Masks and dance forms in South and South East Asia | Sunday Observer

Masks and dance forms in South and South East Asia

15 November, 2020

Masks play an important role in the classical, folk and ritual dance forms of South Asia and South East Asian countries. In Indian classical dance forms, as well as in the Indian dance dramas, masks play a major role. Along with the full face covered masks, side face masks covering the ears and side of the face, specially designed crowns or kiridams and distinct make up play a major role in the mask dances.

Among the Indian classical dance forms, Kathakali is the most popular dance form due to its distinct akariya abinaya (makeup and dresses). Because of its distinct make up, beautifully carved and broad colourful crown or kiridams, fully covered facial masks, or side face masks have added more to the beauty of this dance form. Similarly, Yakshagana, a classical dance form of Karnataka, resembles the Kathakali, mainly in the make-up, and in the use of masks.

Even in some of the folk dances, the masks play important role. For instance, in Tamil Nadu popular folk dances, such Therukoothu, Nattukoothu and some other regional folk dances and ritual dances, masks play an important role.

Generally, all the mask dances have some similarities mainly in the stances (standing position) the steps of the dances, as well as in the turns, jumps, twists and various other vigorous movements.

Sun festival

In West Bengal, there are two popular mask dances practised during the Sun festival. One is Cahhu and the other is Gambhira. Cahhu is a ritual group dance.

Gambhira is a Bengali mask dance. But it is essentially a solo dance. People believe that there is a magical and religious influence in these dance forms. All these Indian classical mask dance forms are based on the puranic, religious and epic themes. Besides these Indian classical dance forms, in Bharatha Natyam, a new branch of dance concept was developed during the mid 20th century called ‘dance drama’.

The theme of the dance and dramas are based on relation. Numerous characters are involved in one single dance drama. Each character has a distinct make-up and dress, to the need and necessity. Sometimes, they wear masks.

As a drama, dance drama gives more importance to each character’s dress, make up and the stage décor of the selective scene portrayed. For instance, in Ramayana dance drama, different characters, such as Hanuman, Vaali, Sukirivan, Jaddau and Jaampavaan are involved. Each character wears different masks.

Ramayana is the most important theme among the Indian and South East Asian dances. In the annual Ramalila festival, in the north Indian states, the actors or the characters wear masks or semi-masks for their roles.

In Sri Lanka, numerous mask dances are performed. Some are story-based mask dances, others are for amusement. Some othermasks are used for rituals.

The Kolam is considered as a dance-based play. In this dance, a variety of characters are involved. Each character wears a mask for their distinct character. In Kolam, masks are made with expressions and emotions of the each character.

Sanni yakuma

Another important mask dance of southern Sri Lanka is Sanni yakuma. There are altogether 18 Sanni demons, to cure 18 types of diseases. Each Sanni demon has a name and each demon is supposed to heal a disease. The dancers representing these demons wear black colour costumes, and the skirt decorated with leaves and wearing specific masks.

Masks play an important role in the South East Asian dances. The South East Asian region comprises Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Java, Sumatra, Indonesia and Bali.

Due to the Indian migration to South East Asian region for various purposes, this region came under the Indian influence mainly in cultural, linguistic and religious spheres.

In Thailand, the themes of the dances are firmly based on Ramayana and Mahabaratha. Women, who play important role in these dances, wear masks, especially for certain roles, like monkeys, demons and devas.

Khon, another popular Thai classical mask dance form, is based on a series of stories. A variety of characters is involved in these story based dances. Hence they wear different masks that depict emotional expressions.

In Bali, one of the most popular dance forms is performed in a common place called, Barong Rangda. It is a mask dance, which reveals the struggle between good and evil. Balinese dance tradition is a fusion of Hindu and Islamic cultures. One of the dances is called Wayang Topeng.It is a solo mask dance form which derives its theme from Hindu legends.

Mask dances generally, impart various traditional and religious truths. They impact on human values. Sometimes, these dances are performed during the festive season for amusement and pleasure. Some mask dances are used for ritual purposes to get rid of evil effects and sickness.