The Tribal World of Mask Makers in Bengal

An introduction to the world of Santhals and the craftsmen behind the colorful Chhau Mask

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Crafts Maps of India - West Bengal - Front (1993-2010) by Bapi and Bahadur ChitrakarDastkari Haat Samiti

The Santhal community in West Bengal

Tribal communities in India live in a world full of their own culture and art forms. Some live within forests but many have settled at the edge of forests or within small towns where they brush shoulders with changing scenarios and find a way of maintaining what sustains their identity. One such place is Charida village, 30 kms from Purulia in West Bengal. Santhal tribes construct their homes with mud and have tiled roofs. Women paint their walls in dramatic colours.

Chhau Mask: Chau performance (2018-02-27)Dastkari Haat Samiti

This is the home of the Purulia Chhau dance-drama, which is a vigorous combination of martial dance forms, acrobatics peppered with rhythmic bird-like movements, flamboyant costumes and amazing masks.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26) by Chhau mask painterDastkari Haat Samiti

The Santhal region inhabited by tribal communities begins where statues of their revered heroes Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu stand.

They are considered revolutionaries among the adivasis (the name for tribes of ancient origin), honoured for their brave fight against the British colonizers. They mobilized thousands of Santhals in 1855 to mount a fierce rebellion that was ultimately crushed.

With their bows and arrows poised for fight, they greet all who pass on the highway.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Santhal homes further from town in Purulia district, in an area called the Ayodhya hills, are painted in bold colours, creating drama within their simplicity.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Each tribal home in the rural areas of many tribal regions of India has its individual colours and patterns on the outer or inner walls.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A Santhal woman refreshes the colours on the outer walls of her home in Purulia district.

The Santhal's love of brilliant colours, drama and spectacle is reflected in many aspects of their lives.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

While the new generation still lives in homes with handmade roof tiles and hand painted walls, Santhal children are not unfamiliar with the new world of mobile phones.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Village markets in the rural areas of Santhal territory are often just a row of makeshift spaces with goods spread out on the ground.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Along with marketplaces on open fields, Santhals in Purulia district gather to amuse themselves by organising cock fights.

Folk dance performances like the famed Chhau, and cock fighting, apart from feasting and dancing at festivals, is the preferred form of entertainment. Television is seldom a part of it.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The audience bets on which cock will defeat the other in a fight.

Chhau Mask: Temples around the community (2018-02-26) by Chhau mask painterDastkari Haat Samiti

As the small town of Charida, where the Chhau mask makers live and work approaches, bright colours of the rural homes remain but public buildings take on different and brighter hues.

Even the bicycle is painted bright pink.

Chhau Mask: Temples around the community (2018-02-26) by Chhau mask painterDastkari Haat Samiti

Temples have chosen to display themselves in bright mustard yellow and fuchsia pink.

Kiosks tucked in between serve devotees who give offerings of sweets and fruits to the temple.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Begun Kodar, the temple complex with its beautifully painted murals on temple walls, is also a place for the local haat or market.

The temple is named after Begun Kodar, a town near Charida and Ayodhya, which also has one of the supposedly haunted railway stations in India.

Outside the temple, chickens are sold, slaughtered and cooked. Fruits and vegetable kiosks also surround the spaces outside, making this area the centre of commerce and prayer.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A bust of Indian freedom fighter and national hero Subhash Chandra Bose, and a full length statue of Buddheswar, the first mask maker of Charida, are a part of the village landscape.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Gambhir Singh Mura, also known as Buddheshwar, started Chhau performance in Purulia. He was awarded the Padmashree award in 1981.

As the first mask maker of Purulia, he is honoured for having established an important cultural and economic activity that gave the people recognition and respect.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A Padmashree is a national award given by the President of India for having contributed to the national cause in some form of service to the nation.

Someone has inscribed the name and address of Gambhir Singh Mura, perhaps the only awardee from Charida, on the wall of a home.

Chhau Mask: Chau performance (2018-08-03)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Masks of Chhau Dance

Most people know the dance form, but the craft of mask making, combined with intricate impressive head gear is what transports the dancers and audience into a world of epic stories, battles and victories of good over evil. The Santhal tribe revere their leaders who have fought as revolutionaries against colonial rulers and brought fame to mask making.  

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The masks are made of layers of clay, recycled school notebooks, paint and strands of coloured jute to serve as hair. A large variety of epic characters and animals each have designated colours.

Chhau dance and dancers would not be complete without the masks. It was the dance form, when they moved out to perform in other states and cities that attracted attention to the masks and the largely unknown mask makers of this magical place.

There are approximately 1200 mask makers in Charida village and Purulia town who work as an intrinsic part of dancer groups.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-27) by The trio of Dutt brothers (Rajib, Sanjib & Partho)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Small masks of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati, are depicted as Kirat and Kiratani, their local names. They are considered sacred and stand apart from the usual set of masks used for Chhau dance performances.

They were introduced in this form by well-known mask maker Nakul Chandra Dutta, whose grandsons established the first store selling masks in Purulia.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

An incomplete mask hangs outside a mask-making workshop and store in Purulia, letting potential customers know about their availability.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Shops selling masks underscore the identity of Purulia as a mask making centre.

Used and discarded masks can be seen alongside incomplete ones drying in the open area.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The five stages in the process of mask making can be seen in these masks, drying on a street in Purulia, outside a workshop as an unconcerned citizen walks past.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Mask makers regularly keep their work on the street outside to dry.

The proliferation of mask makers and masks in common view defines the image of Purulia that stays in a visitor’s memory.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Some masks displayed outside the workshops in Purulia are for sale.

They are bought as decorative pieces or souvenirs unless specifically created for dancers.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-27)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Some mask sellers have brought a little style to their shops by illustrating their shop fronts and advertising their contact details.

However, display may not be their forte, as the mask displayed outside with the headgear for dance also added, is hung upside down.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

A wedding procession in Purulia passes a mask shop with a display of souvenir-style masks.

These masks cannot be used for dance, and are made for local and outstation shoppers.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Small masks of Lord Shiva, and the upper portion of clay and paper peacocks are strung out as if on a clothes line inside a workshop in Purulia.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Here, a range of masks for sale as souvenirs hang against a wall with other articles belonging to the artisan.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

As more outsiders visit Purulia, the range of souvenir masks increases.

Smaller accessories and items are also made for weddings and doorway decorations.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-26)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The workshop is a lively space with artisans indulging in an animated discussion, while one artisan is in the process of making a large mask for a dancer.

The walls are replete with a large variety of masks they have made for sale.

Chhau Mask: Process of making the mask (2018-02-27)Dastkari Haat Samiti

An elder woman embroiderer sews beads, sequins and other baubles onto fabric to embellish the dress of a Chhau dancer.

The town of Purulia is fully engaged with mask making and dance costume making as its prime activity.

Chhau Mask: Community and settlements around (2018-02-27)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Rajib, Sanjib and Partho, sons of the famed mask maker Nakul Chandra Dutta, are skilled mask makers themselves.

They were not interested in studying at school, so watched their father making masks and learned from him.

Today they believe it is very important for mask makers to study.

Chhau Mask: Process of mask the making (2018-02-27)Dastkari Haat Samiti

The brothers Rajib, Sanjib, and Partho added enterprise to their mask-making skills and moved from Charida to Purulia to open a store where they attract many urban visitors and happily propagate the fame of their town as the centre of mask making.

Chhau Mask: Shops around the village (2018-02-27) by The trio of Dutt brothers (Rajib, Sanjib & Partho)Dastkari Haat Samiti

Credits: Story

Text: Jaya Jaitly
Photography: Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Charu Verma, Shubham
Artisans: Rajib Dutt, Sanjib Dutt, Partho Dutt
Ground Facilitator: Ankit Kumar
Curation: Ruchira Verma

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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