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Mask & song art stares at extinction

Yet another folk art seems to be on the verge of extinction in North Dinajpur.

The masked singers of Chopra, who have been entertaining people at fairs and religious gatherings with stories from the epics and other traditional texts, now stare at the possibility of their art being wiped out.

Popularly known as mukhosh gaan, the loved and revered folk art of about two centuries old is now practised by only two groups. The groups are in Majiali and Sonapur, both in Chopra block of Islampur subdivision.

The music used by the artistes during their performances, especially about Satyapeer, points at a culture that was traditionally shared by Hindus and Muslims.

The performance is a form of theatre. The artistes wear wooden masks that depict characters from the epics or other traditional texts and mix dialogues and acting with their music to tell stories. A show lasts for three hours or so. The language is a mix of Bengali and Rajbangshi.

As they perform, the singers reach out to the audience in an intimate, personal way.

But now there is a sense of foreboding among the performers. Television and cinema have taken much of the shine from their performances in “unglamorous” settings. Audiences have dwindled gradually and younger generations do not have much interest in this form of entertainment.

Subodh Roy, the leader of the Majiali group, says the main performance is in the week beginning with the first full moon after Kali Puja, Ras Purnima. They sing songs from the Ramayana, Satyapeer, Chorchunni (a night-long performance that makes everyone sit up like thieves), and Bishohari, sung during Manasha puja.

“People brave the chill and watch our performance. The biggest attraction is the ten-headed mask of Ravana. Then there are masks depicting Indrajit, Mahiravana, Kumbhakarna, Bibhisan, Surpanakaha, Hanuman, Rama, Lakshman and Sita,” he says.

The oldest member of the group, Manindra Roy, says for 45 years, he has been playing Ravana, which makes him feel fulfilled. “I run a small shop selling items required for the puja and rituals. Once in every year, I immerse myself in mukhosh gaan to forget the hardships I go through the whole year. I feel honoured that I can still don my costume, put on my mask and make people happy,” said the veteran.

However, even Manindra is sceptical about the survival of his art. “I cannot say how long our performances will last as there are no young followers who can carry on with the tradition. I am now 70-years-old. Our costumes are in tatters and we do not have the money to buy new outfits. Each costume will cost around Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500. We do not get financial support either from the government or NGOs. During our performances, we do not charge anything. We gladly accept whatever people give us on their own,” he says.

Manindra said there were at least six groups which performed mukhosh-gaan in Chopra and the surrounding areas earlier. “There were groups in Phansidewa as well and now there are only two. The tradition was started more than 200 years ago by Makhanlal Roy, Hemen Roy and others. It is an art form handed down generations, but today the youth are not interested in carrying on with the art,” he lamented.

The performer said there was also a range of musical instruments, such as harmonium, tabla, cymbals, dhol and shehnai, which needed to be maintained properly.

“All this needs funds. We can only make a general appeal to the world to come and stand by us or else, this art form will be lost for ever,” said Manindra.