Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Masks of Bangladesh

Page 1301Pohela Boishakh is one of Bengal’s most loved festivals. We all celebrate this festival irrespective of our cultural or religious differences.

White and red saris, panjabis and uttorios are happily worn by everyone. We enjoy taking part in Boishakhi rallies and fairs and feasting on hilsha and panta bhat. Men and women of all ages have reveled in this event for decades.

In Bangladesh, many of our cultural festivals are celebrated with local handicrafts and Pohela Boishakh is no exception.

The mask is an object worn over or in front of the face to hide the identity of a person and by its own features to establish another being. This essential characteristic of hiding and revealing personalities or moods is common to all masks. As cultural objects they have been used throughout the world in all periods and have been as varied in appearance as in their use and symbolism.

Masks have been designed in innumerable varieties, from the simplest of crude “False Faces” held by a handle to complete head coverings with ingenious movable parts and hidden faces. Among the materials used are wood, different metals, shells, fibers, ivory, clay, horns, stones, feathers, leather, fur, paper, cloth, and cornhusks.

With few exceptions, the morphological elements of masks derive from natural forms. Masks with human features are classified as anthropomorphic and those with animal characteristics as theomorphic. They usually represent supernatural beings, ancestors, and fanciful or imagined figures, and can also be portraits.

The use of masks in rituals or ceremonies is a very ancient human practice across the world, although masks can also be worn for protection, in hunting, in sports, in feasts or in wars  or simply used as ornamentation.

Some ceremonial or decorative masks were not designed to be worn. Although the religious use of masks has waned, they are used sometimes in drama therapy or psychotherapy.
Page 1302The oldest masks that have been discovered are 9,000 years old, being held by the Musée “Bible et Terre Sainte” (Paris), and the Israel Museum. Most probably the practice of wearing masks is much older  the earliest known anthropomorphic artwork is circa 30,000 — 40,000 years old  but in so far as it involved the use of war-paint, leather, vegetative material or wooden masks, the masks probably have not been preserved.

Nothing can be said with certainty about why when and how humankind started to use masks. Yet it can be assumed that, from time immemorial, human beings started using these masks out of their respect to or their fear of miraculous souls as well as out of a folk belief to communicate with supernatural powers.

There are more or less different types of masks in vogue throughout this world, and Bangladesh is reasonably no exception. Matter-of-factly, masks have an intimate relationship with dance and acting, along with various religious customs, rituals and festivals.

Ritual masks occur throughout the world, and although they tend to share many characteristics, highly distinctive forms have developed.

The function of the masks may be magical or religious; they may appear in rites of passage or as a make-up for a form of theatre. Equally masks may disguise a penitent or preside over important ceremonies; they may help mediate with spirits, or offer a protective role to the society who utilises their powers.

For example, Sandaenori is a Korean traditional masked dance drama represents a significant amount of financial support. They used to play comedy with mask on social issues such as the immorality of Buddhist monks and the corruption of the noble class.

At present, there are two types of mask art in Bangladesh –one is the traditional type, the other more modern. Artists of the traditional style make faces or structures of masks with paper pulp, wood, cloth, Indian cork; and then they paint them with different colours and/or design them with different materials on them.

In Bangladesh, people from communities like Malakar, Sutradhar (carpenters), Karmakar (blacksmith) and Kumar (potters) are mainly involved in making traditional masks. These masks range from different gods and goddesses like Durga, Kali, Shiva to different animals like tigers, cows, buffalos, etc.
Masks of different religious and mythical characters are generally used as part of religious festivals like masks of the Kalikach as part of the Hazra festival in Chaitra Sankranti, the last day of the Bengali calendar. This is observed in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The masks of Shiva and Parvati are used for the purpose of the Del songs as part of the Neel Puja. But other types of masks used for Jatrapalas (or plays in village theatres) or for entertainment purposes have no relationship with religious rituals, pilgrimages or festivals. We can call these the masks of entertainment. Moreover, there are some other types of masks generally used for religious purposes in the past but they are now used for entertainment alone.

In Bangladesh, different regions like Faridpur, Jessore, Magura, Rangpur, Rajshahi, Naogaon, Tangail and Dhaka are famous for these traditional masks.

In post-Independence Bangladesh, from the 1980s on to be precise, another type of mask that is increasingly gaining popularity is the mask of Pohela Boishakh, the first day of the Bengali calendar. It started from the grand rally (known as Mangolshobhajatra) brought out by the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University.

Artists of the Arts Institutes make these masks. The main features of which are nonreligious symbols. Many art lovers collect these masks for home décor. You can easily make a wall feature with traditional or modern masks.

By Nazneen Haque Mimi
Interior Consultant
Photo credit: Journeyman
Special thanks to Shawon Akand, Jolrong