Masks or ‘mask making’ is an involved art form requiring a lot of skill and creativity. In Urdu, the word is ‘naqab’, which means a false face as does the Hindi word ‘mukhauta’. ‘Mask’, in English means to cover or hide from view, conceal, façade, camouflage, veil, etc. When we create a false face to cover our own, in any material which is detachable and can be worn, is a mask. Even a face painted with colours to create a different look is a mask. However, a mask is also used as a protection from pollution, especially in our times. So a mask is definitely a covering for the face, be it full or partial, larger than life, representative, decorative, hideous, frightening, funny, animalistic, ritualistic, dramatic, or suggestive. They can be decorated with beads, feathers, and other objects and it definitely enables the wearer to portray any image he wants.
If the mask can be worn and removed from the face at will then it is a physical entity and is stiff in its features. The mask worn for a drama has stiff features and all the acting and emoting is portrayed by the actor through his body, dialogue, and the stage atmosphere. In Pantomime, the face is painted like a mask and since the acting is shown through facial expressions this mask is very mobile. In the Kathakali Dance tradition, the dancer wears an elaborate dress and a heavy mask complete with a crown, but his face is painted so you can see the emotions on the face of the dancer. This mask is a combination of a painted face and a stiff mask.
Masks have been in use since ancient times. It is difficult to put a date to their appearance in our history. The oldest mask dates to approximately 7000 BC. The functions of a mask are as varied as is their size and the materials used. Their size varies from the three-inch finger mask to the huge ones used to hang from the ceiling. Masks can be used for scaring, enacting, dancing, hiding, telling jokes, warding off evil, armoring, healing, and religious ceremonies. There are full masks, half masks, eye masks, or full-body masks. To construct a mask unless it is face painting different materials are used… feathers – tribal material, papier machie, balloon, cloth, paper, jute, metal, wood, clay- ceramic and terracotta, acrylic, plastic, paper plate, cardboard, ply or wood, straw, leather, skulls, bones, bottle gourd, and stone. In fact, any material can be used to make and embellish them.
Roughly masks can be divided into creative, suggestive, decorative, and ritualistic categories. They are used in drama and psychotherapy. The whole idea is to make an exaggerated face with over-emphasized features and embellishments creating a larger-than-life impression. Even today they are an intrinsic part of theatre all over the world. They serve a very important function as they evoke emotions and reactions in the audience, fear in the enemy, and fear of spirits. When representing supernatural powers, they are known to help in healing. Their extensive use in rituals throughout the ages and in all cultures, the world over is testimony to their importance.
In India, we have a vast tradition and variety of masks depicting, legends, myths, and folklore, all made with local materials in different parts of the country. Each state and region boasts of its own unique tradition. Whether it is MUKHADA from Madhya Pradesh, CHHAU dance mask from Orrisa, MUKHA KHEL from Bengal, METAL masks of Ladakh, BHUTA masks from Karnatak, KATHAKALI from Kerala, or CHERIYAL masks from Andhra Pradesh to name a few are all made from locally sourced material.
The Masks below were created by the design students of Ruchi’s Institute of Creative Arts Polytechnic, Allahabad, India for their props at their Annual Garment Show 2016. The materials used are paper, foil, cotton wool, and paints.