Cham. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
Performed by Buddhist monks, cham is part of monastery festivals in India, Bhutan, and Tibet. The ritual dance form is accompanied by chanting and the sound of cymbals, longhorns, and hand drums. Dancers wear demonic wooden and papier mâché masks that are brightly coloured, intricately painted, and larger than life.
Catch a performance at Hemis Gompa during the Hemis Festival (July) or the Stok Monastery during Stok Guru Tsechu Festival (Feb). Both monasteries are in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. Sikkim’s Ralang Monastery has a cham during the Kayged Festival (Dec).
Purulia Chhau. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
This bold, acrobatic dance form from the Bengali district of Purulia has roots in tribal warrior dances. Performers do backflips, pirouette mid-air, and stomp their feet to the deep, echoing beats of the dhamsa, a large kettle drum, and the rhythms of the dhol. The masks, fashioned to look like fierce gods and their animal vehicles, make the performance more dramatic.
Catch a performance at the Chaitra Parva Chhau Festival, which takes place in Mayurbhanj and Koraput in Odisha (mid-Apr), and during the Sun festival (Mar) in Chorida village in Purulia, West Bengal.
Mukha Bhaona. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
This Assamese form of folk theatre is closely linked with the river island of Majuli, where the actors’ masks are crafted. Three kinds of masks are used:mukha or face masks, lotokai mukha or face masks with movable eyelids and lips controlled by the wearer, and bor mukha or masks that cover the upper body with moving parts like hands, jaws, and beaks.
Catch a performance at the Raas Festival in Majuli, Assam (Nov) and the Barechaharia Bhaona Mahotsav in Jamugurihat, Assam, a 200-year-old theatre festival held every 5-6 years.
Therukoothu. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
Koothu is the Tamil word for dance and therukoothu is a form of street theatre that draws from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Tamil epics. Partial face masks are worn by actors whose colourful costumes also include golden shoulder plates, bright skirts, and crowns. Characters use music instead of dialogue to carry the story forward, singing in high-pitched voices as they enact poignant mythological scenes.
Catch a performance at the Maduravayol and Shakthimariyammam temple festivals in Chennai or in the villages of Thanjavur district.
Somana Kunitha. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
The trance-like somana kunitha is a ritual dance performed to honour a village deity. Dancers wear elaborate red sandalwood masks (soma) painted with fangs, flaring nostrils, and big, curly moustaches. The headgear is four times as large as the performer’s head, and has long, brightly coloured fabric tied to its ends, which sways as the dancer moves.
Catch a performance at the temple festivals of Mandya, Mysore, Hassan, and Tumkur in Karnataka.
Padayani. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
Masks worn by padayani dancers are more than accessories. They are considered embodiments of the temple’s mother goddess. Made with areca palms, these perishable masks are woven together with thread or coconut fronds, and painted using turmeric, vegetable, and fruit dyes. They tower at least four feet above the dancer’s head and most extend until the waist of the performer.
Catch a performance at temples of goddesses Bhagavati and Bhadrakali in Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, and Kottayam, Kerala (Dec-Apr), and at the annual Padayani Festival in Elanthoor village (Mar).
Saraikela chhau. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Kurhade
More sombre than its Bengali counterpart, this form of chhau comes from the Saraikela region in Jharkhand. Dancers wear simple, human-looking masks to perform stories inspired by Hindu mythology, folklore, and nature. The vanity of man for example, is symbolised in the peacock dance where a dancer emulates the bird’s movements while wearing a feathered waistband.
Catch a performance at the Chaitra Parva Chhau Festival in Mayurbhanj and Koraput in Odisha (mid-Apr) or the Chhau Mahotsav in Saraikela, Jharkand (Apr).
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “Masks and Mudras”.
is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves poetry and food, and travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself. One day she'd love to have a swanky kitchen, a large library and enough time to travel and drink lots of tea.
Dnyaneshwar Vasant Kurhade
is the founder of Mind's Creative Ripples studio for painting and illustration.
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