The importance of masks in drama, especially in the traditional, is beyond description.

Arup Saikia


The importance of masks in drama, especially in the traditional, is beyond description. We shall try to discuss here the materials needed for making masks, their display, and their relevance in the present day.


1.      WOOD: This is a kind of sculpture on wood. The faces of the characters are sculpted on generally soft wood. The space or hole to insert the face makes itself into the same wood piece if the size is large. The eyes, nose, and ears are tentatively kept in position. The use of wood masks is very limited because of their heaviness and mismatch of organ positions.

2.      BAMBOO:  The most popular mask-making materials are bamboo sticks.

Bamboo stick masks are the most commonly used in Bhaonas. The name of the bamboo sticks is ‘Mor’ means bend. Generally, half-matured bamboo is taken for its softness and flexibility. Experienced mask artists soak it in water for at least fifteen days to remove the starch. Starch-free bamboos are not easily infected by insects and worms. There are other procedures to remove the starch and sugar, like keeping them above the fire for smoking and heating. Smoking drys up the moisture content in fresh green bamboo poles. Heating helps to extrude out the sugar to make it fungal-protected. Water leaching and smoking are traditional procedures that everyone follows. Nowadays, bamboo is also chemically treated by immersing it in borax and boric acid. This is modern and the fastest way for insect repellent and longevity. Manufacturing a mask is time-consuming and requires costly technical labour. So it has to last long for benefits. The above-mentioned measures should be taken carefully.

Masks are made with sticks known as ‘Tomar mor’, ‘Lakhimi mor’, ‘Vishwakarma mor’, etc. The bamboo is cut into pieces in the required proportion. After being woven into a vessel shape, they are tied inside with small pieces of cane rope. While knitting the sticks, the shape of the desired characters is moulded in the bamboo net. This way, the skeleton of the mask is ready. The second step is how to implant flesh on the skeleton. The entire skeleton is filled with mud. After being covered with a cloth and exposed to the sun for drying, after a few days of drying, the shapes of the organs—ears, nose, fingers, and eyes—are designed on mud. To make the clay more glutinous, cow dung is mixed with clay and applied to the dried rough mask. Like reinforcement (steel) in concrete construction, small pieces of clothing are mixed with the prepared substance. Later pieces of clothing are hidden with clay. Now, after drying, the artist checks whether a real appearance is displayed. If any flaw remains, the same procedures will be repeated again. Bamboo masks are completely chemical-free and eco-friendly; they are light in weight without any harmful effects.

3.      CLOTH: This is a very user-friendly mask made of clothes. The procedures are like cushion or doll preparation. The shapes are made by filling thick clothes with cotton and sewing them with thread. Nowadays, light clothes are sewn by machine. The thick and complex areas are, of course, done manually. Both the “Lotokai” and the jead mask are made of clothes. The artificial nails, hair, and beard are applied to the clothes in different colours.

4.      MOULD MASK:  A mould mask means a base frame is used to make the mask. All the techniques are done on the frame only. Therefore, it’s called a mould mask. The manufacturer of mould masks must know the craftsmanship of bamboo, wood, or clay. Because the mould is made of beautifully shaped bamboo sticks, wood, or clay. The mould needs to be finely polished. In bamboo masks, clay and clothes are applied to the shape of bamboo. Here are a few layers of paper applied to the mould with the help of glue. The fibres of banana trees or jute are also mixed in addition to paper. It is dried in the sun. After being properly attached, the mould is removed from the paper structure, and a mould mask is built up or obtained. The flour, wheat, and other herbal seeds are used for glue. Being very thin and pliable, only head masks are prepared from mold. A mask is pierced for the display of essential organs like eyes and other things that look beautiful. The smoothness of the mask makes it conducive to acting.

HOW TO USE: The mask maker artist and mask display artist may not be the same person. It is better if both functions are done by the same artist. The mask displayer must be physically strong and have good knowledge of the characters. It’s part of the serious performing arts.

The masked artist has to apply his own techniques to display masks around different characters for a bhaona to enthral audiences. When they enter the Namghar, or stage, they have to create curiosity in the minds of the audience and give the perfect complement to the scene. We remember some scenes of Baresahariya Bhaona (Jamugurihat) in the eighties. One scene still fascinates our childhood memories: the entry of the bird “Jatayu” during the abduction of Goddess Sita in the Ramayana. The big bird, Jatayu, first enters the Khola (venue). It is so big that the path among the crowd becomes very small. So the bird’s wings rub or touch the audience. That people also, as an audience, very delightfully see the amazing masked bird. Its wings are made of bamboo sticks and paper. The beak and nails are also made of cotton.

The main attraction of the masked bird is his two illuminated eyes. Two transparent, eye-sized marbles are placed on both eyes. The person inside the mask lights two torches on the marble-plant eyes. The light, after refraction in marbles, diffused everywhere. It looks very cinematic, as if a projector were used! The audience forgets reality for a while. This is an example of Mask’s successful performance.

MASKS IN THE PRESENT SCENARIO: Art is changing with time. People’s tastes and mindsets generate change. The audience is the main director of a drama. Nowadays, modernised, educated people don’t see actual dramatic beauty in very artificial masks. So mask Bhaona is mostly preserved now as a precious cultural treasure and performed in very low quantities. The system of dialogue delivery by wearing a mask is different. The voices of the actors echo on the mask while wearing it. So actors lengthen the tune in Brajawali. That gradually became the typical tune of Brajawali Bhaona. But with the passage of time, modulation of dialogue with facial expressions matters more in all kinds of dramas, including Bhaona. Acting while wearing masks seems to be an indirect interaction with the audience. Moreover, people get bored seeing the fixed appearance. So nowadays, Bhaona without a mask is gaining much popularity. But as a unique cultural dimension, it has to be preserved for eternity as long as Bhaona remains alive.

MASK & SATRA:  Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva established Xatras and Namghars for the all-round development of Assamese society. What did Xatra not do, from spirituality to economy? Xatra even supplied some household commodities made of bamboo. Xatra inherited the mask-making culture across the sects (Sanghati). Cultural display, or mask-making, is a non-religious rite. Therefore, the Xatras have no hesitation in practicing. Gradually, only a few xatras continued the legacy of Sankardeva. Now only Samaguri Satra is concentrating in this field. We hope other Xatras will also follow suit.


It’s a bitter truth in the world that nothing can survive without spontaneity or motion—auto-interest. To generate autointerest, there must be juice. As Bhaona is changing with time, its attire has to be changed. Manufacturing procedures for masks should be upgraded with the implant of electronic devices to beautify, voice amplifiers, etc. Outward structures will remain the same.

Secondly, the product to be sustained must be economically viable and market oriented. The mask may be presented in such a modernised way that commercial theatre groups also intend to hire mask artists. Lifelong government aid can’t flow a product for good. So, the government should take the initiative to financially promote the mask-making industry. Not exactly following tradition in terms of materials, easily available, cheap artificial products should be used to compete in the market. The masks are part of setting decoration in live and mobile theatres. The mask characters can’t be limited to the mythological or supernatural characters only. Masks of modern characters, including animals, are sometimes required in theatre houses. As in the music of Bhaona, many new musical instruments are added. Likewise, electronic and digital technology should be used while making masks for export.

Moreover, the government or society should engage expert mask artists in training and awareness programmes. The department of the museum also has to take the initiative to preserve and display the mask to draw wider public attention. The school and colleges should have a department to teach Assamese indigenous crafts. The earthen statue raas (Keli Gopala) of lower Assam and during the “Puja” (Durga, Biswakarma, Saraswati, etc.), the mask artists have a good opportunity to tap their skills. Only the concerted effort of all Assamese can save an indigenous culture.

(Author Arup Saikia is a noted cultural enthusiast, writer, and Bhaona artiste).

Top Headlines

No stories found.
Sentinel Assam