Masks conceal, but they also reveal - other realities, other worlds.
Masks convey the diversity and complexity of corporeal and spiritual experience. They highlight the simultaneity of sacred and profane spaces as well as parallel existence of many beliefs and ideas.
Blurring the boundaries between the invisible and visible worlds, masks can reveal how the invisible may be only temporarily obscured from view, and how the visible could disappear or atrophy.
Ogres and divine beings, hybrid creatures and animals, avatars and common people, allow us to reflect on the multiple worlds we inhabit.
Concealment and revelation, identity and representation, myth and magic – these are intimately connected to masks.
Masks allow us to reconstruct realities, the other world that we, often unconsciously, imagine or believe exist.
While masks can obscure and disguise, they also allow a magical and liberative transformation whereby, for a while, one becomes another.
Masks thus capture a liminal state, between movement and stasis, our world and others.
As we live our prescribed role in society, masks help us escape, even dream a while, effect change. Masks infuse our worlds with fantasy, play and agency.
Brahma is the Hindu god of creation and one of the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. In the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Brahma is often referred to as the progenitor of all human beings.
Brahma’s wife is Saraswati, also known by the names of Savitri and Gayatri.
Being the husband of Saraswati, or Vaak Devi (goddess of speech) Brahma is also known as the Lord of Speech and Sound.
Purulia Chhau is a folk dance-theatre tradition found in West Bengal and Jharkhand in eastern India. The folk legends of these areas are depicted in the performance where these masks personify the different characters.
This Brahma and following masks represent Purulia Chhau - Shiva, Kartik, Basuki Naag, Manasa and Demon.
Shiva, the auspicious one, is one of the Supreme gods in the Hindu pantheon. He is ‘the Destroyer' or ‘the Transformer' in the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
Shiva is usually worshipped in the aniconic form of the lingam (phallic symbol).
He is described as an omniscient yogi who lives an ascetic life on Mount Kailash, as well as a householder with his wife Parvati and his two sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya. Shiva has many benevolent as well as fierce forms.
He is depicted as immersed in deep meditation, with his wife and children, as the cosmic dancer or, in his fierce form, slaying demons.
Basuki is a great king of the naagas (serpents) with a gem on his head. He is the brother of Manasa.
In a popular legend in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, Basuki took part in the Samudra Manthan, the churning of the ocean of milk. Basuki allowed the gods and the demons to bind him to Mount Mandar and use him as their rope to churn and extract the ambrosia of immortality.
Manasa is a Hindu folk goddess of snakes, worshipped mainly in Bengal for the prevention and cure of snakebite and also for fertility and prosperity. Manasa is the sister of Vasuki, king of snakes and the wife of Jagatkuru.
Also known as Visahara or the destroyer of poison, she is depicted as kind to her devotees but harsh to those who refuse to worship her.
Narasimha, half man, half lion, is one of the ten incarnations of the god Vishnu and worshipped as the Great Protector.
Vishnu killed the demon Hiryanakashyap so his brother, Hiryanakashyipu wanted revenge on Vishnu.
Hiranyakashyipu had been given a boon by Brahma that he would not be killed by human, god or animal, neither in the day nor at night, neither inside the house nor outside, neither on earth nor in space, neither by animate nor inanimate weapon.
As Narasimha was not human or god or animal - he is Vishnu incarnate but part-human, part-animal - he came upon Hiranyakashyipu at twilight (when it was neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and put the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space).
Using his sharp fingernails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disemboweled and killed the demon.
HAYAGRIVA or HAYASIRA
Hayagriva (Horse’s Neck or Horse’s Head) is an avatar of the god Vishnu, worshipped as the god of knowledge and wisdom, with a human body and a horse’s head.
He is clothed in white garments and sits on a white lotus. Hayagriva represents the triumph of pure knowledge guided by the hand of god, over the forces of darkness and passion.
A very important deity in the Vaisnava tradition, his blessings are sought when beginning the study of both sacred and secular subjects. Special worship is on the day of the full moon in August (Sravana Purnima) and on Mahanavami (the ninth day of the Navaratri festival).
Rama is the seventh avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu in Hindu religion, and the king of Ayodhya and famous protagonist of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
The eldest son of Kaushalya and Dasaratha, king of Ayodhya, Rama is regarded as the Lord of All Virtue. Rama is the husband of Sita, incarnation of Lakshmi, and the embodiment of perfect womanhood.
Rama's life is one of perfect adherence to Dharma. For the sake of his father's honour, Rama abandons his claim to the throne to serve an exile of fourteen years in the forest. His wife Sita and brother Lakshmana accompany him to exile.
While in exile, Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka. After a long and arduous search that tests his personal strength and virtue, Rama fights a colossal war of powerful and magical beings, greatly destructive weaponry and many battles against Ravana’s armies, eventually slaying Ravana and liberating Sita. After completing exile, Ram returns to be crowned king of Ayodhya.
Sita is the heroine of the Hindu epic Ramayana.
Seen as an avatar (incarnation) of Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), she is the consort of the god Rama (who is an avatar of god Vishnu). Esteemed for her many virtues, Sita is known for her dedication, self-sacrifice, courage and purity.
Sita is described as the daughter of the earth goddess Bhumi and the adopted daughter of King Janaka and Queen Sunayna. She marries Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, and accompanies Rama when he is forced into exile soon after her marriage.
While in exile she is abducted by Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka. Sita is eventually rescued by Rama in the climactic war, where Rama slays Ravana. Sita proves her chastity by undergoing a trial by fire.
Thereafter, Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya, where they are crowned king and queen. However, Rama abandons the pregnant Sita, when one of his subjects casts doubt over her chastity.
In the refuge of Sage Valmiki’s hermitage, Sita gives birth to twins Lava and Kusha. After her sons grow up and unite with their father, Sita returns to her mother, the Earth, for release from the world.
Lakshmana was the brother and close companion of Rama and himself a hero in the epic Ramayana.
In Puranic scripture, Lakshmana is described as the incarnation of Ananta Shesha, the thousand headed Naaga upon whom rests Lord Vishnu in the primordial ocean of milk.
He is also incarnated as Balarama and is said to be an eternal companion of Vishnu in all incarnations.
Lakshmana is characterized by his unswerving loyalty to his elder brother through joy and adversity.
Jatayu is a bird, the son of Aruna and nephew of Garuda.
A demi-god who has the form of a vulture, he was an old friend of Dasaratha, Rama’s father.
He tries to rescue Sita when Ravana is on his way back to Lanka after abducting her, but due to Jatayu's age Ravana soon got the better of him.
In their search for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana chanced upon the stricken and dying Jatayu, who was able to tell them what had happened and point them in the direction Ravana.
Sampati was one of two sons of Aruna, the charioteer of Surya, the sun.
He was the brother of Jatayu and lost his wings when he was a child. The two brothers would compete with each other to see who could fly higher and once Jatayu flew so high he was about to be seared by the Sun’s flames.
Sampati saved Jatayu by shielding him but was injured instead. As a result Sampati lived wingless for the rest of his life.
Sampati was instrumental in the search for Sita as he was able to guide the others in the right direction.
Jambavan is the king of bears in the Indian epic Ramayana (though he is also described as a monkey in other scriptures), immortal to all but his father Vishnu.
Several times he is mentioned as Kapishreshtha (foremost among the monkeys) and other epithets generally given to the Vanaras. He is also known as Riksharaj (King of the Rikshas). Rikshas are described as something like Vanaras but in later versions of Ramayana Rikshas are described as bears.
Jambavant was present at the churning of the ocean and is supposed to have circled Vamana seven times when he was acquiring the three worlds from Mahabali. He received a boon from Lord Rama that he would be handsome, have the strength of ten million lions, and live a long life.
In the Ramayana, Jambavant was created by Brahma, as a king of the Himalayas to assist Rama in his struggle against Ravana. It is Jambavant who makes Hanuman realize his immense power and encourages him to fly across the ocean to search for Sita in Lanka.
Hanuman, also known as Anjaneya or Maruti, is a Hindu deity and an ardent devotee of Rama, in the famous epic Ramayana.
Maruti signifies Pavan or air and Hanuman is regarded the son of air, hence often depicted in flight.
Hanuman is considered an avatar or incarnation of the god Shiva, and is celebrated for his strength, courage, wisdom, celibacy and his great devotion to Rama.
Angada is a monkey god, the son of Bali and Tara, and the nephew of Sugriva.
He helped Rama find his wife Sita and fight her abductor, Ravana. Angada and Tara are instrumental in reconciling Rama and his brother Lakshmana.
Angada is known for the strength of his conviction and commitment, and to this day his name is invoked when describing a person of unwavering courage.
Nala and Neela in the Ramayana are two brothers of the Vanara (monkey family) who help to construct the bridge when Rama had to cross to Lanka.
The two brothers were always up to mischief, stealing things from Rishis (holy men) and throwing them in the water. One of the Rishis who was constantly losing things put a curse saying that whatever they threw in water would not sink but always float.
When Rama had to cross the oceans to reach Lanka, the help of Nala and Neela was sought. They threw pebbles in the water which did not sink and made a floating bridge.
Sugriva, a monkey god, is the younger brother of Bali, whom he succeeded as the ruler of the vanara or monkey kingdom, Kishkindha. He is the son of Surya, or the Sun god.
As king of the monkeys, Sugriva helped Rama liberate Sita from captivity, when she was abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana.
In the Hindu epic Ramayana, monkey god who was king of Kishkindha, and husband of Tara.
He is a son of the god Indra, and his older brother, is Sugriva. Bali was famous for the boon he received, according to which anyone he encountered would lose half his strength to him, thereby making Bali invulnerable to any enemy.
INDRAJEET or MEGHNAAD
Indrajeet (the conqueror of Indra, the king of gods) is the son of Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, and his wife, Mandodari. He is also known as Meghnaad (Thunderous) because his birth cry sounded like thunder.
Indrajeet plays an active role in the great war between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana.
Invincible because of the yajna (ritual penance) he performs before every battle, he defeats Rama once, and Rama’s brother Lakshmana twice.
On their third encounter, Lakshmana, with the help of Indrajeet’s uncle, Vibhishana, disrupts Indrajeet’s yajna, and after three days and three nights of fighting, finally kills him.
Kumbhakarana is a demon and the brother of Ravana. Though known for his huge size and monstrous appetite, he is considered pious, intelligent and good. When he performed a yajna (ritual penance) and the time came to ask for a boon, the goddess Saraswati, acting on the god Indra’s request, tied Kumbhakarna’s tongue.
Instead of asking for “Indra asana” (the seat of the god Indra) he asked for “Nidra asana” (bed for sleeping). His request was granted but his brother Ravana asked Brahma to undo the boon as it was in fact a curse.
Kumbhakarna slept for 6 months and kept awake for 6 months.
During the war with Rama, Ravana needed the help of Kumbhakarna who woke up only after one thousand elephants walked over him. Kumbhakarna tried to tell Ravana that what he was doing was wrong, but Ravana would not listen. In the end Kumbhakarna join the battle in loyalty to his brother.
Unlike most characters in the Ramayana who embody either virtue or vice, Kumbhakarna is a more complex figure and therefore the more interesting.
Dismayed by Ravana’s conduct he speaks out and attempts to intervene and moderate. Yet, bound by his warrior ethics, he is unable to openly oppose Ravana.
Fighting on what he knows is the wrong side, he devastates Rama’s army but is ultimately killed in combat by Rama.
Vibhishana is the younger half brother of Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka.
Of noble character, he advised Ravana who had abducted Sita, to return her promptly and properly to her husband, Rama.
When Ravana refused to heed his advice, Vibhishana joined Rama’s army and after Rama defeated Ravana, he was crowned king of Lanka.
In the killing of Ravana by Rama, Vibhishana played a crucial role, for it was he who revealed the secret of Ravana’s vulnerability. He told Rama that Ravana would die only if attacked on his navel and it was when Rama targeted Ravana there that he fell.
In the sharing of this secret, however, some doubt is cast on Vibhishana’s noble character, for it can be read as a betrayal of brotherly bonds and loyalty.
THE FIVE PANDAVAS
In The Mahabharat, the five Pandava brothers Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva are the acknowledged sons of Pandu, by his two wives Kunti and Madri.
All five brothers were married to Draupadi, though each had other wives. Together the brothers fought and prevailed in the great war of Kurukshetra against their cousins, the Kauravas.
Kunti’s first son, Karna, was abandoned by Kunti before her marriage, and the five Pandavas fought their eldest brother unknowingly as he had joined the Kauravas.
This Pandava mask is from the Kokna tribe.
DEITY OF KOKNA TRIBE
This mask is made by the Kokna tribe. Bhavada is a dance of the Kokna tribe that is performed after harvest in the month of March-April, where the legends of deities are enacted. Most of the characters relate to the epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, but there are stories around local tribal deities, like Kaloba, Mhasoba and Rangatai.
Facial features and expression are nicely emphasised in these masks.
The mask, made by the Kokna tribe, represents the Tiger god, and is used in a Kokna dance at the Bhavada festival in Maharashtra.
The Tiger is also associated in Hindu mythology with the goddess Durga. The Tiger is her vahana (vehicle), a symbol of unlimited power. It was riding on the tiger that Durga defeated the buffalo-headed demon, Mahisasura, symbolising the victory of good over evil.
Exhibition: "Masks, Other Worlds" held at Crafts Museum, Delhi: April 2013
Curated by: - Dr. Ruchira Ghose, Mushtak Khan
in collaboration with - Kanu Kartik Agrawal and Sibanand Bhol.
Online exhibit credits-
Consultants - Digitization, Crafts Museum,
- Gunjan Tripathi, Visetuonuo Kiso and Habib Ahamad.