Masked dances of South Asia

Masked dances of South Asia

By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/

Masked dance forms spread across South Asia between 2nd century B.C. and 8th century A.D. Cross cultural features mingled with indigenous dance forms to give rise to significant changes in the art in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet and Burma.

Local lore, along with tales from the Indian epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were the order of the day. The Purulia Chhau dance from India is an example. It was included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage from India in 2010.

The masked dance of Myanmar shows a marked Indian influence. There is a Burmese version of the Ramayana named Yama Zatdaw with  Burmese transliterations of Sanskrit names. The region’s connection with India can be traced to the time of the Pala dynasty of Bengal, which was partly contemporaneous with the classical Pagan period in Myanmar from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

In Sri Lanka, the masked dance form is traditionally found in the western and south western coastal areas of the country. The origin of the art is hazy in terms of a time frame, but it has been around for many generations. The masks can be classified as Raksha, Kolam and Sanni. .

Raksha masks are seen in processions and festivals. Kolam masks are used in comic plays and depicting stories from everyday village life featuring different characters in a village. Every section or occupation is portrayed, including, of course, royalty. Sanni masks are associated with devil dancing for the purpose of curing illnesses or disease.

There are about twenty-four kinds of Rakshas known by different names like Naga Raksha, Gurulu Raksha, Maru Raksha, etc. There are masks depicting gods, human beings, rakshaya, yakka, and animals.

Nepalese masked dance

In Bangladesh, masked dances are performed in the few last days of the traditional New Year in the agricultural month of Chaitra­. They are performed during the Gambhira festival. Performances depict major deities like Shiva and Dharma Thakur and also landlords, ministers and common people.

In North Bengal, there’s a cloaked dance known as Mukha Khel. Villagers themselves create these masks with wood, cloth and paper.

The masked dances of Bangladesh took a new form influenced by Tantric Buddhism in the 9th century CE which were very similar to the masked dances of Kathmandu in Nepal and Tibet. By 12th century CE, Buddhist masked dances were adapted in the region to give rise to Mahakali Pyayakhan, Devi Pyayakhan and similar dances.

In Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand- the Chhau dance is well known.  Chhau dance is traditionally performed by men, enacting episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and is performed during the Spring festival, the Bengali traditional New Year on April 14/15. It incorporates folk dances, mock combat, stylised gaits of animals and birds, movements of village lasses. This dance form was included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010.

The masked Chhau dances of Jharkhand and Odisha have their very distinct features. Chhau differs from other Indian folk dance forms in its treatment of space and method of communication. The dancer moves his body upwards and away from ground, accompanied by rigorous leg movements and spiralling turns and jumps. The Chhau dance form Purulia is known for these rigorous, warrior-like movements and its colourful and decorative masks.

The Chhau dance from Jharkhand is referred to as the Seraikella Chhau– coming from the region by that name. This form of Chhau has no Vachikabhinaya (vocal support) and Mukhabhinaya too, as the face is completely concealed by the mask. The Odisha Chhau is also known as Mayurbhanj Chhau, coming from the region with that name. It has no masks at all and has artists with painted faces instead. The dance steps are less rigorous.

Chchau dance of Bengal

In Tibet, masked dances are an important part of the culture and are associated with Buddhism. The Cham Dance is a lively one and is accompanied by music played by monks using traditional instruments. These dances also offer moral instruction. Cham Dances hold a sacrosanct position as they are considered a form of meditation and an offering to God.

In Bhutan, the Drametse Nga Cham was declared a masterpiece by the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during in the third proclamation in Paris on November 25, 2005. Mask dances are performed annually in Bhutan in all important Dzongs, temples and in monasteries, and last three to five days. The occasion is known as Tshechu as it normally takes place on the 10th day of the month and is an occasion for the village people to get togather. The dancers are only men. It is widely believed that the dancers will be spiritually purified.

In Nepal, the Lākhey dance is performed with a mask and represents a demon in Nepalese folklore. He is depicted with a ferocious face, protruding fangs and mane of red or black hair. The artform is an important part of the Newar culture of Kathmandu Valley and other Newar settlements in Nepal.

Lakhes are referred to as demons who used to live in the forests and later became protectors of the town people. The performances take place town squares during festivals.

(The featured image at the top shows the devil dance of south western Sri Lanka)