Masks are one of the lynch-pins of Assamese culture and tradition. They are usually worn during theatre and bhaona, a traditional performance carrying religious messages that was created by 16th century Sankardeva, Assam’s most famous spiritual leader, and which revolves around tribal myths and folktales. Assam’s tribal people also often use masks in the dances they perform to celebrate their own particular myths and folklore.
Assamese masks are typically made from a variety of materials including terracotta, bamboo, wood, cork and sometimes metal. They usually represent local gods and goddesses, characters from the ancient epics like the Mahabharata and historical figures. The masks are divided into three types according to size. Chomask is the biggest and usually made of two parts to cover the head and body.Lotokoi is a smaller version of cho and the mukh mask covers the face only.
The mask-making industry is a major means of livelihood for the rural population. The craftsmen do not belong to any specific caste and are distributed throughout the state. The skill is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next or in the sattras (Vaishnava monasteries) under the guidance of a teacher.
In Assam it is a time-consuming process that involves splitting bamboo strips to form the frame and then pasting on layers of cloths dipped in clay which are then dried in the sun. It normally takes between ten to fifteen days to make a mask. Earth or vegetable dyes are usually used to decorate the masks and the most common colours are red and yellow however, these days chemical dyes are also used. The masks of Majuli are also very popular. They are made of clay, bamboo or cloth and are very light which makes them unique and sort after.
This industry has grown over recent years as more and more people buy masks to decorate their homes.