengal are prepared by the local traditional craftsmen. They are in general colorful and decorative and also exhibit the creditability of the craftsmen in the execution of their craftsmanship. The decorative mask as prepared by the rural traditional craftsmen in conformity with the local conception to satisfy the need of the rural traditional craftsmen in conformity with the local conception to satisfy the need of the rural folk, stands as an example of folk art. Aesthetic sense, artistic merit and technological skill of the craftsmen are expressed through this craftwork. Mask as folk art, may therefore, be studied from the aesthetic stand point. Such study helps to assess the conception attitude and technological skill of local craftsmen in giving shape to such are pieces.
Apart from the religious sphere, both mask and mask dance directly and indirectly cast their influence on social life. A good mask dancer and a seasoned wood carver enjoy social recognition which is very much counted in the village cultural environment. Mask dance affords the scope of recreation in social life which is another direct impact of this performing art in cultural sphere. Social ceremonies and religious festivals are intermingled with recreational activities in rural belt. These are the occasions when the villagers derive enjoyment out of different performances. Mask dance is mostly associated with religious festivals. The organizers, performers and audience-All try to derive enjoyment out of it. Mask dance is thereby counted as one of the channels of recreation in the rural cultural environment.
It is the convention in rural societies that the well-to-do section of the population should look after the smooth functioning of the traditional cultural activities associated with village life. The upper caste people in West Bengal, therefore, sincerely desire for the continuation of mask dance directly connected with the traditional village festivals. They take lot of interesting it and patronize the organizers of the function by making financial contribution and occasionally take active part in management and organizational matters. While moving out in procession through village, the dancers usually prefer to assemble in the courtyard of the well-to-do upper caste families and demonstrate the performance for a short while in expectation of financial contribution. If a domicile is omitted in the process, the concerned family takes offence in it and asks for explanation for such avoidance. Mask dance thus paves they way for maintaining coordination between the lower caste performers and the upper caste patrons.
In rural Bengal the upper caste people are in general well-to-do in comparison to the lower caste groups and they possess the major portion of the cultivable land of the village. The lower caste people are mostly the landless agricultural laborers and some of them are share croppers .Majority of the villagers work in the cultivable land within the perimeter of the village owned by the upper caste people. Under the prevailing circumstances there is scope for generation of tension within the village between the working class and the land owners out of agricultural operation. Mask dance generally takes place during the lean agricultural season when the working class enjoys some rest and indulges in marry-making through certain festivals with which mask dance is associated. It is a traditional affair. All the sections of the villages consider it their responsibility for the propagation of this traditional event. The land owners sometimes take advantage of the situation. They come forward with helping hand to extend necessary help in organizing the function. As it is a traditional major festival of the down trodden, the lower caste groups take it as golden opportunity and accept the help gladly to overcome the financial hurdle that stands in the way of organizing the festival. Thus close lesion between the land owners and the cultivators grows up in the process and this friendly cooperation though village festival dissipates the tension which is sometimes created among them during the agricultural season. As such one of the indirect impacts of mask dance is that it helps to maintain the group solidarity, cohesion and friendly relation among the villagers.
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