Lopamudra Talukdar captures the essence of this dying folk art form

Masks come in a variety of motifs, shapes, sizes, colours and materials, typical of the place they originate from. Each mask represents a particular character which forms part of a larger narrative, often rooted in local folklore, religious literature and mythology.

I got an opportunity to learn more about masks during a visit to Kushmandi village, in North Dinajpur district, in West Bengal. The night train from Kolkata took her to Raiganj, the district headquarters, from where Kushmandi is an hour’s drive. Kushmandi is home to 200 craftsmen who make the wooden masks worn during Gomira dances. I was accompanied by Saurav Roy, a local school teacher and social worker who’s been involved with the mask makers for many years. He took me along to witness a dance performance in the village. The venue for the Gomira dance is an open arena, known as Gomirar Tola, which is usually located next to a shrine, called thaan which is dedicated to Shakti deities and located below a banyan tree.

Gomira dance has its roots in the cult of Shakti (the mother goddess) and the word Gomira is said to be derived from Gram-Chandi (a local Shakti deity), alternatively it could also be derived from the gamar wood that is used to make the masks. In North Dinajpur district, each village has a temple dedicated to Shakti whose different forms are worshipped as guardian deities. The night before the dance, the masks are brought out and placed for Nishi Puja, conducted at midnight. Next day, the dance takes place at Gomirar Tola, to the beating of dhaks (drum) and kansa (percussion instruments), without any background songs, narration or chants. The dances are usually organised between April-June, coinciding with the sowing season. Each village has its own Gomira dance troupe and they organise at least one dance performance during this period.

There are two distinct dance forms—one is gomira, which has masks depicting Chamunda, Samshan Kali, Siknidhal, Masan Kali, Bagh, Dakini Bishwal, Nara-Rakshas and a host of other characters. The dance commences with the entry of two characters, Buro-Buri, who are representations of Shiva and Parvati. The other dance form is Ram-Vanvas, based on the story of Rama’s exile to the forest from the Ramayana. The characters in this dance include Rama, Sita, Angad, Jatayu, Hanuman, Sugriv, Kaikeyi, Kaushalya, Dasharath and Ravana.

Though it is referred to as a dance, the performance is not codified through specific bodily movements or gestures. The movements are spontaneous, instinctive and improvised by the dancers who often go into a state of trance during the performance, which is called bhor. It is believed that while experiencing bhor, the dancer becomes possessed by the characteristics of the deity whose mask he is wearing. Saurav, my companion, explained that villagers pledge (manat) a certain type and number of masks to their favoured deity on the fulfillment of a wish. That is how the tradition of mask making began.

Lopamudra Talukdar is a Kolkata based photographer. Ever since she was a child, she was fascinated by photography, but never thought of taking it up seriously until she was gifted a Canon 5D Mark II in 2010. Since then, she started looking at the world through the viewfinder of a camera. She loves to document life in its myriad forms and her work is a mix of street and travel photography. As a travel photographer, she is particularly captivated by Indian culture and its great diversity. She has travelled extensively in India looking for new subjects and themes to document through her photographic work.This work was first published on Sahapedia

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