Once it was confirmed that I would be working in India this fall, I was excited to see if I could find out more about Indian mask traditions. Quick internet searches yielded little, only some tribal Himalayan masks to the north, and a number of colorful pieces in neighboring Sri Lanka.Talking with some people on the Maya project as well as other mask friends gave me a few more ideas about where to look.
Here’s a little of what I found!
Kerala is a state in southern India that borders the Arabian Sea. It is also home to kathakali, a highly stylized drama/dance. The stories told in this form vary, but many are from the Mahabharata epic.
If you arrive early to the performance, not only do you get to observer the performers apply their intense makeup, you also get a better seat. And I’m really glad we did.
After the makeup was applied, there was a demonstration of the techniques used in the dance. You must train for many years before performing in the kathakali, and the abilities of the dancers makes this clear.
The way they could move their eyes was nothing short of amazing. Eyes are very important in the communication of emotions in the drama, and these dancers have amazing muscular control. In addition, the performers of kathakali can isolate muscle groups in their face. Not just like flaring nostrils or wiggling ears—try to imagine just the tops of the cheeks bouncing up and down while the rest of the face remains calm. It’s impressive!
The character designs painted on their faces come alive as these muscle isolations occur. These facial gestures are combined with mudras, or coded positions of the hands, to complete the attitude.
Kerala Folklore Museum
In Ernakulam, a more modern town across the water from Kochi, I was excited to find a museum dedicated to folklore. There were several interesting faces inside. The museum was not always the most successful in providing context for the various images, but I did start to get a sense of mask styles from different regions.
There were also a few examples of puppets in the museum. I knew there were some famous puppets in the state of Rajasthan in the north, but these have a different feeling than their northern relations.
Museum of Mankind
We moved on to the state of Karnataka, just north and east of Kerala. In the city of Mysore, famed for ashtanga yoga and sandalwood crafts, we visited the Indira Ghandi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (aka the Museum of Mankind).
The collection features many tribal art forms from different parts of India. I was lucky to find included a couple of masks from the Himalayas in this southern state. The style is quite different form the types I had seen in Kerala. I imagine the species of wood used for carving is different as well.
Though I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t find as many masks as I had hoped, the museum also features a large collection of terra cotta figures from around India. These figures provide some insight into the style and decorative idiosyncrasies of the culture to which they belong.