The Masketeers of Majuli

Issue 04, 2019

The Masketeers of Majuli

Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy |author

Issue 04, 2019

With an area of 350 sq-km, India’s largest river island proudly sits amidst the mighty Brahmaputra river. The island is also home to 22 satras (Hindu monasteries and centres for art), making it a hotbed of cultural and artistic activity

The boat we were on seemed intent on breaking a record for carrying passengers. With easily over a hundred people on board along with three dozen bikes and a few cars, the boat slowly chugged across the Brahmaputra river to one of the largest riverine islands in the world. Majuli is a national treasure as it is the nucleus of Assam’s cultural heritage – the 15th century neo- Vaishnava tradition. Led by Assamese saint and socio-religious reformer Srimanta Shankardev and his disciple Madhavdeva, this religious movement triggered a cultural and artistic renaissance with the establishment of xatras or satras (monastic centres). Receiving land and royal patronage from the Ahom Kings, each satra specialised in distinct artistic and spiritual forms of expression to worship Lord Vishnu through music, song, dance and tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. They also act as repositories of Assam’s history with rare collections of antiques, utensils, weapons and jewellery besides royal and sacred relics.

In a room full of masks of gods and demons, the multi-limbed Narasimha, the three-headed Tripurasura and an irate looking Ravana glowered at us from the walls. We were at Majuli’s Natun Chamaguri Satra, a monastic centre in Majuli, established in 1663 by Chakrapani Ata. The traditional art of mask-making has been practiced here since mid-17th century and continues to be used in raas leela and bhaona, an ancient form of Assamese theatre. Krishnakant Bora, a young apprentice who was learning the craft according to the age-old ‘guru shishya parampara’, enthusiastically snatched different heads off the ledge and put them on to demonstrate each character – from the silver-haired ogress Putna to Bakasura, the giant stork, and Aghasura the demon snake. As the seniors of the satra Hareshwar Bora, Brozen Goswami and satradhikari (head) Koshakanta Goswami filed in, Bora put away the masks and took our leave. Senior artiste and Sangeet Natak Academy awardee Hem Chandra Goswami (guruji) joined us. Seated on the floor with a with a cotton Assamese chaddor (shawl) draped over his shoulders, he outlined the mask-making tradition.

Uttar Kamalabari Sattra, a dance depicting Lord Krishna being performed at Majuli Island, Assam

There are broadly three types of masks – the mukha bhaona, which cover the face; the lotokoi, which are a little larger, and the gigantic cho consisting of a head and a body. First, a skeletal framework is created with bamboo strips. Strips of cloth dipped in kumhar mitti or smooth soil from the banks of the Brahmaputra are layered over it and dried. A mixture of cow dung and clay is used to add depth and contour to the face. A kordhoni or bamboo file is used to smoothen the surface. Fibre or jute are added for facial hair, texture and accessories.

The mask is sun-dried and painted with natural dyes like hingul (red) and hital (yellow), sourced from nature – wood, leaves, bark and seeds. Beguni (purple) colour is extracted from brinjal, the bright kamala (orange) from oranges and dhekia (green) from ferns. Being the torchbearer of a heritage that has survived for centuries, Goswami stressed the need to preserve this dying art. He conducts workshops and courses across Assam, West Bengal and Odisha. Today, smaller portable masks are being created as collectibles to add commercial value to the craft. But it is during the annual Raas festival that these masks come alive in night-long performances.

The heavily-laden daily ferry with residents and tourists arriving Nimati Ghat from Majuli Island having crossed the Brahmaputra river near Jorhat

West Bengal and Odisha. Today, smaller portable masks are being created as collectibles to add commercial value to the craft. But it is during the annual Raas festival that these masks come alive in night-long performances.

We were in luck as Raas Leela was on. Criss-crossing the island on a hired motorbike, we witnessed the festivities at various satras. At Bhogpur, the island’s oldest surviving satra set up by Shankardev in 1528, we heard borgeet (devotional songs) in the naamghar (prayer hall) and caught a rousing drama at GaramurSatra. Centuries ago, this area was prone to attacks from Burmese troops from across the border. To protect the locals and to transport soldiers, the Ahom kings built a long road on a high embankment (called gar) that ended at this corner (mur), hence the name Garamur.

Famous mask maker and artist Hem Chandra Goswami preparing masks for bhaona

Auniati, derived from auni (creeper)and ati (highland place), was established in 1653 by Ahom king Jayadhwaja Singh. Being an udasin (celibate) satra, young boys were painted and dressed up like girls to perform Apsara Nritya (dance of the heavenly nymphs). There was paalnaam (devotional prayer), gayan- bayan (song and dance) using khol and taal and a stirring rendition of Dashavatar Nritya by the septuagenarian doyen of Satriya dance Khagendranath Lekharu. Shankardev established Majuli’s first satra in early 16th century in the western part; it was named Belguri after the bilva or bael tree planted by him. Belguri had long been lost to erosion. Bengenati satra was so named because its founder Guru Muraridev came by river and found the area overgrown with begun (brinjal) plants. After exploring Natun Kamalabari and  Dakhinpat we returned to Samaguri at twilight in time for a visual spectacle.

Traditional riverine stilt huts built on the embankments on Majuli island

The air was thick with the pungent smell of betel nut chewed by the locals. The hall was chock-full with people craning their necks as a clang of cymbals and drumbeats announced the arrival of Goswami and his troupe. In an instant the magic began and the masks of Majuli sprang to life like they did for centuries before us. The drama and action on stage was reflected in the audience. The charged crowds gasped as demons exhibited their wrath and frightened children snuggled deep into their mother’s bosoms. Every act of a demon slain was celebrated with deafening applause and gleeful cheers. Adrift on our boat, we watched the muddy waters of the Brahmapurta lapping on its banks. The rippling water gleamed and shimmered – a reminder of the need to preserve its endangered heritage.

Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy

After media careers in advertising, radio, film and Internet, Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy quit corporate life to specialise in travel writing. ‘Loosely based’ in Bengaluru, the itinerant duo runs Red Scarab Travel & Media, customising solutions for tourism.
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