Masks of Asia

The presented masks integrate asian performing arts and document their associated religious, narrative, and ritual contexts, which document the diversity of beliefs, histories, and ways of life in this context.

By Museu do Oriente

Kaishan (second half of 20th century) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Kaishan, "the mountain opener": Nuoxi mask

China, Hunan, Luxi. 20th century. Wood. 31,1 x 24 x 12,3 cm

In China, masks are used in Nuoxi, an ancient ritual performed in temples dedicated to exorcist gods during New Year's Eve festivities.  The dancers masquerade and represent deities or deified historical characters.

The dance is performed to demonstrate the power of the gods and chase away evil spirits. In Jiangxi Province, dancers are compared to mediums.  It is they who ask the Three Great Generals, who are placed at the top of an altar, to invoke a heavenly military expedition, made up of other gods, that comes to ward off evil. 

The most important is Kaishan ("the mountain opener", creator of the universe). After performing the temple dances, follows the procession of the dancers incarnating the celestial military. These go from house to house spreading protection against disease and calamity.

Tai Wai (End of 19th century) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Tai Wai, "the messenger": Yao ethnic group mask

China. End of 19th century. Paper. 25 x 22,5 cm

The masks of the Yao ethnic group living in the southwest of China and borders are called divine heads and are worn by priests in funeral and ordination shamanic ceremonies when the physical presence of gods is required.

They have a two-dimensional shape and are made of paper. The Yao divide the supernatural agencies in four sections: the Sky, the Underground, this World and the Waters. These sections have official messengers to communicate between them and the Yao priests. 

Tai Wai is one of them. He is the officer of the Governor of this World who rides a white horse through the skies carrying reports between the sacred tribune of the Yao priest and the Governor’s office.

Panji (second half 19th century) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Panji, legendary prince of Java: Wayang Topeng mask

Indonesia, Java. 19th century. Wood. 17 x 19,5 x 10,30 cm

There are many forms of masked dance theater in Bali. Wayang topeng shows the biggest variety of masks and movements. It is performed during rituals and in the odalan (temple festivals). The plays begin with the presentation of ministers and the elder Tua. Then, the white-masked king enters the scene with his short, elegant steps.

Afterwards appear the jesters or servants, the panasar, who are the only speaking characters. Some of their masks do not have inferior jaws in order to make these characters narrate the events during the play. 

Finally, the brahman Sidhakarya, who once restored prosperity in Bali, throws rice into four directions and holy water to the public as a symbol of wealth and fertility.  The javanese wayang topeng plays the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata like in Bali but especially Panji’s story.

Panji is a courageous and seductive hero who conquers the princess Jandra Kirana and vanquishes his main rival, the king Klana. The eyes shape and decorative patterns of the masks of the javanese wayang topeng differ from the balinese ones.

Krishna (1975) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Hindu god Krishna: Chhau of Seraikala mask

India, Bihar, Seraikala. 1975. Paper mâché, textile, beads, metal. 48 x 26 x 11 cm

Seraikala Chhau is a masked dance from Bihar. The masks, which were first created by the prince of Seraikala in the beginning of the 20th century, are extremely graceful.

The drama is performed during the annual festival Chaitra Parva, dedicated to the agricultural cycle that coincides with the moon, the sun and the constellation in transit.

The masks represent gods and characters in original scenes, such as the night dancing with the moon or the sun seducing a young girl.

Narakasura (second half of 20th century) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Narakasura (or Naraka): Krishnattam theater mask

India, Kerala, Guruvayur Temple.  20th century. Wood, textiles, metal sheet and glass. 76 x 55 x 21,5 cm

Narakasura is a powerful and cruel king that rules Pragyotisha, one of the first kingdoms in the history of India. In the hindu mythology he is an asura, an ambitious and evil being, son of Bhudevi, the goddess of earth and Varaha, the 3rd incarnation of lord Vishnu as a boar.

He becomes a relentless enemy of gods and finally is killed in a battle by lord Krishna, the 8th incarnation of lord Vishnu, his father. 

Krishnattam is a performance represented at the Guruvayur Temple in Kerala State, which stages the eight plays or stages of the life of Krishna, a Hindu god. The actors produce elaborate movements and gesture.

They have elaborated costumes and make-up. Masks are only used for few characters, such as the god Brahma and the demons that Krishna has to eliminate. Krishna does not wear a mask. Its actor uses blue make-up. The color of Krishna.

Ranryo (19th century) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Prince Ranryo: mask for Bugaku

Japan. 19th century. Lacquered wood and fur. 41,8 x 23,8 x 22,8 cm    

Bugaku theater is an artistic expression imported from China, in the 8th century, through Korea or by Southeast Asia. It can only be seen in Japan, where it still preserves its narrative and performative heritage. 

This is the case of the chinese court dance, from the Tang dynasty (618-907), which evokes the martial prowess of Lanling (Ranryo, in Japanese), a 6th century prince who, when fighting, wore a hideous mask to hide his young and seductive face.

The masks presented in Bugaku are usually supernatural beings and animals, as birds and dragons.

Tchubali (second half of 20th century) by Troupe Korean Pongsan Mask Dance Drama Preservation SocietyMuseu do Oriente

Tchubali, the prodigal: Pongsan mask

Korea, Pongsan. 20th century. Paper mâché, textiles and natural hair. 32 x 23,5 x 13,5 cm  

Creator: Troupe Korean Pongsan Mask Dance Drama Preservation Society

The popular masked dances played by troupes of peasants in Korea perform a series of jokes on social satires. They are religious and comic, even obscene. 

They tell about corrupted monks, polygamous and arrogant noblemen, concubines, shamanic women’s lusts and poor people’s problems. The aim is to make people laugh because laughter expels evil. 

There are four regional types of theater: Sande in Yangju region, Pongsan, Hahwe and Yaryu-Okwande. Each region has its own typical masks and different jokes though each represents the same characters. 

The plays begin with a shamanic ritual to expel bad influences. At the end the masks are burnt since they keep the evil spirits once exorcized. 

Queen (second half of 20th century) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

The Queen: Kolam mask

Sri Lanka. 20th century. Wood. 92 x 64 x 17 cm

Kolam is an exorcist dance with masks and costumes performed to eliminate harms associated with pregnancy, baby and childbirth. In rural Sri Lanka, the desires of pregnant women were considered a form of supernatural possession, which Kolam fought.

The performance represents local and Hindu stories through mimic gestures and is divided into three parts. In the first, the origin of Kolam is evoked and social satire small plays follow, with characters such as the drummer and his wife, the palace's washer and his wife, etc.

In the second part, the king and queen enter to watch the dances of the demons, the raksas, and of the protective deities of pregnant women and childbirth.

 Shortly after the king and queen enter the scene, the dancers wearing these heavy masks solemnly place them on a bench so they can watch the demons dance. 

In the third part, the longest one, they represent one of the Buddha's lives. And finally comes the demon Gara Yaka who, in exchange for offerings, promises prosperity to dancers and spectators.

Demon hunter (1978) by unknown authorMuseu do Oriente

Demon Hunter: Lhamo theater mask

Tibet, Dharamsala Troupe. 1978. Cardboard, felt, textiles, fur, metal and plastic. 115 x 45 cm

The Lhamo theater represents historical events, legends, episodes of the life of kings, stories of popular heroes, as well as the lives of Buddha and bodhisattvas.

The models and materials used in the manufacture of the masks of this theater differ. It features helmets, paper mâché, flat and rigid masks, as well as flexible made out of fabrics.

The performance begins with a purification ritual that is followed by a summary of the plot and the dance of the hunters and the heavenly fairies, the ache lhamo (goddess sisters).

The plays always convey a moral and the message that good prevails over evil.

Thotsakan (Beginning 20th century) by Thai Home IndustriesMuseu do Oriente

Thotsakan: Khon theater mask

The ten-headed demon king of Lanka and enemy of Phra Ram



Thailand. Beginning 20th century. Cardboard, glass, mother-of-pearl. 64 x 25 x 28 cm  
Creator: Thai Home Industries

The Khon is a classical, danced and masked Thai theater featuring episodes of Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, the story of Rama. 

It began as a court show but moved out of the palace and became performed in public squares, temples, religious festivals or funerals. The Khon was uniquely represented by men who featured acrobatic choreography with violent movements.

It later incorporated the gestural dances of women (lakhon nai) into female roles. The sung, descriptive, and dialogical parts, in rhythmic prose, are taken over by narrators and a choir. With the masks on, the dancers cannot speak.

Credits: Story

© Fundação Oriente - Museu do Oriente
Photography: Hugo Maertens, BNP Paribas; João Silveira Ramos

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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