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Masks offer vignettes of xatra history

- Artist wants experts to suggest ways to find a market for the traditional art

March 2: When the dark-complexioned demon of a bhaona charges onto stage baring his teeth, extracting screams from the shocked rural audience, Girish Chandra Mahanta smiles with satisfaction. It’s an effect achieved with great skill.

The impact would have been greater and the masks much better, Mahanta thinks, had he used hengul and haital, scarcity of which has forced him to use enamel paints on the 300 masks he has made in the past seven years.

Mahanta, from Jakai Xatra at Charing in Sivasagar, put up some of his masks on display at the exhibition at Setubandha 2012 here at the playground of Assam Engineering Institute.

Setubandha the meeting ground for various indigenous groups and xatras he thought, would be the perfect platform to inform people about this art.

Mahanta’s masks were one of the main attractions for the people at the event.

The demand for masks has dwindled with the times, said Mahanta, but felt that experts could help find a market for them.

People could also buy the masks as decorative items.

“It takes 10 to 15 days to make one mask,” said Mahanta.

Hengul and haital are the traditional colours used to paint masks to perform bhaona in Assam. But as they have become very rare, artists like Mahanta have started to switch over to other colours.

Bamboo, cane, cow dung, cloth and mud are the other things used for moulding the masks.

Mahanta also makes toys like tortoise with the same material.

A member of the Asom Sattra Mahasabha said they would approach the Krishna Kanta Handique State Open University to introduce mask-making as one of the vocational subjects on offer.

From 300-year-old mask of Ravan to a water clock, images of brindabani bastra to decorated manuscripts on xansipaat the exhibits gave people an idea about the xatras of the state.

Krishna Kanta Mahanta, one of the organisers, said they had sent two teams to collect antique pieces from xatras to put on display at Setubandha 2012.

“We have collected objects from almost 40 xatras from across the state,” said Mahanta.

The organisers also tried to bring the asthi (ashes from cremation ground) of the Vai-shnavite saint Sankaradeva.

“As the xatra was reluctant to part with it, we took videos of the ashes. Now people can see those video at the exhibition,” said Mahanta.

One of the smallest manuscripts on xansipaat, which is only 7.3 centimetre in length and 2.4 centimetre in breath, is also on display.

The manuscript is Astama Adhyaya, the sixth chapter of Bhagawata.