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The mask is a primitive art creation of mankind. It can be termed as a primordial manifestation of art. In the guise of a mask people are capable of making symbolic acts, expressions of humour, fear and pretending to be larger in shape etc. of certain anthropomorphic, aesthetical being, whereas common faces or figural gestures are unable to imitate or express faithfully those particular characters. And over the course of time mask making became a distinguished art form. The word ‘mask’ came via French ‘masque’ or perhaps either Italian ‘maschera’ or Spanish ‘mascara’, possible ancestors are Latin (not classical) ‘mascus’, where ‘masaca’ means ghost.

The use of masks has been prevalent since the primitive age in Assam along with entire world. The urge for mask making can be seen in a bid to depict the shape of a horrifying object on an earthen pitcher with lime marks beside a pumpkin creeper or on an effigy made of straw to scare away birds and insects in the paddy fields. Like the Bhakti movement initiated by the great Guru Srimanta Sankardeva formed the Assamese race through songs, dramas, musical instruments, Bhaonas, Nam- Kirtan etc. So also the mask making has been transformed into a distinct art form conferring it a separate status. Mask has got a concrete shape in Bhaonathe novel creation of Sankardeva to propagate his Bhakti dharma.

Floating like a breakaway branch of water hyacinth on the mighty Brahmaputra River, Majuli is a national treasure not only because it is the world’s largest reverine island but also the nucleus of Assam’s cultural heritage – the 15th century Neo-Vaishnava tradition. Led by Assamese saint and social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva, this religious movement triggered a cultural renaissance through music and the arts with the establishment of satras (monastic centres).

Majuli flourished culturally after the arrival of Srimanta Sankaradeva there and observed the legacy of sociocultural reformations of Neo- Vaisnavism. The island has been centre of Neo Vaishnavaite experimentations, initiated around 15th century by Srimanta Sankaradeva as establishment of Belguri Dhuwahat Satra in west Majuli, first satra in Majuli for preaching of Eksaran Naam Dhrama or preaching names of Supreme God. After that sixty five Satra were established, although not all Satras were successful in keeping this tradition alive.

Dr. Raj Kumar Mazinder: Dada, how would you define mask making in Assam, its uniqueness and development.
HG: Mask making is a special craft not just of Majuli, but also of the entire state of Assam. Srimanta Sankardeva first used them in the enactment of his Bhaonas. Srimanta Sankaradeva wrote and staged the first drama, ‘Chihnajatra’ in 1493 in which he used masks according to character to attract people for devoutness to Hari, Supreme God of Bhakti doctrine. In the Guru Charit, written by Ramcharan Thakur it is mentioned that Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva at first made the masks of Brahma, Garuda and Siva. As mentioned in Guru Charit, ”Jarajiba bahana tahanka sajilanta Mukha banda kari, tara chow nirmilanta Gadurara mukha Sarbajaka dilanta ketaya khaye khola dobare dhorilanta Brahma mukhaka Santaraye pindhi goi/ a Ram Ram gurura prabesha jebe voila Harara mukhaka pindhi range dhwaja goila Ahara Baikunthaka niya tanka thapi thoila” (Sarbajay was given the mask of Garuda, Santaray wore the mask of Brahma and Ram Ram Guru wore the mask of Hara).

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