Once it was confirmed that I would be working in India this fall, I was excited to see if I could find out more about Indian mask traditions. Quick internet searches yielded little, only some tribal Himalayan masks to the north, and a number of colorful pieces in neighboring Sri Lanka.Talking with some people on the Maya project as well as other mask friends gave me a few more ideas about where to look.
Here’s a little of what I found!
Kerala is a state in southern India that borders the Arabian Sea. It is also home to kathakali, a highly stylized drama/dance. The stories told in this form vary, but many are from the Mahabharata epic.
If you arrive early to the performance, not only do you get to observer the performers apply their intense makeup, you also get a better seat. And I’m really glad we did.
After the makeup was applied, there was a demonstration of the techniques used in the dance. You must train for many years before performing in the kathakali, and the abilities of the dancers makes this clear.
The way they could move their eyes was nothing short of amazing. Eyes are very important in the communication of emotions in the drama, and these dancers have amazing muscular control. In addition, the performers of kathakali can isolate muscle groups in their face. Not just like flaring nostrils or wiggling ears—try to imagine just the tops of the cheeks bouncing up and down while the rest of the face remains calm. It’s impressive!
The character designs painted on their faces come alive as these muscle isolations occur. These facial gestures are combined with mudras, or coded positions of the hands, to complete the attitude.
Kerala Folklore Museum
In Ernakulam, a more modern town across the water from Kochi, I was excited to find a museum dedicated to folklore. There were several interesting faces inside. The museum was not always the most successful in providing context for the various images, but I did start to get a sense of mask styles from different regions.
There were also a few examples of puppets in the museum. I knew there were some famous puppets in the state of Rajasthan in the north, but these have a different feeling than their northern relations.
Museum of Mankind
We moved on to the state of Karnataka, just north and east of Kerala. In the city of Mysore, famed for ashtanga yoga and sandalwood crafts, we visited the Indira Ghandi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (aka the Museum of Mankind).
The collection features many tribal art forms from different parts of India. I was lucky to find included a couple of masks from the Himalayas in this southern state. The style is quite different form the types I had seen in Kerala. I imagine the species of wood used for carving is different as well.
Though I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t find as many masks as I had hoped, the museum also features a large collection of terra cotta figures from around India. These figures provide some insight into the style and decorative idiosyncrasies of the culture to which they belong.
As a child, I would often hear my father say: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The most pressing thing on my mind at the time was: Why would one want to skin a cat at all?
I still haven’t answered that question. However, I do know there’s more than one way to get something done. And I have been trying a good number of approaches as I work on the masks for the Mayaproject: different styles, different materials, different processes.
There’s also more than one way to feel successful. I think some of the success of a mask is measured by its accessibility. It is a really satisfying feeling when a person can pick up a mask I’ve made and instantly feel that they know what they will do with it. There is a feeling that the mask is strongly and clearly communicating its nature to the performer.
I’m not trying to say that masks can’t or shouldn’t be mysterious. Many a mask can take some work to get to know and to perform well. However, when there is a sense of recognition in the actor’s eyes because they can intuit the nature of the character, or see the possibilities in the mask, I feel I’ve done a good job.
Materials, working conditions, and needs of the performance are often in flux, so I find that adaptability is key. I have my preferred methods of creation when on my home turf, but while in India there are a number of differences. For example, used cardboard boxes, brown bags, and newspaper are not easy obtainium in Mumbai as they are in the US. Here they are commodities that can be purchased if you know where to look. The challenge can then become to use what you have in front of you to get the work done.
Furthermore when working on a project as large as Maya, often previously approved ideas need to change slightly to serve the show. Sometimes the choreography, blocking, and the style of mask just don’t synch up and to be successful we find how we might change.In some cases, the choreography can be altered with minimal fussiness. In the case of our peacock character, Prasad was so amazing and alive in physical characterization that it was better to change the position of the mask to match what he was proposing.
Five Sprites, Please
Just a few days before all the basic structures and paint jobs were due, I was asked to make the antlers of the deer masks removable. This would permit easier shipping from venue to venue on the tour. I decided to use old bottles and their lids as the mechanism for this request. A 600 ml Sprite bottle had the perfect neck, but also a very short lid to which I could attach the wire and foam antlers. But it would have to do. I went out into the madness of the Dadar market to purchase five Sprites, trying to decide whether I would drink any or just pour it out. It was a hot day. But I couldn’t find a single one. Then I found a plastics shop (owned by Shahish, incidentally. See parrot pic) that carried long neck bottles with tall lids. Success!
Today I complete another revolution around the sun. I am in the same place, but not in the same place. Unlike any previous year, I am in another country for my birthday.
I will be spending it NOT working, and doing a bit of roaming around Mumbai and sharing food with friends. I am so very lucky to do what I do. It’s not just the passive accident of where and when I was born, it is also the summation of active gestures—positive and negative— from people all over that create the circumstances in which I live. For all of these I am grateful.
Thank you to my supportive friends and family, to my boyfriend, to Teach For India and ASTEP, to the wonderful people of India, to the entire production crew of Maya, to all who have helped me afford to make this trip, to everyone whose actions may be invisible to me, but help me all the same.
Special thanks to Sheetal, Raju, Sunita, Sajida, and Shaheen for helping me stay well fed.
To whoever invented the table top fan: I salute you. You have helped my sculpting in the back room of the Dadar studio feasible.
Thanks also to the Heart of the Beast and BareBones puppeteers of Minneapolis—Mark, Alison, Masa, Bart, Julian, Soozin, and all the others—who introduced me to the wonders of sculpting with recycled cardboard and to the eternally amazing Creature Stapler.
Making the Keeper of the Copper Mask
Making a mask with cardboard armature is really fun. I started with a basic idea of an approach. As I made each decision, the next choice became clear. It’s one of the best things about creating.
I’ve always been a very visual learner. When learning a new place, it is no different. Cross-referencing my physical experience of moving through a city with the visual representation of the journey on a map is important to me.
I had an idea of the location of my guest house before leaving, but only an idea. Addresses in India follow different syntax than what I am accustomed to, and many addresses include items like “nearby this prominent location” or “opposite of this building you will hopefully already know or be able to locate”. Building numbers and street names don’t’ seem to be used much, if it all.
At 11:30pm, it was a dark ride and over an hour’s drive from the airport. I’m not really sure the path we took, but traffic was not bad. As we got closer, the cab driver would stop and ask people on the street about the location of my guest house, or at least the hospital it was said to be nearby. I checked in, notified my contacts I had safely arrived, and was asleep by 1:30.
Thursday, First Day
I looked out of my 6th floor window in the morning to look at the suburb of New Panvel. There were some nearby hills, a lake, and some cows grazing in a grassy triangle between the street and the highway. After a breakfast and couple quick phone conversations, it was determined that I would be changing residence to a more central location in Mumbai. I packed up my things, had a quick lunch, and took a taxi to Vashi station to meet Sheetal, our artistic consultant/coordinator, wardrobe supervisor, charge painter, etc.
During our drizzly cab ride to join Jinal and Toral, who are working in production and stage management on Maya, Sheetal and I discussed a work plan. There was so much sensory information from the streets we passed along that it was difficult to focus. There were different styles of architecture and plant life. There was the constant (literally) honking of horns as cars, trucks, motorcles, scooters, rickshaws, hand drawn carts, and pedestrians wove the fabric of traffic. In many cases, traffic lanes and signals are merely a suggestion of what one might do if so inclined.
We collected Jinal and Toral and looked at one of our two prospective workspaces. It was in an office in South Mumbai, not far from the beautiful Nariman Point. It was very clean, carpeted and formal, and the hours were restricted to 9-6. It’s pretty difficult to stay tidy when sculpting clay, using papier mache, etc. After the tour, we all agreed that it wasn’t optimal. The artistic process doesn’t always easily conform to a business day schedule. Sometimes the work you are doing suddenly takes off late in the day, and you would be a fool to stop working because of an external and arbitrary stop time…especially on the condensed time frame we are on.
With my wet bags up on the rack of the taxi, the four of us proceeded along the waterfront to Worli Sea Face and the home of Shaheen Mistri, founder and CEO of Teach For India. After meeting Raju, a former student of Sheetal and a recent arts school graduate, the five us stepped through each of the masks and puppets needed, the materials required and so on. After a delicious meal of dal, rice, and vegetable dishes, I moved my belongings into a room at Shaheen’s place.
Shop til you Drop
The next day was shopping day. or more like an education day. Either way you look at it, it was ALL day.
My new trusty sidekick Raju took me all around streets and streets of markets. I think we were in Crawford Market. Each street of stalls is sort of thematic: “Plastics”, “Stationery”, “Machine parts”, etc. Traffic is of course insane, and the horns remained constant. Social relationships were at play, it was very clear, though I don’t know who was which part. it took quite some time to break out of the spell of it and remember what things I was looking for. Most vendors spoke Marathi or Hindi, and very few spoke a little English. I still only have only the most general idea where we were most of the time.
After dodging crumbling pavements and suspicious pools of water for sometime, we entered a primarily Muslim neighborhood. Here was much more of a ‘junk store’ approach. It reminded me of a parallel experience in years ago in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where at the time there were many stores of collected junk for resale under awkward lighting. All this junk, however, is laid out in the street on tarps and such. According to Raju, all of it is second hand and/or stolen. This was in the Chor Bazaar (“Thief Bazaar”). Raju reminded me to watch my pockets.
At 1:30, the muezzin started calling, and the street was about to close for prayer. We caught a cab as soon as we could and got out of the neighborhood before it was impossible. We ventured forth and north to Dadar. This is where I will be working, close to the Dadar West train station. We grabbed lunch from a restaurant to go— really I suppose it was a food stand. Samosa chaat, a noodle roti and something else potatoey. It was all very good (though the next day Sheetal chided Raju for giving my untrained stomach street food). The work space is a little small, but accessible at all hours and surrounded by other markets. It will be awesome!
We looked for more materials—it just takes sooo long! I was simultaneously taking note of, well, everything. The sounds, the signs, the traffic, the experience of being the only person who looks like me in a group of thousands, what materials are common in US but hard to find here, what materials are in both but with radically different names, and what the Indians like to use. Which is apparently thermocol. That’s styrofoam. There’s a lot of thermocol that has been intricately shaped and is often used for a variety of festivals. I may be learning some new materials!
With things still running a bit slowly, and with all my senses still being assaulted, we took the train up to Mahim Junction to look at the baskets woven on the street. We commissioned a full sphere basket as a test as an armature for sculpting some of the helmet masks. We had at least and hour before it would be ready, so we took the train two stops back down to Dadar. Traveling back to Dadar was more hectic because of rush hour. The trains doors are left open, and many people sort of hang out the sides. New Yorkers: if you think you know the stress of a rush hour subway, think again. Mumbai has you on this one.
Suddenly the purchasing mojo sort of kicked in and things were found without too much trouble. Hooray! We dropped it off at the workspace. Once back in Dadar, we were suddenly able to find many materials we wanted right away. The reward of the day!
We closed up the studio and went once more to the train to collect our new basket. As we let several overcrowded trains pass in the hope of a less populated car, Raju told me that he had once seen a drunk man climb on top of the train because it was so crowded. However, he hit the power line and was dead on the ground in six seconds. His entire person was aflame.
We took a cab.
The basket collected and the day ended, we traveled back to Worli Sea Face for some food and rest.
Setting it all up
The next day was full of plotting out work schedules for each day and setting up the studio. A well-organized workspace cannot be beat! Having experienced a bit of what was available in the markets, I tried to determine with what material each masks could be made. Sheetal brought me some powdered clay – I had never used it before and was dubious. As Raju painted some of the thermocol pieces created by another artist on the project, I managed to figure it out (I think). And now the first mask is underway!
The following day I took off from studio work to change residence again. Now I am locate just between Worli and Dadar in Prabhadevi. A quick walk around yesterday afternoon yielded the location of Starbucks (and therefore internet) and thus I am able to write this all now. I don’t know how often my workload will permit blogging, but I will try to keep you all updated at least with a couple of pictures now and then!
I’m traveling to India! I will be volunteering the next two months for the Maya Project, a joint project of two great organizations, Teach for India and Artists Striving to End Poverty. It’s a wonderful project, aimed at the empowerment of children to creatively work for the change they would like to see.
A significant part of this program is the touring of an original musical titled “Maya.” I will be making about 60 masks and puppets for this fantastic story! Nine-headed snakes, a rhino, and soul-sucking shadows are just the tip of the iceberg. The plot involves the daughter of the Kingdom of Light and her quest to keep the world in light through the lifting of three curses on the kingdom. She can only fix these problems, as it turns out, by finding her inner strength, compassion and wisdom.
This show will be performed by about 90 kids from the lower and middle classes for thousands of other kids around India. Through this project, thirty of the performers have been investigating these themes and their real world applications for the last year. Though the performers and audience may experience the themes of the show in slightly different ways, this project is a great way to inspire youth to share their voices and their light.
From Teach For India’s website:
“In India today, 4% of our children never start school. 58% don’t complete primary schools. And 90% don’t complete school. At Teach For India, the fact that only 10% of our children go on to college both saddens and angers us.
Teach For India exists because of a deep belief that every child can and must attain an excellent education. Teach For India exists to prove that no child’s demographics should determine his or her destiny. To us, the end of educational inequity is the freedom for all children to have the opportunity to reach their potential. And the day that all children reach their potential is the day that India reaches her potential.
Teach For India believes that that day will come in our lifetime.
Teach For India believes that it will take a movement of leaders with the idealism, belief, skills and commitment to actualize this vision. We are committed to finding, developing and supporting India’s brightest, most promising leaders for this to happen.”
This is a hugely significant project, and I’m honored to be a part of it. What could be a more fitting project for me than one that involves creating masks and puppets, working with you, and working to make the world better?
I will be flying to Mumbai this week to begin work. Many have already been so generous with their presence, advice, hospitality, funds, warm wishes and spirit. Thank you all. I can’t wait to pay it all forward!