Narrating mask use in age-old traditional performances

Cultural Correspondent | Published: 22:34, Apr 13,2018 | Updated: 00:35, Apr 14,2018

 
 

A Dhaka University fine arts student makes mask for Mangal Shobhajatra. — Sanaul Haque

Use of masks in traditional ritualistic performances available in Bangladesh can be traced back to pre Buddhist era dated back 2500 years ago.
Masks are used in traditional performing art forms to create supra-personae. Mask making has become popular among experimental artists who are making diverse masks employing various techniques and mediums. Colourful masks decorated with folk motifs are widely used during Pahela Baishakh celebrations. Besides, many use masks to decorate their homes.
‘Masks are used to portray characters in theatrical and ritualistic performances. Mask helps create supra-personae for the actors to impersonate the characters they enact’, said Syed Jamil Ahmed, professor of theatre and performance arts of Dhaka University.
‘It is impossible to trace the origin of masks since it has been used since pre-historic times in different cultures and countries for different ritualistic and practical purposes. In this part of the world, we can find references supporting use of masks in Buddhist ritualistic performances’, said Syed Jamil Ahmed.
Masks were later introduced in many Hindu rituals like ritualistic performances glorifying Hindu deities Shiva and Kali.
‘In Buddhist rituals masks were a common element. Masks were later introduced in Hindu rituals, especially in rituals and ritual-dramas associated with lord Shiva and goddess Durga/Kali. The use of mask is still seen in mukha nach, ram-lila performance and in gambhiras sometimes’, said Afsar Ahmad, professor of drama and dramatics at Jahangirnagar University.
In recent years, use of masks has increased among the people living in urban areas. Masks have become an essential part of Pahela Baishakh celebrations across the country. People wearing masks of different sizes and motifs attend the Mangal Shobhajatra to welcome the Bangla New Year. Masks are also preferred as home decor items.
Artist Saidul Haque, who makes diverse masks, said, ‘For many art-lovers masks have become an essential part of their living room décor now-a-days. Many experimental masks made in a variety of mediums are popular these days’.
Two types of masks are usually seen at the Pahela Baishakh celebrations- masks with human features or faces (anthropomorphic) and masks with animal characteristics (theomorphic). Materials like wood, metal, shells, fibers, ivory, clay, horns, stones, feathers, leather, fur, paper, cloth, and cornhusks are used to make the masks.
‘Mask has become an integral part of Bangla New Year celebrations. The masks we usually see at Mangal Shobhajatra on Pahela Baishakh depict human faces or animal figures specially owl, which is a symbol of prosperity’, said Nisar Hossain.
Hossain, however, criticised the home affairs ministry’s ban on mask on Pahela Baishakh on security grounds. He thinks the ban will hamper the beauty and vibrancy of Mangal Shobhajatra, a UNESCO-recognised intangible cultural heritage.
‘We will, however, use large masks which will be held on hands at the shobhajatra’, informed Hossain.

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