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Indian Prototypes of Ancient Greek Masks: Part II

 A Comparative Study of Chhau Masks of Eastern India and Ancient Greek Masks

by

Gouri Nilakantan Mehta

Purulia Chhau Mask           Greek Theatre mask     Saraikela Chhau Mask

pics courtesy : 4to40.com / classicalwainui.wordpress.com

In Greek theatre it is said that Thespis or the first actor stepped away from the chorus and began to speak his own dialogue.  He invented the first actor as he is said to have put a hypocrites, i.e. an answer and response giver, the opposite being exarchos.  The leader and the chorus wore different costumes.  Thepsis is said to have treated the face of his actors with white lead, then covered with cinnabar and rubbed it with wine lees and finally introduced masks of unpainted linen.  Choerilus the successor of Thepsis made further experiments with masks and Phrynichus introduced the woman’s masks.  Aeschylus introduced the second actor; dialogue thus could develop more freely and had greater dramatic significance.  Aeschylus introduced new things to improve the fixed conventions in theatre.  He introduced novelty in costume by giving the players sleeves, increased their height and introduced dignified masks.  Greek tragedy was always a sacred ceremony in honor of the god and therefore the sacred robe, masks stayed as a symbol of god.  In the later periods masks became larger and had more exaggerated features, but in the 5th century, as told by scholars, neither size nor shaper were overtly large and that the mask covered the entire head, included the appropriate hairstyle, beard, ornaments and other features as well. 

Quite similar to Chhau, in the given  structure of Greek theater, acting was close to dancing in which broad gestures and body posture and movements were very important. And of course the actors had to have excellent voices, with clear articulation and good breath control. Although much of the actor's performance was spoken dialogue, he sometimes sung lyric solos.  The mask served as a device to help make the actors voice be heard and it is said that something was constructed in the mouth of the mask so that the voice could be raised and heard.  The mask made the actions more clear and the spectators would therefore be able to pay more attention to the actor’s movements rather then his appearances. 

Both Chhau and Greek theatre’s performance space is outdoors.  In Chhau, the acting area is circular and a wooden platform is erected to one side. The musicians sit on one side of the open area of about 20 feet.  Performances take place in the night at about 10p.m. and goes on till sunrise.  Drummers prelude the performances and display their talent. The show starts with the entry of the elephant god Ganesha and dramatic access of new characters. The audience yells intermittently and gives encouragement to the presentation. Initially lighting was with kerosene oil and now electrical lights are used for illumination.  The mask thus provides the audiences with the much needed relief and help in the total involvement of the display. 

In Greek theatres the performance took place outdoors in large amphitheatres.  The city was well evolved and developed and nearly about 5000-20,000 people were participants. Therefore a large open space was needed for viewing, thus the amphitheatre developed by the end of the 5the century B.C.  Audiences were seated in a semi circle and there were wooden bleachers for them to sit on.  The enlarged and exaggerated expressions of the masks made it possible for the audiences to see the faces of the actors.  The movements and gestures of the actors were very expressive and physical movements enabled the audiences to view them and these complementing the large masked face. 

In Chhau each character is studied well and represented.  Chhau masks can be divided into five categories, gods, goddesses, kings and queens, common men, demons and animals.  The mask had both the facial portion and the head region. The demons had the extended eye, big lips, prominent chin shapely ears, moustaches, whiskers and eyebrows.  They are painted in rich vibrant colors such as green, brown or deep purple.  The gods are in softer pastel colors and the images are in the classical style so that they do not hurt the sentiment of the people.   The head portion of the mask is highly decorated with golden and silvery paper, flowers, glass beads and nylon strings are used for hair. 

Similarly masks of the Greek world were portrait masks as they depicted a particular character.  The birds, frogs and the clouds the chorus represents the titles of the comedy masks.  These masks had exaggerated features long beards, baldness or ugly noses. Comic masks less morphological elements and are asymmetrical features they also express strong emotion such as weeping, anger and acquiescence, agreement.  Characters were easily identifiable and from every day life, they could be easily satire Socrates in Aristophanes Clouds and God Dionysus in the frogs they resembled the main characteristics and helped in creating a humorous ambience.

   The masks covered the entire head and depicted hairstyle, facial features, beard and decorations.  They were made up of perishable material and specific masks were created for each character. For instance, the chorus members in the tragedyl wore same masks so that one could clearly identify them as a group.  The chorus   in the Agamemnon was old men, too old to take part in the Trojan War.  They would have hence been probably been bearded old and shriveled.  The chorus would all thus appear to be similar, a notion widely held, if they all wore the same mask. The idea of having a group of individuals appear the same would be very hard unless masks were used. 

The masks worn had the same effect as the costumes as they were personalized for each character. Special emotions were expressed on the mask, so the audience knew if a character was happy, upset, tired, or scared. Since the masks could be seen even in the last rows, the audience could hence tell how the character was feeling.   For instance, Oedipus, or other royal figures, might have a higher forehead or crown on his head to signify his rank, whereas a comic slave might have large eyes and a huge mouth to show that he is observant and not unwilling to gossip. These physical characteristics of the mask made it easier to tell who was who onstage.   The masks had to represent the outstanding features of the personality of the character.

Mask was a representation of the dramatist’s vision.  Many Princes in Chhau wee also skilled mask makers and Rajkumar Aditya Pratap Deo personally supervised the making of masks.  There are some special masks that represent two characters both in Chhau and Greek theatre.  In Greek theatre it is believed that different masks were used for a powerful king who became blind.  Helen was also represented in two different ways as she cut her hair and had a different spectacle.  Each half of the mask represents a different expression and the performer performs laterally and suddenly turns showing the different face.  Versatility of the actor was thus possible and it was easy for him to switch roles.

In Chhau the two faces of Shiva or the Ardhanariswara is represented in a unique way. It is shown in one mask itself and not by the usual division of the mask. The half male and female energy is shown by a three pronged mark on the forehead that shows the male energy and the lips curl into a small pout expressing affection.  By thus tilting the mask one can get a different perspective and each half character is well studied and represented. 

It is interesting to note that in both Chhau and Greek theatre women did not participate.   Actor did not have specific characters but archetypes to represent them.  The personality of the actors is hence lost and the main characteristic of the theatrical role is bought into prominence.  The actor also has to perform many roles the mask helps him take up different personae and also in impersonating the female roles.  The actor could be adaptable and change his personality and mood of the different characters that he was playing and his mask helps him make the transition into female parts.  

In Greek theatre theatrical masks were constructed by linen cloth and then fortified by plaster by flour glue and fish glue and then it was painted.  Male masks were more intense and female paler.  They also covered the head with hair and the head was covered with a helmet and wool was attached to the head and then styled as hair.  The mouth was left open in the tragedy masks and as the expressions showed more perturbation and passion and the opening became bigger. 

The history of masks in India dates back t the Mesolithic periods.  Excavations have revealed small hollow masks in the Indus Valley Civilization (2500 B.C. - 1200 B.C.  At Chirand in Bihar, a northern state of India, a terracotta mask belonging to the fourth century was unearthed.  The Natyasastra (8th century B.C.), a treatise on music and drama mentions masks or Partishirsa which seems to be very similar to the Greek counterparts.  According to the text,

Different masks (pratshirsa) are to be used for men and gods according to their habitation, birth age…ashes or husks of paddy mixed with the paste of leaves of the bilva tree.  This should be applied on the cloth.  After the cloth dries one should pierce holes in it.  These holes should be made after dividing the cloth into two equal halves.

Initial masks of Chhau were made of wood and earth that was heavy and made breathing very difficult.  It passed down from cruder forms and became slowly sophisticated.  Many techniques were introduced in the mask making process.  The chhau mask is first made up of the clay that is found on the banks of the Kharakei River.  The artist fixes the clay and lets it cool down to harden on a plank.  This process is called the Mati gada or making of the clay.  Then muslin gauze is pasted on it with two or three players giving it thick coating or paper, which is called kagaz chitano.  The mask is then scrubbed off with the help of a sharp instrument called karni and it is polished.  It is then painted in flat pastel colors the stylization being given on the eyebrows and mouth.  This process is called Kabij lepa or painting.  The flat pastel colors give it frankness, simplicity and boldness.  The mask maker avoids realistic identification and the Mask of birds and animals such as deer (harin) or the prajapati (butterfly) is well stylized. 

Mask making is a traditional occupation passed from father to son. The mask makers of Chhau live in Chorida village in Bengal and come from a set class and they bear the surname of Sutradhar or Das.  The mask is made from February to June as it does not rain and in other seasons the artisans are engaged in carpentry and image making.    Masks are rather frail they cannot stand the stress and strain of the performance.  As it does not last for more than a year, it is always in high demand. 

Masks therefore have been a part of the integral world of theatre rituals both in the eastern and western parts.  The use and meaning behind the masks has evolved in many ways since the 5th century B.C.  The dramatized rituals of India are very close in their resemblance to the ancient Greek ones. As correctly pointed out by Turner, rituals often use symbols such as objects, words relationships, events, gestures, or spatial units (19).  Chhau is one such popular ritual folk drama of Eastern India (Mayurbhanj, Seraikela and Purulia) that uses such symbols i.e. elaborate and highly decorated masks.  The masks used in the Chhau folk drama not only reveal crucial social and religious values that transform human attitude and behavior but also disclose influences of other ancient civilizations.   Mask are thus a signifying object, it provided the much needed experience to both the actor and the spectators.  Chhau masks hold our fascination and we can say that so much its history has its roots in ancient Greece that is evident in it.

This article was a paper that Gouri had read in a conference held at Waseda University in Japan, 2008 on Masks.