Mask-making or mask-painting is believed to have had a thriving time in ancient Bengal when society was organized more around festivals and rituals. It is one of the most specialized and distinct branches of folk art.
In its modern incarnation, it has survived through both religious and secular festivals. Festivals on the first day of the Bangla New Year, especially the Mongol Shovajatra — a procession of hundreds of people and students with flutes, drums and masks — has given the art of mask-making a solid boost, turning it into something of a national phenomenon.
Furthermore, this year’s Boishakh celebrations have coincided with an art exhibition that has featured only masks of different shape and material. Artistic significance apart, the huge cultural potential of mask art seems finally to catch up with the national psyche.
The exhibition is indeed a fascinating experience for art lovers.
Nearly 30 masks by five artists are exhibited. Most of them are done on wood or a combination of metal and wood. Folk motifs are amply used in carving them and quite a good number of them refer to characters from mythical or folk tales: Komola Rani, Shonkhini, Yousuf, Brihonnola and Moynaboti, among others.
Md Zakir Hossain uses appliqué work and metal. His masks portray indigenous queens of royal pedigree and are circular in shape. The main inspiration for Zakir comes from the Mongol Shovajatra, as he explains in his artist’s profile.
Sajib Paul’s masks are rather sharply vertical, with two of the most beautiful ones, Shongkhini 1 and 2, being oval-shaped. He seems to capture the duality of selves. The nuanced texture of Shongkhini and perfect symmetry of Mask (wood and metal) bear ambitious marks of a project that aims to achieve more than just performing religious symbols or cultural function.
Tushar Dey’s approach is rather experimental. Borrowing floral motifs from traditional Bangladeshi rickshaw painting and facial motifs from ancient Egyptian art, his metal masks, Prokriti and Purus, are done with meticulous attention to details, with different colors and textures indicating different parts of a profile.
Sabuj Das’s Brihonnola (wood) is another elevating exercise in the duality of selves and others. However, Das clarifies in his profile statement, different masks carry different meanings and some meanings are social while some are religious. But taking in the subtle way in which his Brihonnola’s eyes are replaced with a bird-shaped figure, one can see how he defies cultural signs and makes his mask a vehicle for expressing his hidden thoughts.
Namira Farzana’s understanding of mask art is solid. She believes that this is a distinctive folk art form and the purpose of this kind of art is more decorative and functional than purely aesthetic. For her its openness toward colors and fluidity of figures demonstrate the diversity of our peoples and their religions and their peaceful co-existence. That’s perhaps why her Moynaboti and Yousuf have so many different colors and textures.
All of them did their honors and master’s from the Department of Craft at the Institute of Fine Arts, Dhaka University. Now they each are pursuing a career in the arts sector.
Taken together, the exhibition heralds a new era for mask art. What makes it stand out is the unique interpretation they each have about mask art. All of them are deeply rooted in tradition, aware of remaining true to indigenous motifs and myths, but at the same time, they have their own interpretation through which they seek to transform these masks into independent works of art, freed from their restricting cultural/religious messages.