People in skirts made of sharuli grass celebrate Faguli in Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh
People in skirts made of sharuli grass celebrate Faguli in Tirthan Valley, Himachal PradeshPhoto: Vipul Sokhiya, Documentary Photographer

Exploring Indian Culture Through The Lens Of Dresses And Masks

Characters, symbols, and concepts associated with history, mythology, fantasy, and culture are represented by ritualistic dresses and masks

Costumes have an important role to play in traditional festivities throughout India. Layered with symbolic essence, they give communities a cultural identity and sense of belonging.

"Masks and costumes have been a part of ritualistic traditions in India for many centuries," says Siddhartha Tagore, the great-grandnephew of Rabindranath Tagore, veteran art connoisseur and founder of the Art Konsult gallery in New Delhi.

The costumes and performances are part of rituals that have evolved in different social and historical contexts, and they take various shapes that reflect regional characteristics.

"Take Majuli, for instance," says Tagore. "People there have been making masks and costumes to celebrate festivals," he explains. The island is known to be the seat of the neo-Vaishnavite culture of Assam and houses satras, or monasteries, which predate the island's birth. Raas Utsav is a celebration of 500 years of cultural and artistic contributions by the various satras in Majuli, involving song, dance, and dialogue in a performing art form depicting the life story of Lord Krishna. The centrepieces are incredible masks made of natural materials.

A Padayani artist at the Padayani festival celebrated in Kadammanitta Temple, Kerala
A Padayani artist at the Padayani festival celebrated in Kadammanitta Temple, KeralaPhoto: Shutterstock

Celebrating Seasons

"There are also masks and costumes in places like Ladakh and Himachal, where Buddhism is prevalent," says Tagore. "Here, the masks, symbolic and ritualistic objects in some tenets of Buddhism, are believed to embody wrathful, protective deities and inspire fear in the hearts of evil forces. Some are used for rituals that take place annually in various regions to mark the beginning of the year or when the seasons change. In some places like Odisha, you will witness the use of masks to perform in theatre forms like jatra. In Bengal, Purulia is famous for Chhau dance. In Kerala, you have the striking theyyam masks and costumes. Every region has a deeply entrenched culture of such costumes during festivals. They reflect diversity as well as similarities."

Masked rituals in festivals also serve as a crucial link between the past and present among non-literate groups that cannot document their own history, providing a feeling of historical continuity that reinforces their social bond.

Faguli, one of India's most unusual spring festivals, is supposed to ward off evil spirits. This is an important festival in the Himachal Pradesh's mountain village of Tirthan Valley, and is named after "falgun," the twelfth month of the Indian calendar. During the festival, people wear masks and skirts made of sharuli grass collected from nearby forests. The grass is washed and dried, and then woven into a chola (a long, thick skirt) by artisans from the neighbouring village of Chehni. This particular weaving ability is passed down over generations.

Days before the festival, the men of the village community convene, and six are chosen to don the long, heavy chola and dance at the festival. No one is allowed to approach the chosen men near the celebration. When Faguli begins, they appear in their skirts, their faces hidden by masks, flowers on their heads, and a bright shawl to keep them warm in the winter.

Introduced by the Portuguese and celebrated since the 18th century, the grand parade during the Goa Carnival also features musicians, acrobats, dancers, and people dressed in inventive costumes.

Preserving Cultures

Sometimes, costumes and masks can also play a role in preserving traditional cultures. Sneha Bhattacharya, Manager of Project and Research at Bangla Natak, a social enterprise working across India with a mission to foster inclusive and sustainable development using culture-based approaches, talks about this through the example of Chhau dance in Purulia.

Clockwise: The grand parade of the Goa Carnival; a Buddhist festival at Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim; a Sattriya artist getting ready for his performance in Majuli, Assam
Clockwise: The grand parade of the Goa Carnival; a Buddhist festival at Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim; a Sattriya artist getting ready for his performance in Majuli, AssamPhotos: Getty Images

"Chhau dance is practised across West Bengal's Purulia, Mayurbhanj in Odisha and Jharkhand's Seraikela. Mayurbhanj Chhau has no masks. If you try to do a relational study between the other two, you will see that Purulia's masks and costumes are much more grandiose."

She explains that traditionally, the masks and costumes used were minimalistic. "But as and when Purulia Chhau got inscribed in UNESCO, and Chhau dance became an identity to mark the culture of the district, the vibrancy of the masks and costumes also increased in direct proportion."

She links the transformation that took place in the district to the mask's growing fame. "At one point, Purulia was identified as a Maoist place," she says. "Since 2010, Purulia has seen an upsurge in tourist footfall. And we have seen a shift in the district's identity. Chhau comes into the narrative whenever we are positioning Purulia as a cultural hotspot. It is because cultural heritage was saved by retaining this cultural component that tourism prospered and benefitted the community."

Bhattacharya, who is currently also pursuing her PhD on Chhau dance of Purulia, says that though masks in Purulia Chhau are primarily of gods and goddesses, some are also of animals. Mythological and real animals continue to be a major component of folk-religion, occupying a hallowed spot in the communities' consciousness, she explains.

"This stems from the fact that our mythological narratives reflect animals as protective. Even when Purulia's Chhau dance is enacting mythological tales, these animal masks become emblematic of local beliefs and cultures."

A Similarity In Diversity

Tagore explains that the use of masks and costumes in festivals and in performance art is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia. "They are a very important part of the culture. In some places like Thailand, Indonesia, etc., mask-making traditions travelled from India. The Indians who settled there brought the story of Ramayana. If you go to Thailand, besides Buddhism, you will see that Ganesha too is worshipped (as Phra Phikanet or Phra Phikanesuan)."

Participating in the ceremonies and donning costumes helps strengthen local people's identities, fostering a sense of community. They collaborate to create and perform costume-based rituals, acting as practitioners in charge of conveying traditional knowledge.

In Kerala, masks have their own space in traditional art forms, adding to the aesthetic appeal of a variety of performances. They are an essential part of most celebrations, whether it is the mythology-themed Padayani or Kummatti Kali, the famous mask dance. In Padayani, from the erstwhile Travancore, performers wear elaborate costumes and masks and use a variety of props and instruments to enhance the performance. Tiered headgear may sometimes be included.

The masks depict kolams, holy figures, and spirits. Frequently depicted characters include the Yakshi kolam, Pakshi kolam, Pishachu kolam, Bhairavi kolam, Ganapathi kolam, Gandharvan kolam, and Mukilan kolam. They are made of natural materials, such as silk, coconut leaves, Indian medler flowers, areca wood strips, etc. Even the paints used are made from natural materials.

Transcending Reality

Sometimes, the costumes and makeup have a transforming and concealing potential. For instance, the costumes at the Charak festival, also known as Charak Gajan, dating back to pre-colonial Bengal. It was referenced by famed poet and playwright Kaliprassanna Singha, who wrote under the pen name Hutom Pyancha in "Hutom Pyanchar Naksha." The festival, held in April, is known for its flamboyance, pantomimes, and some jaw-dropping rituals. During the festival, people dress up and dance, assuming themselves as Nandi and Bhringi (devotees of Lord Shiva).

In some villages, children portray themselves as Lord Shiva or Lord Krishna, wearing costumes and painting their faces in blue or white. People dress up as Shiva and Parvati or even Krishna and other deities. "Their dressing up serves as the impersonification of deities," says Bhattacharya. "The usage of masks and costumes enables the artist to transcend the immediate reality and present a supra reality, temporarily." All masks and costumes are also handicrafts, but when they align themselves in festivals with performing arts, they create a spectacle where the tangibility of the costumes takes a backseat and their role in creating a supra reality frame.

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