The Brahmaputra flows serenely by the Nimati ghats of Jorhat, one of Assam’s commercial centres. It is from here that we board a river boat to Majuli, a mid-deltaic island on the majestic river. Chunks of water hyacinth float past the boat, as we speed along.
Jadav Payang is one of the boat’s crew on our 45-minute trip downstream. As a Mishing tribesman his forefathers came to Majuli centuries ago, to grow rice fish in the Brahmaputra’s bountiful waters. Says Payang, “This was our ancestral land. Each year the river took away some portion of our field, so in 2010 we left since there was nothing that remained. The river had swallowed our homeland. My brother was in the security forces and he died. With the money we got as compensation, the family moved. We now stay in Jorhat and the Brahmaputra is no longer a part of our lives.” In an ironical way Payang’s story of losing his homeland is symbolic of everything we saw in Majuli.
Waiting for us on the banks of the Majuli is Rajeev Kumar Saikia, a bear of a man with an easy laugh and penchant for poetry. As a school teacher he did not get paid, so he works as a guide now. He represents the sixth generation of a family of Rajbongshis who came from Bongaigaon. Says Saikia, “Some 100 years ago, Majuli was over 1,200 sq kilometres. Extensive erosion has reduced it to just 450 sq kilometres.”
We head down a rutted road to the Samagudi Sastra, an ancient Vaishnava monastery. According to Saikia, Majuli once had 300 satras, but now they number a mere 23. These monasteries, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, made Majuli a centre of culture, art and heritage. The Samagudi Satra, in particular, is famous because mask-making is believed to have first started there in the mid-17th century. Traditionally, these masks have been extensively used in Assamese theatre.
At Samagudi Sastra, we are ushered into a grey, rectangular, cemented room which has been built by the government in place of the traditional mud and bamboo hall that had once served as an auditorium. It is here the mask makers will perform. The hall is soon swarming with men and women carrying bamboo hand fans, intricately painted with the motif of a lion and elephant. The dancers ring the room and keep looking expectantly towards the two doorways.
As if on a cue, a bespectacled Hem Chandra Goswami comes with his troupe, carrying elongated drums, cymbals, and the traditional horai (a brass vessel used to serve paan, or beetel nut). All the men are in white dhotis, vests and shoulder cloths and they are enacting Sita Haran, one of the most dramatic scenes from the popular epic, The Ramayan. The beat of the drums and the clash of the cymbals mark the start of the enactment as a thin dark man invokes the gods in high pitched Maithali. The drums pick up his fervor and the crowd stirs restlessly.
Suddenly, a dramatic white-faced Ravan makes his entry. His mask is as resplendent as it is striking. The 10 heads with heavily painted eyes are all perched around like a crown, long braids of coiled hair flow below his broad shoulders, his 10 hands are strapped on to his shoulder, and he wears an old fashioned tunic of royal blue velvet embroidered with silver over his dhoti and velvet shoes. His eyes peer from behind the mask with its heavy moustache and eyebrows, and his body is poised in a posture of defiance. He laughs aloud and leaves the room.
The singing takes on a high note as Ravan returns dragging a demure woman in a white sari and blouse. She too is wearing the mask of a maiden from ancient times but the fuzz on her arms gives her real gender away! She constantly tries to disengage herself from Ravan’s grip, but to little avail. He struts about laughing and declaring that ‘Sita is mine’. Explains Saikia, “Once these mask makers don a mask, they take on the character of the legend. The eyes are the windows through which they portray their bhavona, or feelings.”
When Ravan exits with Sita, Jataeu, or the eagle, magnificent in his mask complete with a massive yellow beak, makes an appearance. Jataeu, in the epic, was witness to Ravan’s abduction of Sita. The drum beats then change and become wilder, heralding the entry of a bison and a wild boar. They do a war dance with lances and swords and are from Ravan’s demon army. Following at their heels is Hanuman, the Monkey God. There is now a confrontation between Ravan and Jataeu and, after a wild struggle, Ravan manages to cut off the eagle’s wing. Several fierce encounters follow, with Hanuman finally triumphing over the demons signalling the victory of good over evil.
Various masks make all the action and drama come alive. Mask-maker Hem Chandra Goswami takes us home to see his collection. To prepare each mask, a basic skeleton is first fashioned out of narrow, smoothened strips of bamboo woven together to form the base. It is over this frame that fine cotton cloth dipped in the grey mud found on the banks of the Brahmaputra are pasted, layer by layer, and then dried in the sun.
When the mask is still half dry, yet another coat - a mixture of grey river mud and cow dung – is used to finely layer the eyes and facial features. Once this process is completed, the mask is left to dry in the sun. Days later, after it has hardened, a smooth piece of bamboo is used to smoothen it down. Jute or pliable barks from trees are fashioned into accessories and features like eyebrows and moustaches. After this, the mask is ready to be painted. Traditionally, only vegetable paints were used. Now the more garish hues of chemical paints seem to be popular.
Goswami has many students engaged in learning the art of mask making and dancing. His uncle, Kushal Kant Dev Goswami, the recipient of a Sangeet Kala Academy award, is now in his 80s. A frail man with shoulder length hair and an aristocratic face, he is hailed as a master craftsman and feted for keeping Assam’s mask making tradition alive.
But this, of course, is easier said than done. Saikia points out that one of the major stumbling blocks for mask makers is that they have not moved with the times. “They have not innovated, preferring to stick to old ways that no longer attract the younger generation, whose tastes in entertainment have changed dramatically,” he observes.
Both the Goswamis are acutely conscious of the decline in the popularity of the form. They admit that now the mask dances of Majuli are seasonal and it becomes difficult to even sustain a living during the off season months unless their unique art gets a wider following. Both of them have now turned to teaching as an additional source of income. Clearly, the mask makers of Majuli are in a state of flux, having to contend with a fickle audience that is getting increasingly enticed by the all invasive television. The crowds no longer throng around the traditional all-night fare they once staged.
Hem Chandra analyses the challenges and deploys a powerful metaphor to drive his point home, “Mask making is all we know. These days the places where we can showcase our art are shrinking – it is similar to the way the river has been eating up our land, year after year, in Majuli. It is a struggle not to give in to modern ways and lose one’s legacy.” (Women's Feature Service)
Episodic TV shows back in fashion
‘But now, with audiences fed up with an overdose of family dramas, episodic shows have come as a sigh of relief for them’
Move over saas-bahu sagas, episodic shows are back. Adaalat, Teri Meri Love Stories and Hum Ne Li Hai Shapath are ruling the weekend slots and mark a comeback on the small screen after two decades. The makers say the switch was inevitable. In a bid to sustain viewers' interest in TV shows, channel bosses have to do a lot of brainstorming and rigorous research, says Vivek Bahl, chief creative director, Sony Entertainment Television. “For a long time, channels were struggling and contemplating what to showcase on the weekends - whether non-fiction shows or films should be shown over weekend, since the weekdays already had daily shows,” Bahl said.
“Moreover, the production values of daily shows are so high that it becomes difficult to sustain it six days a week. So Sony took a risk by introducing a weekend show like Adaalat and it seems to have paid off as the response has been very good. This has also helped in breaking the monotony,” he added.
It was a well-planned risk for Sony as its shows are now ruling the TRP charts. Ronit Roy's star power in Adaalat and Anoop Soni's hard-hitting presentation in Crime Patrol have taken them on the top of the TRPs table.
Not to forget Sony's long running detective series CID, which has kept viewers interest alive mainly due to unique cases with interesting solutions.
Long time ago, episodic shows Alif Laila, Vikram-Betaal, Byomkesh Bakshi, Karamchand and Shaktimaan enjoyed higher viewership. When the saas-bahu trend crept in and ruled the roost with shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kasautii Zindagii Kay and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, people started enjoying it. But now, with audiences fed up with an overdose of family dramas, episodic shows have come as a sigh of relief for them.
Thanks to the fresh treatment and fresh concept, Life OK's police drama Hum Ne Li Hai Shapath, about tough law enforcers fighting against flawed system, is keeping audiences hooked.
Ajit Thakur, general manager of Life OK, feels that this is the era of instant gratification.
He said: “Today viewers are spoilt for choice and they expect instant gratification. On weekends, while the agenda is to spend time with family, viewers also look for an exciting de-stresser.” “ Shapath, a case-to-case cop investigative story, is a perfect mix of ingredients that can deliver on all these premises - a family thrilling experience,” he added.
After pioneering the saas-bahu stories, Star Plus too has tried to break free of the monotony by launching weekend shows Teri Meri Love Stories, Arjun and Laakhon Mein Ek.
Out of them, the most sought after is Teri Meri Love Stories. Each episode is 90-minute long and brings heartfelt stories based on the lives of common people who surrender to the pressures of life and let love fade away. Popular actors like Jennifer Winget, Karan Singh Grover and Mahi Vij have been a part of various episodes.
On the other hand, Arjun is about a rebellious cop named Arjun Raute, who takes pride in solving mysterious cases. Shaleen Malhotra of Roadies fame plays the protagonist.
Remember popular horror shows Aahat, Mano Ya Na Mano and Ssshhhh... Koi Hai, which faded into the oblivion with time?
Zee TV is trying to cash in on the horror genre again with its new weekend shows Fear Files. Based on true stories, every episode has a new story.
Said Ajay Bhalwankar, content head, Hindi GECs, Zee TV: Zee TV has had a loyal audience in weekdays. And with Fear Files we wanted to target the weekend slot. This is a good new change as we offer exciting content to the viewers.
He however points out a practical problem of finding new cast and new locations for each episode. “So we work in close connection with the makers. Sometimes we shoot on real locations and sometimes we have to shoot on places which look similar to the real places,” he added. (IANS)