The quaint village of Mahisbathan in Kushmandi district in the heritage belt of Dakshin Dinajpur is famous for its unique wooden masks. The origin of this craft of mask making is unknown but the stylization, designs and motifs of the masks suggests a deep connection to their religious beliefs. These masks are an intrinsic part of the Rajbongshi tribe of the ancient kingdom of Koch. Rajbongshi or Rajbanshi literally means royal community and these ‘mukhas’ as they are called play a vital role in their renowned Gomira dance.
Gomira comes from a colloquial word gram chandi which means female deity. Traditionally two types of wooden masks are made, the heavier one that is used for decorative purposes and the lighter ceremonial one which is worn for the dance. Gomira dance is organized in each village by their dance troupe at least once a year during the important Bengali months of Baisakh, Jyesta and Asarh. It is quite common to see this dance during the puja of Amat Kali and Smashana Kali as each village here has a temple dedicated to a form of Devi. The influence of Shakta is discernible with only men taking on different roles to portray one or many characters of animals, ladies and men.
Gomira dances have two distinctive patterns namely the traditional one based on folklore where the main characters enacted are of buro–buri (folk interpretation of Shiva – Parvathi), Smashana Kali, Masana Kali, bagha (tiger), Narasingha, Shiknidhal, Dakini Bishwal, Signi Bishwal, demons and others and the Ram Vanavas which plays out Lord Rama’s exile in the forest and his search for Sita Mata. Ram Vanavasa is seen during the Dussehra festival drawing large crowds from different parts of Bengal and Assam.
The accompaniment of dhak and kansar adds to the theatrical movements of the dancers who believe that the mask gives them divine power and sends them into a state of trance. The dancers propitiate the guardian deity for a prosperous harvest in the coming year and usher in good forces and drive out evil spirits.
Villagers promise a certain type and number of masks to their revered deity when they want their prayers to be answered. It can be said in simplistic terms that the craft of Gomira mask making caters to the needs of the dancers and villagers and the act of offering a mask is equal to making an offering to their guardian deity. The face mask of the principal character is deemed complete only when the supporting characters who are considered to be an extension of the main character are also skilfully crafted in the same theme.
These masks used to be made from Neem tree earlier though now the artists use the wood of the locally available gamar tree or mango, pakur, kadam, gamhar and teak. These masks are either gaily painted or plain.
The artisan begins the elaborate process of mask making by cutting a log of wood based on the sizes of the masks. The wood is then split into blocks of about 3 – 4 feet and immersed in water. This makes the wood soft and aids the cutting and crafting stage.
A basic form is created using banshla or adze and a broad chisel and hammer are used to carve out the final shape. The front side of the mask is first completed and then the rear side is chiselled to fit the face of the dancer. Mouth, eyes and nose are hollowed out using a chisel.
This is followed by fine chiselling which takes about 4 – 5 days depending on the complexity of the mask. Smoothening of the mask is done using sand papers of various grades. The masks are painted in natural dyes with black hue coming from the fruits of Basatbot tree or from jia tree, red from the leaves of teak, green from the leaves of sheem and violet from jamun. These are mixed with the sap obtained from bael or powdered tamarind seeds. The masks are given two coats of natural varnish of Terpenes that is collected from the local pine tree to make it smooth and durable.
Each and every mask has a distinctive style and colour based on the character that it will be depicting (for example, Jambavan’s mask is always painted in deep violet). It is surprising that these wooden masks are relatively unknown outside of Bengal. The knowledge, skill and excellence of this wooden craft is spectacular to say the least and one hopes that this centuries-old craft will be introduced to the Western World soon.
As the Rajbongshi tribe attribute divinity and religious significance to these Gomira masks, it is only appropriate that they must be respected accordingly. These ritualistic masks received the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2018.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)