The story behind that mask

I took part in a Chhau performance in Class six, and the memories of the vibrant costumes and uplifting beats of the dhols are hazy but intriguing. What I had performed was the Mayurbhanj Chhau, enacted sans masks. It is the Purulia Chhau that depends heavily on masks. The above information was my only understanding of the subject as I walked into Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) Mumbai office at Nariman Point last Tuesday to interview Shubha Srinivasan — the author of Masked Identities: Safeguarding India’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A Chhau dancer

“We identified two UNESCO forms in China, Japan, Indonesia and India and studied how each country is safeguarding its intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

The research findings are divided into modes of transmission, involvement of the artiste community, income level and safeguarding measures,” says Srinivasan, a professional tennis player and a Bharata Natyam dancer who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been an investment banker, before joining ORF last year after she relocated to India from New York in 2009.

The book includes detailed case studies of Kutiyattam and Chhau from India, Kabuki and Noh from Japan, Peking Opera and Kunqu from China and the Balinese dance forms from Indonesia. “Excellent work is being done at the grassroots level by NGOs like our case study partner INTACH, but there is a severe lack of policies. Buildings get heritage recognition and work has been done to restore them, but it is not so for the ICH. The northeast region in India sustains itself on the amount of money that China uses to protect one of its UNESCO recognised cultural expressions,” she rues.

The case studies of troupes and interviews with artistes reveal that many troupes sell their paddy to finance their performance. “The younger generation of the communities is seeing their teachers struggle to make ends meet. How will they feel inspired to take forward this tradition? We need ICH policy, not ad-hoc measures,” says Srinivasan.

The 2003 UNESCO convention for ICH that recognised masked performances as ICH has been taken as a midpoint to study what happened in the field of masked theatre before and after that period. The research expands to Kerala, Jharkhand, Purulia and 80 villages in Madhya Pradesh. The international data has been collected via secondary research.

Meanwhile, Kuttiyattam is the oldest theatre drama in southwestern state of Kerala which UNESCO in 2001 recognised as a ‘Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.’ “The goals of the study include having the efforts by stakeholders filtered down to artistes and future performances,” says Srinivasan, who hopes this book will help unmask the loopholes and resurrect this treasure trove of heritage.

Modes of Transmission
Excerpt from an interview with Shravan Mahato and Nepal Mahato, by Shubha Srinivasan, Bhagmundi District, Purulia, 24 December 2011

In addition to performing, most dancers are also involved in agriculture work. This part-time routine to preserve the dance form is not a new trend. According to the local community, the dance form is a part of their tradition and it is their duty to perform the rituals and safeguard the dance form for the next generation as a way of life. While the Seraikella style is trying to market itself as a classical dance form and speak of Chhau in terms of a career and a livelihood, the Purulia performers preserve it for its intrinsic value, defining their history and tradition. As Shravan Mahato, a performer at Bhagmundi aptly described the connectivity that the local people shared with Chhau, saying, “We had a drought the last two years and performance options decreased. The yield is better this year leading to additional local performances and celebrations.” His statement describes the central role of Chhau to the local community, integrated with their ritual and agriculture cycles. However, it is debatable if the next generation will retain the same level of passion to perform.

Masks, a way of life
The book tells you about the ritual and theatrical significance of masks, which have symbolic meaning across cultures, defining community and their way of life. Masked theatre is related to harvesting celebrations. The case of an eight year-old in Bhagmundi, West Bengal, who could identify over 85 Chhau dance masks, is intriguing. This shows individual identity and knowledge of tradition, the book explains.

Participants, dancers and mask makers begin preparations days before the performance. There are taboos and superstitions before each performance, and the dancers keep away from certain types of foods and even give up alcohol.

“Once an actor dons the mask, he is reborn as a different person. Artistes portray trees, mountains, gods, demons and protagonists through colours, shape and dimensions of the mask,” the book explains. 

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