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The quintessential mask
Arts Speak

The quintessential mask

Divya Menon

Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth!” The Mask - man’s quintessential ornament of all times, a psychological armor and so much more, both said and unsaid. Born in the complexities and idiosyncrasies of the multi-dimensional human mind akin to a crowded market place, the mask is a study in the art, science and philosophy of the alter-ego. The need to mask is perhaps as intimate as the need to exist. For centuries now, the mask has been man’s trusted mate, a fellow traveler across the various landscapes of his awareness, but what if the mask became the protagonist rather than a partner in crime? This story is about the ubiquitous mask that has not only stood the test of time and agents of change but has been a cultural constant that has long carved a niche for itself not only in man’s existential drama but also in culture and tradition, business and needless to say in the world of contemporary art and literature too.

The quintessential mask

Drawing from folklore the mask has existed in our space for over centuries, playing the role of an accompanist in most ceremonial events, often acting as a bridge between this world and the other beyond the reach of the eyes.

In India, the mask has always been an essential condiment of religious performances and traditional dramas where scenes from Hindu mythology find depiction. As a mode of expression, the mask thrives on imagination. Mostly prepared using bamboo, wood, papier mache, and then painted, masks are mainly used for ritualistic purposes or in dances like the martial dance of Chhau from West Bengal. In Kerala, the Kathakali dance art form with face painting creates the effect of a three dimensional mask narrating mythology, while in Theyyam the mask is not just the face but also an elaborate headgear costume. In Karnataka, the Yakshagana is also a consummate art form complete with brilliant masks.  And then there are masks that serve the purpose of keeping out the evil, like in Himachal Pradesh where these are placed at the entrance of homes to drive away negative spirits. Here masks play the role of a powerful protector.

The quintessential mask

Moving across the borders into Africa, the word art conjures images of exaggerated colourful masks that appear to have a life of their own, a voice of their own and a purpose too. African masks are multifarious and produced by the different tribes that populate the continent their masks are rich with imprints of their practices. Like in India, here too masks take birth in the dark alleys of rituals and traditions and have been passed over from one generation to the next. From spiritual occasions to weddings to funerals, masks have divine and deeper connotations. They are decorated with shells, hair of man and animals, horns, teeth and so on. Here masks attain a supernatural place and the person wearing the mask is believed to transform into a spirit, an honour that comes chasing only a chosen few!

In Japan too, masks are an indispensable part of culture and tradition. Ranging from demons to demi-Gods to warriors to comical figures and to the solemn, Japanese masks are varied in appearance and purpose too. If the Oni masks that are found during the Bean Throwing festival are demoniacal and meant to invoke fear, the Tengu masks that are common during Shinto festivals are demi-Gods who protect the mountains. The Kitsune or fox masks that find place during rituals invoke Inari, the Shinto God of rice and prosperity. The Hyottoko and Okkame masks are comical masks worn by the person enacting the role of a clown while the Noh-theatre masks are grave.

The quintessential mask

In Sierra Leone, the Sowei or the wooden helmet mask is all about women and fertility. Crafted by men, these masks are worn by elderly women of the Sande Society during ceremonies to appease ancestors who facilitate fertility, at the coming of age of young girls.

Take any part of this world and examine its cultural fabric, one will stumble upon countless stories woven around a spindle called mask. Needless to say, it is impossible to alienate man from the mask and if at one time masks were confined within the narrow framework and platform of rituals and tradition, today, masks have moved across the boundaries of tradition, onto the wider and perhaps more flamboyant and complex world of contemporary art invoking a cerebral experience beyond the realm of the spirit.

Sometime in 2012, Sasi Krishnan an Indian artist in the Middle East brought out a brilliant series of paintings under the title The Mask. Each of the works focused on different scenarios of life with the mask playing central theme as an agent of camouflage. The splash of colours under this series travelled to many places across the world as part of different shows. Two of the most poignant works in this series – the Adornment and Kiss of Mask received critical acclaim for moving the sensitivity of viewers, for striking a resonance of thought within them. Adornment is both painful and sardonic depicting a young lady who is pulling down a mask to wear as an ornament for times have necessitated that she embellish her soul with disguise! Kiss of mask on the other hand talks about human beings who forge unsuccessful, superficial relationships wearing masks, concealing their essence.

The famous Guerilla Girls, an anonymous feminist group formed in New York in 1985 is literally a mission that has been fighting sexism and racism in the art world through their cutting expressions in modern art. They wear masks in public to help channelize focus on the issues they project rather than their identity. With posters, books, actions, videos and stickers that tear down the sham that human conscience has proved to be, they have grown into a powerful voice in the contemporary art world that is otherwise all about the cold silence of classy art galleries.

Masks have been spokespersons of history and culture, they have been protectors of mankind and his connection into the unseen, they have fulfilled man's need to hide his intentions, they have helped him fit into the little crevices of society and blend with the flow. One wonders if it is man who wears the mask or the other way around with the mask being a larger than life entity that narrates its own stories using man as a vehicle!

As one mask peels itself off and falls to the earth, another reveals itself in an amazing masquerade of the mask itself! At times concealing, at other times revealing, perhaps one of the greatest mysteries of life is the word Mask itself!

The quintessential mask

This is a researched article on the endless story of masks and the deeper one delves into the mysterious world of the mask, one finds oneself smothered by layers of mythology and culture. Here man made cultural differences and boundaries crumble for one realizes that beyond time and age, regardless of culture, the need to express, the fear of the intangible, the need to be protected, his wants and methods, are all common to him anywhere in this world!