Puppet Sellers and Builders
Allied Arts In India


The mask culture, dating back to the pre-historic rock paintings of 3000 BC, has travelled down the ages. Terracotta masks (2500 BC) were found in the Mohenjodaro excavations. Bhutan has fearful masks of animal spirits, which are codified, with very high aesthetic connotations of colour and shape. Most of the myths connected with the pantomime give impetus to secular mask tradition in North East India. There is a strong belief in masks belonging to souls of ancestors amongst rural population. Mask dancers, who propitiate the spirit and in a state of trance give manifold blessings to the gathered devotees, both heal the sick and entertain spectators. Masks of Siva and Durga (and her manifest form of Shakti) are powerful iconic masks in India. In modern India, mask dances at theatrical and ritualistic levels are thriving well.

The performance of Thanatomorphia by Astad Deboo and Dadi Pudumjee depicts the many faces of Death, within the light and shade of hide-and-seek.


Kali Dance

The Gonda and Rajgonds tribe of Madhya Pradesh are great admirers of Lord Krishna. They wear wooden masks of the god and gopis while performing group dances. In Chhattisgarh, Baiga tribals celebrate Charata festival dance in groups wearing wooden masks and move from village to village repeating their performance. Muria tribals use mask smeared with red dye. The Buyya tribals of Madhya Pradesh invoke god and sport facial masks along with numerous ornaments to commence their ritual dances.

Kummattikkali is popular in the northern districts of Kerala. The dancers move from house to house in painted wooden masks and sport springs of leaves and grass. This form has a popular masked character Thulla (witch), besides various Hindu gods and goddesses. The Mannan community of South Malabar, Kerala, propitiates the goddess Kali and performs Poothanam Thirayam. A troupe of dancers dresses up as Kali and the accompanying Poothams (spirits) for the destruction of the evil Darikan. The dance is staged infront of houses and village shrines, between November and May. Patayani is a weeklong ritual dance of Kerala, held in Kali temples on the banks of Pamba river in March-April. It depicts the killing of the demon Darika by Nair community. Traditionally, the village astrologer prepares the masks of Bhadrakaali, Yakshi, Pakshi (Bird) and Kaalari (Siva) with areca-nut palms. Tirayattam and Bhoota dance of Kerala use beautiful wooden masks for deity-characters. Thutotdam is the dance of the Sherdukpens and the Monpas of Arunachal Pradesh, representing skulls and costumes designed as skeletons. It depicts how the souls after death are received in the other world. Nongkrem Dance is the most important mask dance of the Khasis in Meghalaya and is celebrated during autumn, essentially as a thanks-giving ceremony to God for the harvest and to pray for peace and prosperity. Kali Nach is performed in West Bengal, in honour of the Goddess Kali. The performer wears a mask, purified by mantras; dances with a sword, and makes prophetic answers. Chhau is ceremonially performed during Chaitra Parva (annual Sun-festival in Mid-April) and is basically a martial dance where the mask holds the dominant Rasa while the body projects the Bhava (mood). Stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata or secular legends are represented through Chhau. Seraikella Chhau dance of Bihar uses masks made of papier-mâché, with awe-inspiring headgear, to the folk-tune and steps of mask dancers. The dance motifs and themes are interrelated with myths and history, to depict the sentiments. Purulia Chhau of West Bengal is the symbol of the Sun-god worship through masks. The central theme of this dance is to depict how evil is punished, based on mythological stories. Gambhira is a solo mask dance, confined to the district Maldah, West Bengal. The mask, made of a special sacred wood, requires great physical efforts to carry on the face. The characters represent Puranic deities like Shiva, Parvati, Kali, etc., with loud beat of drums during Gajan festival. Mukha Kheil (mask play) is prevalent in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal among local Rajvamshis. The dance is thematic and is based on Ramayana. The masks are made of wood in Tibetan style.


Bagh Nritya

In Ganjam of Orissa, the idols are taken out on the streets during Thakurani Yatra. The animal mask dancers go on performing before the procession. They also lead the bridegroom's procession in marriage ceremonies. The tiger, bull and horse dances are typical of the area. Two persons get into a cane-frame and conceal themselves within, with their legs dangling as legs of the animals! Chaiti Ghoda Dance is performed by the Kaibarta caste of Orissa in Chaitra, to honour their caste-deity Vasuli Devi. A man, riding on a bamboo-horse dances with a couple (Rauta and Rautani) and accompanied by a drummer and a piper. Kucchhi Ghodi is performed at Holi in Braj, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Men in elaborate costumes ride well-decorated dummy horses, holding naked swords and dance to the rhythm of the drumbeats. Keelugurram is the imitation of the dance movements of a horse by men and women, and is popular in Chittoor, Nellore, Prakasam and Guntur districts of Andhra Pradesh. This entertaining horse is made of thin bamboo-pieces and covered with paper-paste. Dancers hold the horse with attached sticks and perform to the tunes of musical instruments. The horsemen wear wooden legs and ankle-bells. The horse is also decorated with bells around its neck. Puravai Attam, also known as Poikkal Kuthirai, is a dummy horse show in Tamil Nadu. The horse is made of jute, cardboard, paper and glass. Men as well as women perform the show. Wooden stilts are tied to the dancers’ feet. A pair of dancers, impersonating as king and queen, performs this dance. Puli Vesham, or tiger play is a popular dance form all over Andhra and practised among Hindus and Muslims. It is performed in open air during Dussera and Muharram. Experts perform the tiger-play with musical instruments, while smearing the whole body with yellow varnish, black spots and stripes, -- with a snake painted on the stomach. The costume contains a tiger’s mask and tail, especially made of cloth. The performer wears bells to one ankle. The tiger dance, also seen in Orissa, called Bagh Nritya.


Krishnattam is a traditional performance in Kerala, covering the whole span of Krishna's life. The visual effect is enhanced by varied and colourful facial make-up with larger-than-life masks, made of lightwood and cloth padding, for certain characters. Ankia Nat is a type of one act folk play of Assam, using big masks of demons, animals, gods and goddesses made of bamboo. These masks are up to waist high and can be as tall as 15 feet, and need several actors to manipulate them. Actors enter in to the masks and rest the masks on their shoulder. Masks have very thin clothed on the chest, so that the operator can see through it. These characters are generally demons or snakes, which have very limited movements. Shahi Jatra of Orissa presents different episode from Ramayana in March-April for a week.
Actors, wearing huge wooden masks and gorgeous costumes, walk in the street with stylised gait and mime with accompaniment of loud drumming. Desianata of Koraput, Orissa, also uses masks for representing gods, goddesses, animals, birds and demons. Themes are taken from Ramayana. Bhand Pather theatre of Shikargah, Kashmir, use masks for deer, god and tiger, with a costume incorporating the mask. The deer masks have movable jaw. Bhagavat Mela Natakam of Tamil Nadu and Andhra, Prahlada Natakam of Orissa and Bayalatta theatre of Karnataka use Narasimha masks. In Ramleela of UP, Ravana, Hanumana, Angada, etc., wear masks, made by embroidered zari and brass. Masks of Ganesha are used in Dashavatara and Ranmalyem of Goa and Maharashtra.


Chham Dance
The Mahayana tradition of Buddhism survives only in Bhutan. Mask dances are the part of religious and cultural traditions and the holy scripts, which date back to the 8th century A.D. Chham Dance is performed in the courtyard of the monasteries by the Buddhist Lamas residing in the monasteries of Lahul and Spiti, Ladakh and Kinnaur. The main purpose of this dance is to propitiate the deity, kill the evil king and protect the people from the wrath of natural calamities, diseases and epidemics and ensure health, happiness and prosperity for the people of the area.

The Lamas, dance in slow, circular movements with big, colourful masks and grotesque expressions, -- in accompaniment with the beats of drums, cymbals and long pipes. The Lamas prepare the masks, made of wood and papier-mâché with a thin coat of plaster. The figures usually portrayed are of Yama (the Lord of death) and his demons, Padmasambhava (the second Buddha), the god of wealth, and the protector of horses and other animals. Yak Dance portrays the unusual experience of a man driven out of his home by his father, who comes across a yak. Two men holding a yak head with elaborate costumes, act as a yak, while others perform with mask. The dances revolve around other animals, such as deer, lion, peacock and the mock cockfight. The Lion and peacock dances are performed by Monpas, and all the animal dances, depicting a story, capture gait and movements of animals. Two groups perform the cockfight dance with each group having two drummers. They wear masks resembling cock head. Gongs and cymbals also played by a group of boys. Tse-Chu Dance performs in the Hemis Monastery to celebrate the birthday of Guru Rimpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. The Lamas perform sacred masked dances leading to the destruction of the sacrificial offerings. Dosmoche is celebrated every year in February with great pomp and fervour. The masked Lamas from different monasteries perform the sacred dance-drama. Dosmoche celebrations are also held in the Likir (Indus Valley) and Deksit (Nubra valley) monasteries. Yuru Kabgyat festival is celebrated during July, in the monastery of Lamayuru of Leh. The masks worn by the lamas represent guardian divinities from the Dringungpa pantheon.


The street magicians of India use puppets to show some tricks. In Orissa, a wooden cutout of a seated man with detachable bow and arrow, kept opposite the magician aims at some target. The release of the arrow takes place towards the end of the show, to keep up the curiosity of the audience throughout the show. It is called Dhanu-Shara Manisha (Man with bow and arrow). Sometimes street magicians keep a bowl of water on the ground in front of him. He asks a spectator to bring some cowdung. The magician puts a little cowdung into the water, while chanting something. Three to four black ducklings appear on the surface of the water. The ducks keep coming and downing by the command of the magician. Finally the ducks vanish away as the water is thrown and the pot is shown to the spectators.

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