Forging aheadSomraj Tamang has always been fascinated with ritual masks. A resident of Thimi, Tamang apprenticed with a Chitrakar family, the traditional mask makers of the community, to learn and eventually master the craft for himself.
Somraj Tamang has always been fascinated with ritual masks. A resident of Thimi, Tamang apprenticed with a Chitrakar family, the traditional mask makers of the community, to learn and eventually master the craft for himself. Today, his days are occupied carving masks of deities and animals in his own design. What’s more, Tamang is not just producing decorative memorabilia that deck his workshop walls but masks for traditional ritual dances as well. Along with traditional mud and paper masks, he also dabbles in ritual masks made from metal.
“The mud and paper masks are heavy,” he says, “And if it rains in the middle of a jatra, they may melt away. Metal masks are lighter and safer, and besides, they do not need to be remade year after year.”
He recently forged two masks for the Layaku Bhaila Dya jatra, which was revived in 2015 following a 47-year hiatus. The Bhairav dance, one of the two now performed in Thimi, gets its name from the fact that it commences from the layaku (royal palace) before circumambulating the town. But as the gods took to the streets after almost half a century, they were adorned not in masks made of mud, but of copper. And the same masks were reused again this year during the four-day festival in September.
“The main reason behind this change is financial,” says Arjun Shrestha, one of the organisers of the jatra, when asked about the break from tradition. “The masks themselves are expensive. And apart from that, there is the cost of the musicians, dancers, costumes, and much more. In fact, the reason this jatra stopped all those years ago was because it was no longer financially viable. If we use metal masks, we can reuse them every year. Just doing that will considerably lighten our burden.”
When considered that dancers and musicians have to practice and perform for weeks, sometimes dropping out of their regular employment, and that there are huge feasts to be organised after every ritual, the cost of organising a jatra can easily amount to lakhs. Moreover, with the constraints of busy modern lifestyles and the lack of income once sourced from guthi-held lands, it is not uncommon for Newar communities today to skirt corners or modify practices that ease the burden on the community.
Somraj Tamang further says that jatra organisers from as far away as Baglung come to him with their own designs, and ask him for metal masks. The primary reason, according to him, is that mask makers all over the country are dwindling in number. And now that people, especially those outside the Kathmandu Valley, are losing the few experts they had, they want to preserve whatever they have, before the craft disappears altogether with this generation of mask makers.
However, not everyone is sold on this form of preservation. Culture expert Purushottam Lochan Shrestha stresses on the importance of keeping the deep meaning and symbolism imbued in traditional ritualistic masked dances alive, along with the dance forms themselves. According to him, even as such dances continue to disappear in cultures around the world, masked figures continue to hold a special place in the hearts of revellers in Nepal. “When a person puts on the [ritualistic] mask of a deity, they become the deity,” says Shrestha. “It is a way of transferring godhood to a human person, and the special symbols painted on the masks play an important role in differentiating the deity.” Once masked, the dancers are treated as gods for the duration of the ritual, with people presenting offerings to them as if they were gods, and striving to touch them, so as to touch god.
Shrestha, echoing Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God, elaborates that art is not merely for the senses, but also for the soul. The meaning and symbolism imbued in art, especially an art as deeply rooted to the human psyche as masked dances, are intricately intertwined with the respective community. The rituals, as Campbell puts it, tap at the spontaneous impulse among humans to identify with something other than themselves for the sheer delight of play; transubstantiating the world—in which, after all, things are not as real or permanent, terrible, important, or logical as they seem. Could a change in the form or content of this art bring far reaching consequences—those apparent or otherwise—in the lives of the community?
“Mud masks are destroyed at the end of the dance every year,” Shrestha explains, “which shows that Kathmandu Valley is one such place where the gods are one with the humans. They are born like people, they live with people; and in the end, they die like people.” When the
masks are no longer destroyed and remade every year, says Shrestha, the entire symbolism vanishes. “These changes will be a massive dent to our living heritage,” he says, referring to the fact that having to create new masks every year keeps the craft alive and relevant in a community, “If people feel that mud masks are melting with the rain, then they should know that if we choose its alternative, then it is our culture that melts away.”
Quietly, however, culture is already melting. Through the year, hundreds of masked dances are held all over the country—mostly concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley, but also scattered around the many Newar settlements peppered around country. When I met Chitralal Shrestha in Khalanga in Jumla a couple of months ago, he told me there were only about a dozen Newar families in town—but they still kept the tradition of masked dances. And the mask of the Lakhe during Krishnashtami (when the biggest masked dance in Jumla is held) has been a copper one for about 50 years.
“That was before my time,” says Chitralal. “And now, people from several surrounding districts have come to me to have such masks made.” He proudly discloses that he has supplied metal masks to small Newar communities in Mugu and Kalikot, and as far as Surkhet. Chitralal, as well as his community, which includes the dozen Newar families and the larger non-Newar community, are proud of his role in preserving local traditions. “We must do what we can,” he says, “For without compromise, we would not have been able to hold the masked dance festivals at all.” Chitralal does make the traditional mud and paper masks, but they are of his design, and for sale. He thus has no need of the rituals that are intrinsically woven into the making of ritual masks—the process of acquiring the mud, taking it to a priest, and infusing it with divinity.
There are culture enthusiasts and purists, however, who fear that these rituals—laborious but still significant—may be lost within a generation if not preserved. But given the lack of proper documentation, it is difficult to ascertain how many masked dances have given up on traditional mud masks in favour of the more convenient metal ones. An official count of the masked dances in the various ethnic communities in the country remains elusive. We do know that some of the more famous of the dances, the Nava Durga Naach of Bhaktapur, for instance, are upholding the tradition of mud masks. Bhaktapuri craftsmen still partake in a yearly cycle where they cremate masks once festivities end, before creating new ones for the next year infusing the ashes of the old. But even so, even among the dense Newar populations in the Valley like Bhaktapur, artisans complain of the shortage of the ‘right’ kind of mud needed for the masks and have already begun using modern colours, instead of traditionally sourced ones.
That brings up the question of how exactly culture should be preserved—should one insist on continuing the exact form and risk extinction, or adapt with the times and risk losing essence? For Hari Sharan Prajapati, a 28-year-old graphic designer and an active participant in the other Bhairav Naach in Thimi, the answer is quite straightforward. “Mud masks are jhattuso (cumbersome),” he says, “The metal mask is more comfortable for the dancers, more efficient.” In fact, metal masks are all he has ever known—the Bhairav Naach having had adopted the modification three decades ago (inspiring Somraj Tamang’s Layaku Bhairav masks as well). The suggestion that the masks made of mud are more ‘traditional’ than metal ones, thus, throw him off, if just for a moment.
“That might be true,” he says, “but if you were to look up the dances on the internet, you would see how involved and invested the entire community still is, at least here in Thimi. And that is important.”