Monday, 30th October 2017

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A journey around the world, one mask at a time

General Chauhan’s unique collection of masks, especially with a demanding job such as his, which requires moving lock, stock and barrel so often

  • Published 20.04.20, 8:11 PM
  • Updated 20.04.20, 8:11 PM
  • 2 mins read
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Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command, with daughter Pragya at his Alipore house. B. Halder

This was unlike other working-but-laidback Sundays, as my car pulled into Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command’s house near Alipore. As if I wasn’t feeling intimidated enough, my otherwise casually-clad photographer had turned up in head-to-toe formalwear, making me feel rather conspicuous in my tunic and sandals as we made our way inside General Chauhan’s picturesque house. But the man in question instantly made us feel at ease with his warm welcome in his spacious living room, which was adorned with what led us to his house, that March afternoon — his stunning collection of masks.

“It first started with two-three masks that I got from Nepal but those were purely for decorative purposes. Later when I went to Angola, I got a few more — it was a completely different culture there and the purpose of masks were also very different from that of our subcontinent. That’s when I started displaying my masks and the collection has since only been growing,” said General Chauhan, as we chatted over coffee and an endless supply of snacks in plates kept atop a glass-topped coffee table that had two stunning Chhau masks displayed from inside it.

A small part of the collection on display in General Chauhan’s living room.
A small part of the collection on display in General Chauhan’s living room. B. Halder

So what led to General Chauhan’s interest in masks? “I did not start out collecting any but after Africa, when I had a few, I thought each mask gives a peek into a different culture and history of the place and so continued collecting more,” he explained. Since then, he has travelled the world and India, by virtue of his job, and now has over 160 masks in his collection. “If a culture has a mask in it, I go and procure it. Some have been difficult to get and maintaining them is even more difficult. One of the Chhau masks here had to be restored by my wife because it had been discarded and we picked it up and decided to keep it. Once word got out about my collection, people even started gifting me masks,” added General Chauhan. In fact, a look at his collection lets you travel the world — from Asia to Africa, from Nagaland to Leh.

His daughter Pragya joins in with her titbits of having witnessed her father collecting these masks through her growing years and it is evident that the entire family takes great pain and pride in the procurement and upkeeping of

General Chauhan’s unique collection of masks, especially with a demanding job such as his, which requires moving lock, stock and barrel so often. This was followed by a tour around the house with the father-daughter duo keeping us abreast of the stories behind each of the masks. While the bulk of the masks were from Africa and the Himalayan belt in India, we also spotted masquerade masks from Europe and the recurrent theme of Jatayu in a lot of the masks, though each one differently represented by the country of its origin. The antique masks in the collection also ranged from clay and coconut shell to an old one that reportedly has remnants of calcified animal bone.

Since his shift to Calcutta, General Chauhan has also managed to add masks from the state such as the Gambhira and the Chhau masks and was looking forward to adding more from the Sunderbans, as he recounted having read up about the local culture of wearing masks while hunting and the folklore surrounding Bonbibi.

The stories behind the masks from meeting the chief of a head-hunting Konyak tribe in the forests of Nagaland to being in Africa for work kept us entertained as the afternoon ended with a reaffirmation of General Chauhan’s invested love of collecting lores through his illustrious collection. “Now that you know I love collecting masks, please do not hesitate to let me know whenever you find any interesting mask anywhere at all!” signed off General Chauhan.