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Wooden Mask

The Artistry and Symbolism of Wooden Mask

Kushmandi is a well-known cultural hub in Dakshin Dinajpur district of West Bengal. Here wooden masks that are locally known as ‘mukha’ are crafted by hand. Gilded masks or Gomira masks as they are called, are part of the elaborate costumes of traditional Gomira dancers. In and around the small village of Mahisbathan, Mukha-khel or mask dance is popular. The wooden masks used in these dances are usually crafted from Neem, Gamhar, Pakur, Kadam, Mango and Teak wood. The logs are first cut and immersed in water for seasoning. Then the wood is hammered and chiselled to give it shape. Chisels and sand paper are used to give finer polish and finally varnishing is done to give it a smooth finish. Natural as well as chemical dyes and enamel paints are used to paint the wooden masks. Natural dyes include black hue obtained from fruits of Jia and Basatbot trees, red from Teak leaves, green from Sheem trees and violet from the Jamun fruits. These hues are mixed with tamarind or Bael sap. Pine tree varnish is used as a coating to make the colours more durable and give a natural shine to the masks.

The masks traditionally have historical, religious and mythological themes. The masks have strong links to animist traditions and often female deities like ‘Gram-Chandi’ and Maa Durga are depicted. One of the major themes of the Kushmandi mask art is the prevailing of good over evil and this can be seen in the portrayal of demonic faces on one hand and those of divine avators and deities on the other. The most striking characteristic of the wooden masks is the fierce expressive features. The popular characters portrayed include Chandi or the goddess, Narasingha or the divine lion, buro-buri i.e. the folk interpretation of Shiva-Parvathi, Bagha or the tiger, Ravana and other characters from Indian mythology and folklore.

Unlike the wooden doll making community, the wooden mask craftsmanship is dominated by male artists. The Mahisbathan Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited is a cooperative organised by the State government in association with UNESCO to provide a platform to the local artists and craftsmen to showcase their handiwork as well as reach a larger market.