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Reba Kanta Mahanta: Assam’s greatest mask-maker

In Assam's monastic Vaishnava community, Reba Kanta Mahanta keeps the tradition of mask-making alive

Reba Kanta Mahanta.
Reba Kanta Mahanta.

They realized when he was just 5 that he had a way with bamboo. Sitting beside his grandfather, the boy would twist the strips into all kinds of wonderful shapes. In Sri Sri Khatpar Satra, a monastic community of followers of a form of Bhakti Hinduism popular in Assam, 16km from Sivasagar, working with bamboo was a way of life.

One morning, his grandfather asked him to make something with the strips. Within minutes, the boy had shaped a cow’s head. Even as the elders exclaimed at the clean lines, his grandfather told the boy’s father, “Our mask-making tradition will be safe in this boy’s hands."

His jubilation was justified. The craft of mask-making, started in the 15th or 16th century by the Vaishnava leader Srimanta Sankardev, had dwindled in recent years, shrinking from its practice in 700 sattras, such as the one they lived in, to a two-digit figure. The sattras, communities dedicated to promoting the Bhakti movement through plays, dance and music, nurtured these mask-makers, who created representations of Hanuman, Garuda, Ravan and a host of other mythological characters. The advent of cinema and television, and changing lifestyles, weaned many craftsmen away from sattras, but Sri Sri Khatpar Satra survived. The talented boy, Reba Kanta Mahanta, would go on to win international renown. He also trained in dance, instrument-making and the khol (the drum that’s used in the dance form), but he would specialize in making masks.

I met Mahanta in Guwahati on 30 March, at a programme organized by Srijanasom Trust, an educational and cultural non-profit. Mahanta was awarded for a lifetime’s work in mask-making. I watched the frail old man climb the steps to accept his award and citation. It was a beautiful moment, tinged with pathos, as I wondered how many practitioners of our age-old crafts found recognition.

When I met him the next morning, Mahanta explained the process. Bamboo strips are shaped to make frames of the heads of animals or mythological characters. The frame is covered tightly by a thin cotton cloth and komar mud is applied to bring out the contours. The cow dung and limestone mix add the contour details while acting as an insecticide. It is dried in the sun for two days before another layer of cloth is added. After another two-three days in the sun, the detailing of features can begin. Organic, vegetable and mineral dyes extracted from stone and leaves are used; it can take up to 10 days to get the colours ready. With diminishing sources of plant pigments like hangul and haital, artists have begun using commercial colours.

Mahanta’s fame rests not only in the dexterity of his fingers, but also in the way he ensured the tradition stayed relevant. Today, Bhavana, a theatrical performance originally choreographed and set to music by Sankardev, still retells stories from the Bhagavad Gita, but the actors often wear full-body masks to portray animals or demons. A Mahanta innovation allowed dancers to see out of the masks. Even more ambitious was an experiment that led to masks in which eyes and hands could be moved independently by the performer. Another landmark was when every character wore a mask, instead of only a few.

Mahanta has created about 4,000 masks, and hires these out when the troupe is not performing. The masks are seldom sold. “We do not see it as a commercial idea," says Mahanta, who has been invited to perform at Ramayan festivals as far afield as Russia. His masks hang in museums across the world, from Japan to Washington, DC.

Mahanta has been an agent of change in other ways too. He started a girls’ school in 1962 because there was none in the region, retiring as headmaster in 1996.

Bhavana performances and mask-making both demand deep understanding of the sattra gyan. He still takes to the stage, directing, dancing the satriya classical dance, playing the khol. He continues the guru-shishya tradition, teaching both dance and mask-making at the sattra. He has had over 1,000 students. His three sons are performing artists and mask-makers; so are the women of the household, though they don’t perform on stage.

Mahanta is proud that the float he created on mask-making for the 2003 Republic Day parade came second. In 2010, he was given the title of shilp guru by the president; he also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award.

As I leave, I look at the tiny mask of Hanuman he has made for me as a gift. It reminds me that the heart of India is far away from the cities we inhabit.

Look out for our photo essay on life in the sattras of Majuli, the largest riverine island in the world, in our forthcoming issues.

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