a mask tells us more than a face

saidul haque juise on mask-making in bangladesh
translated by Ahsan Akbar

Renowned artist and mask-maker Saidul Haque Juise offers his views on the mask-making tradition. In his interview with Jafrin Gulshan, he sheds light on the state of the mask-making craft and its position in today’s global culture.

Anthropologists believe that man created tools in order to survive. This fact becomes obvious when you consider some of our oldest inventions, such as the wheel or hammer, which serve practical purposes. But why did we decide to make masks? It seems odd to place these objects alongside clay pots or woven bags in terms of usefulness. And yet the mask was just as important to prehistoric society and is just as integral to our understanding of ancient customs and traditions as the aforementioned tools. This must be why we find so many examples of the mask-making trade among several great civilizations including the Mesopotamian, Byzantine, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mongolian and Mughal.
In the Indian Subcontinent, masks first came into use several centuries ago. B.M. Pande, in the INGCA volume on Mind, Man and Mask (2001) reveals evidence in the Mesolithic and upper-Paleolithic cave paintings in Cantrell, India which shows that masks have been made in South Asia since roughly 15,000 BC, and could even have existed long before then. But what do these artifacts tell us about the mask’s functions in society? In the rock art of Bhimbetka we see dancers in tribal ceremonies who are depicted wearing masks, some with animal motifs and others with more abstract designs. This reveals that masks were used primarily in connection with religious rituals and provided entertainment during cultural festivals.
Today, the mask-making tradition in the Indian Subcontinent is a craft on a very small scale. Masks are still used to entertain rural communities with dramatic presentations of religious or mythological stories. But due to their loss of significance in present-day society, the middle and upper classes remain largely unmoved by masks. Even amongst the art community, there remain very few artists who work closely with masks. Saidul Haque Juise, an eminent Bangladeshi artist, developed a fascination for making masks when he was a student at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka. He has continued to work with them since then and has not only produced new masks, but also developed new techniques and in the process has discovered new materials to make them. He also shared his skills with others in mask-making classes and workshops.
I had the pleasure of meeting him for tea recently at his home in Uttara. We sat amidst his collection of local and foreign masks, collected during his travels in Australia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, China, Japan, the Middle-East and South Asia. This collection represents a wealth of cultural knowledge from all over the world. We spoke about the mask-making craft and its evolution alongside the other art forms in Bangladesh.

Jafrin Gulshan You collect masks from various different cultures. What are the unique elements which tie them strongly to their countries of origin?
Saidul Haque Juise The origin and invention of masks is similar across cultures and represents the mystical or supernatural beliefs of a society. Masks evoke magic between this life and the afterlife. Masks also represent a technique of survival, since pagan societies saw them as protection from vengeance of supernatural deities. Every culture adds distinct nuances to the masks it produces. The African masks are typically made of wood and feature a unique lined relief process made with carvings, to give a simple and firm dimension. The Nepalese masks, like the houses they build, are very bright and colourful. In fact, many countries in South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, Bhutan and India, have masks painted with bold hues and feature the colours prevalent in that culture’s palette, i.e. – colours seen at their cultural festivals and in everyday life. In essence, masks are a reflection of a particular society’s beliefs and customs. I think that’s why they’ve survived for so long, and that’s also why we should work to preserve them as a craft.
On that note, where do you think the future of mask-making is headed?
I think it will continue to be featured in a select few exhibitions and at most cultural festivals. I am doing my part to keep this tradition alive, by teaching it to others in classes or at workshops. They are learning to use my techniques and have started to make masks as a hobby. I wish there were a village where people would only make masks. There are a lot of rural communities who are involved in a single craft trade and I wish there were something like that for masks. The skills would be passed down through a hereditary system from one generation to another. That way, the craft’s survival could be guaranteed – at least on a small scale.

Can you talk about some of the techniques you’ve developed for making masks?
Sure. I make masks using a variety of different materials such as wood, mud and paper. I developed the paper-folding technique where you can make the form and shape of the mask by folding pieces of paper. It’s simple and can be done with minimal time and expense. In 2004, I started making masks in the elongated form and also experimented with sawdust and sand. I apply colours to each mask by using the colour lining technique. We use colours to create the mood of a mask and give each work a unique character. One has to see the colours in accordance with the dimensions of the mask. Then you must choose the right colours to go with the design. I have observed mask designs from across a variety of cultures very closely and found that the techniques used to lay down the lines on each mask are simple but elegant. Each stroke carries a lot of beauty and creates a sense of harmony and rhythm in each piece, even where there are strong contrasts in colours.

Is there still a demand for masks in today’s society?
I think that people are drawn to masks. There is still some demand for it among the younger generation who buy them to decorate their homes. But masks aren’t as popular as they used to be. I also see a lot of foreigners who buy masks at fairs and festivals as souvenirs or as gifts for their friends. I collect masks too and personally feel that they make great decorations. Drama troupes also incorporate masks into their stage productions to portray characters in a play or a dance drama. I make masks for them from time to time and it’s a very different process from when I work on my own personal projects. My creativity and imagination are what shine through when I make masks for an exhibition or a workshop but when I work with a theatre production, the appearance and character of each mask is dictated by the script. Masks have fallen into the category of traditional goods and are very popular at cultural festivals. In fact, when I was a student at the Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka, my friends, classmates and I started the trend of making masks for the celebration of Pohela Boishakh, the Bengali New Year. It’s still a very popular attraction and over the years has become an important part of Boishakh festivities.

Masks today have lost their ritualistic use in everyday life. But, we continue to be fascinated by them as objects of mystery and intrigue. In contemporary art, they are used as objects to hide layers of meaning. In drama, literature and film they are used as a character’s disguise to create a sense of mystery and danger in the plot. But why do we enjoy masks? What result is derived from wearing a mask? In his essay, Pen, Pencil and Posion: a Study in Green (1889), Oscar Wilde quipped that “A mask tells us more than a face.” Wilde believed that we can understand a person’s character based on his choice of a mask to hide himself. Perhaps this psychological vantage point can help us to not only understand the mask, but appreciate the aesthetic depth of the medium as an art form. It is both a treasured craft item and a representation of the human psyche.

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