Saving Face: The Mask-Makers of Assam’s Majuli Island

Watch bamboo and clay turn into fierce mythological characters. | By Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy  
A room full of masks at Natun Samaguri Satra, a monastic centre in Majuli, Assam. Photo: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy
A room full of masks at Natun Samaguri Satra, a monastic centre in Majuli, Assam. Photo: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

We’re in a room full of decapitated heads. A silver-tressed ogress glowers at us from one corner. From his perch near the door, an indigo-skinned demon stares us down as Som, the mask-making apprentice, tells us about a monster bird called Bakasura. Other icons of Hindu mythology await their introduction: the nubile Mohini, monkey gods Hanuman and Sugriva, and the fiercest demon of them all, the many-headed Ravana.

We are in the home of craftsman and satradhikar Hemchandra Goswami, on the island of Majuli in Assam. Floating like a breakaway branch of water hyacinth on the Brahmaputra River, Majuli is Asia’s largest riverine island and a cradle of Assamese culture. Majuli has numerous satras or monastic centres, which preserve and practice forms of artistic and spiritual expression. There is music, dance, and art that celebrates Lord Vishnu and depicts scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Ferry rides from the ghats to Majuli island are very scenic, especially at sunset when the landscape takes on a rich, amber tone. Photo: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

Ferry rides from the ghats to Majuli island are very scenic, especially at sunset when the landscape takes on a rich, amber tone. Photo: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

The Natun Samaguri Satra or centre, which Goswami heads, has practised the tradition of mask-making since the mid-17th century. It makes headgear for the raas leela festival and for bhaona, a style of vibrant street theatre from Assam. As centres of learning, satras also act as repositories of Assam’s history and often have collections of antiques, weapons, jewellery, and sacred and royal relics.

Wrapped in a cotton shawl, Goswami tells us about his craft, the Samaguri technique of mask-making. It begins with creating a three-dimensional bamboo framework for the face. Strips of cloth dipped in smooth, clayey soil from the banks of the Brahmaputra are layered over the frame, and a blend of cow dung and clay is used to create the necessary depth and contour. Fibres like jute create beards and enormous moustaches.

Goswami’s family has been making masks for over a century. We learn that there are three sizes of masks. Mukha bhaona, which covers the face, lotokoi that extends to the chest, and cho, which usually consists of two parts: a head and a body. Once the mask is complete, a kordhoni or bamboo file is used to smooth the surface, and finally, vegetable dyes are brushed on. Eyebrows are raised, nostrils flared, and eyes take on a sinister, bloodshot hue as the masks assume the characters they will portray.

Luckily for us, it was raas leela season so we criss-crossed the island on a rusty, hired motorbike catching shows at various monasteries. We watched a rousing drama at Garamur Satra and soaked in the calm of devotional songs (borgeet) in the prayer hall (naamghar) of Bhogpur Satra, one of the oldest monasteries on the island. Like us, throngs of villagers and visitors flitted from one satra to the other, like butterflies seeking samples of divine nectar. From Bhogpur, we went to Auniati Satra, the house of celibate monks, where we watched young apprentices perform song and dance (gayan-bayan). An older veteran of the arts presents a stirring rendition of Dashavatar Nritya, which depicts the ten incarnations of Vishnu.

Each of Majuli’s satras specialise in a certain craft. The Garamur Satra is known for its idols, like this one of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle. Photo: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

Each of Majuli’s satras specialise in a certain craft. The Garamur Satra is known for its idols, like this one of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s vehicle. Photo: Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy

We returned to Samaguri at twilight in time for the centre’s visual spectacle. As we braved the pungent odour of betel nut and swarms of mosquitoes in the jam-packed hall, a clang of cymbals and drumbeats announced the arrival of satradhikar Goswami and his troupe. In minutes, the masks of Majuli sprang to life on stage, enthralling audiences like they have for centuries.

Appeared in the February 2014 issue as “Majuli Unmasked”.

The Guide

Orientation
Majuli is a riverine island on the Brahmaputra, spread over 420 sq km. Assam’s second-largest city, Jorhat, is the gateway to Majuli.

Getting There
Jorhat airport is connected to Kolkata and Guwahati. From Jorhat, take a bus/auto to the ferry point at Nimati Ghat (14 km). From there, take a ferry to Kamalabari Ghat (20 km/1 hour 15 min) and a local minivan to Garamur (7 km), which is in Majuli. Ferries to Kamalabari Ghat operate from 8.30 a.m. and are fairly frequent in tourist season. As most island satras are quite remote, it is best to hire a motorbike/cycle to get around.

Season
Majuli’s satras welcome visitors throughout the year. To see the masks in action, visit the island during the vibrant raas leela in the third week of November. There is a two day festival from dawn to dusk, when satras try to outdo each other with music, dance, and theatre performances. For festival details, contact Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority (majulilandscape.gov.in). The island is also a birdwatching hotspot.

Stay
La Maison D’Ananda (House of Joy) in Kamalabari has two bamboo cottages inspired by Assamese Mising huts (99571 86356; doubles ₹800). Me:Po Okum or the House of Happiness (94352 03165; doubles ₹1,000) in Garamur, has five rooms and a dormitory by the river. Garamur Satra has four rooms (₹200).

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