The mighty Brahmaputra seldom sleeps in Majuli, unleashing its fury every monsoon in the 400 square km river island that has seen much political fanfare of late, after it became the first river island district in India. Land in Majuli is continuously shrinking, thus affecting agricultural produce and also the traditional means of livelihood such as mask and boat making. In the face of such tumultuous times, when Majuli is being continuously disfigured by erosion and displacement of its people, eminent mask artist Hemchandra Goswami of Natun Samaguri Satra is leading a last concerted effort to keep this age-old tradition alive. Considered a cultural hotbed ripe in the Vaishnavite tradition, Majuli is seen as a reputational symbol of the Bhaona, or Ankiya Naats. Initiated by the great Vaishnav Saint Srimanta Sankardeva, these theatrical performances had a key component in it— the use of mukha or masks, which bore a categorical role in the conflation of the theatrical with the spectacular. In this interview, we talk to Mr. Goswami about the rich cultural heritage of mask making.
- Interviewer: Please tell us something about mask making in Majuli.
HG: Mask making is a special craft not just of Majuli, but also of the entire state of Assam. Srimanta Sankardeva first used them in the enactment of his Bhaonas. He created this craft to capture expressions which otherwise was not possible to enact in a regular face. Not all Satras were successful in keeping this tradition alive. Samaguri Satra is a departure in this case. Ahom king Chakradhwaj Singha built this Satra in 1663 A.D, and since then it has showed immense deftness in this craft and for generations trained young artisans to pass on the heritage and give it a momentum vis-à-vis the present. Two other Satras— Bor Elangi Satra (which moved from Salmora Mouza in Majuli to Titabar in Jorhat district) and Khatpaar Satra in Sivasagar, are notable practitioners of this craft and they have kept the tradition moving. Though initially it was practised only in our family, now we are trying our best to spread this dying art form among other enthusiastic people.
- Interviewer: Have you taken initiatives to train local people in this craft?
HG: Yes, I have. I train about 10-12 young boys in my home regularly. As I believe in the traditional Gurukul method of imparting knowledge and skill, I do not take any fees from them during the training period. Upon completion of their training, they receive certificates under the banner of the ‘Guru-Shishya Programme’ of the Government of India. Apart from this, I also train people across Assam from time to time. I have more than 200 trainees in Assam. I also had a memorable experience of training students in Shantiniketan (West Bengal) for almost a month in 1984.
- Interviewer: It has been observed that you have infused novelty into the traditional style of mask making. Are there any motives behind it?
HG: What I am trying to do here is attract more and more people into the craft of mask making and give it a respectable position among the creative arts. The earlier masks were restricted to portraying just a single expression where the eyes and the lips were not shown. Now the masks are built in a manner so as to facilitate the movement of the eyes and the lips. Again in some other characters artifices are employed, making the removal of the head or the nose during the play seem real. I feel that this adds a dramatic character to the story, enhancing it in the process and also lending an aesthetic appeal to it. The atmosphere thus becomes more animated and energetic. The fusion of new with the old has led to a growing interest among youth to take up mask making as a vocational skill. Khatpaar Satra in Sivasagar too has adopted this model. My father Rudrakanta Dev Goswami was instrumental in bringing this newness in mask making. My contributions are merely add-ons to his legacy.
- Interviewer: How do the tourists react when they witness the masked performances?
HG: Foreign visitors particularly get mesmerised seeing the impeccable craftsmanship involved in this art form. Two visitors from France and Israel once spent a few months with me to learn this craft. Apart from India, we receive visitors from all over the world— United States, England, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Ghana, Switzerland, Poland and other countries. The use of traditional materials in the making of masks such as— bamboo, cane, cow dung, jute, potter’s clay, and muslin cloth etc. give it a unique flavor. This often keeps the visitors wondering at the inventiveness displayed during mask making. We also make miniature models of these masks, which the visitors can buy as souvenirs for a nominal price.
- Interviewer: For the last few decades, you have contributed immensely towards developing the art of mask making. Along this journey, you have won laurels and wide acclaim in India and abroad. The feeling must be satisfying, I believe.
HG: I have been felicitated at different occasions in Assam. I was a recipient of the Sri Sri Damodardeva Memorial National Award for the year 2014. I was also honoured by the Society for Srimanta Sankardeva three years ago. A French team also conferred upon me the coveted ‘La Mizo da Anon’ award few years back.
I would also like to add here that this art form has been featured in many reputed news and entertainment channels worldwide. Jorhat-born American resident Rupam Sharma who shot to fame with his documentary ‘In Search of God’ and National Award winning director Bidyut Kotoky in his film ‘As the River Flows (Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xipare)’ beautifully video-graphed my creations. Recently these masks were also featured in National Geographic Channel’s show ‘Mission Covershot’. Both the print and electronic media have been really generous to my masks.
- Interviewer: Talking about Raas Mahotsava in Majuli, Samaguri’s Raas finds its own special mention.
HG: Raas Mahotsava in Majuli is a massive attraction among tourists. It is held in about 60 different areas in Majuli. Samaguri’s display of masks takes a limelight among these. Keeping in mind the spiritual aspect, Raas in Samaguri takes place inside its naamghar (prayer hall), with melas (fairs) organised outside.
- Interviewer: What necessary steps would you like to take to keep the tradition of mask making alive?
HG: I believe teaching this craft at an institutional level will help secure its permanence. Governmental support will be absolutely necessary. To keep its distinctiveness intact we have also thought about applying for copyright, if not for the mask then at least for the process involved. We are quite relieved that Tezpur University has taken a special initiative to help us in this regard.
- Interviewer: Moving slightly beyond the world of masks, is the title of a Satradhikar (Head of a Satra) hereditary?
HG: Unfortunately, yes. This is one of the many reasons why some Satras have lost their earlier sheen. Therefore, often at times the more deserving candidate is left out.
- Interviewer: Are the Satradhikars coming forward to coax the government to look into the problem of erosion?
HG: The Satradhikars have voiced their opinion on this issue many a times. But if the government acts lackadaisical, what can they do? Of course the government has donated land to a few Satras to shift outside of Majuli. This might be one reason why the Satradhikars too are not actively protesting the neglect of the state government.