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Gomira Masks
The use of masks in folk performances and religious ritual is an ancient tradition in different parts of the world. There are many theories regarding the origins of masks, but it is generally accepted that this goes back to the religious practices of primitive tribal cultures and that they constitute a thread of continuity from the prehistoric past to the present. 

Masks greatly vary in appearance, raw materials and utility, depending on different belief systems and ecologies. Among certain communities where masks are connected with rituals, the person wearing a mask often enters an altered state of consciousness, and is possessed by the characteristics of the personality of the mask.  Without change in identity of the person who wears the mask, the ritual offerings, the vows fulfilled to the spirit, are considered to be ineffective and meaningless. They do not yield the required or desired effect to the tribe or community.

Masks in ritual dances and traditional folk theatre have been in existence in Bengal for many centuries spanning districts like Purulia, Bankura, Malda, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. However, many of these performing arts are on the brink of extinction or have ceased to exist, particularly the ones that were brought in by immigrants from East Bengal.  Of the varieties of masks in use today, the most notable are those used for the Chho and Gomira dances.  


The use of masks in folk performances and religious ritual is an ancient tradition in different parts of the world. There are many theories regarding the origins of masks, but it is generally accepted that this goes back to the religious practices of primitive tribal cultures and that they constitute a thread of continuity from the prehistoric past to the present. 

Masks greatly vary in appearance, raw materials and utility, depending on different belief systems and ecologies. Among certain communities where masks are connected with rituals, the person wearing a mask often enters an altered state of consciousness, and is possessed by the characteristics of the personality of the mask.  Without change in identity of the person who wears the mask, the ritual offerings, the vows fulfilled to the spirit, are considered to be ineffective and meaningless. They do not yield the required or desired effect to the tribe or community.

Masks in ritual dances and traditional folk theatre have been in existence in Bengal for many centuries spanning districts like Purulia, Bankura, Malda, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. However, many of these performing arts are on the brink of extinction or have ceased to exist, particularly the ones that were brought in by immigrants from East Bengal.  Of the varieties of masks in use today, the most notable are those used for the Chho and Gomira dances.  

The Gomira masks of Dinajpur are ritual masks known for their ferocious expressions and stand out for their primitive simplicity. The Gomira masked dance has its roots in animist traditions and the worship of Adya Shakti (primordial energy). The Shakti cult is deeply entrenched in erstwhile West Dinajpur (North and South Dinajpur today) and every village has its own shrine devoted to Shakti, in her many forms, as the gram devata (guardian deity) of that village.  Since Gomira is associated with the worship of numerous Kali-centric folk deities, there is a mask for each of them and Gomira dances are organized to propitiate each village’s particular deity.  In addition to the masks used for the performance, masks of the deity are also pledged to the deity on the fulfillment of a person’s wishes. 

Most of the deities are manifestations of Kali and thus Shiva and so, there are masks for ChamundaSmashan Kali (also known as Baher-Kali) and Bura-Buri (folk manifestation of Shiva-Parvati). There are also masks for Shiknidhal, Basanti, Mahamaya (Durga), Hanuman, Bagh Mashan, Dakini Bishwal, Shikni Bishwal, Nar-Rakhas and an assortment of ghosts, goblins, demons and animals like the tiger, bear and rhino.  

Shiknidhal is a folk incarnation of Chamunda. Shikni means Shakun or vulture. The mask is that of a malevolent regional folk deity, which brings misfortune at the slightest provocation. The Rajbongshis maintain that in times gone by, the first born of a family would be given to Shiknidhal, who would then proceed to suck its blood. The belief was this would protect the rest of the children of the family and keep them from harm. The powerful Shiknidhal mask dancer usually has to be bound by ropes because of the terribly violent state that he gets into. 

Each mask is used for a particular reason and at a particular time. The rituals take place between Choitro Sankranti (mid-April) and mid-July, dates and gram devata varying from village to village. For example, Chamunda worship takes place on Choitro Sankranti. On the other hand, villages where Amatkali is the village deity, the worship takes place during the mango harvesting season (Joishtho – mid-May to mid-June). During the Amatkali worship, young boys are often seen wearing masks carved out of the stem of the banana tree and dancing around the shrine.  Since it is customary for villagers to offer a mask to the deity should their wishes be fulfilled, a goat or cow that had gone missing is often the reason for numerous masks (usually shola)  seen strewn around roadside shrines of the deity. 

The dance takes place in the gomirar tola, an open space near the village, next to the shrine, usually in the vicinity of a banyan tree.  The dancers wear the masks of the deities to invoke their powers and to propitiate their particular guardian deity for a prosperous harvest in the coming year and to usher in the `good forces` and drive out the `evil forces`. The dancers, especially those who wear the larger masks, often go into a trance. 

There is also a mask for Narasingha. However, Narasingha is an incarnation of Vishnu and in no way connected to Chandi. It is believed that the mask was originally that of Narasinghi, another form of Chandi but with the passage of time and possibly inadvertently, the feminine was changed to masculine and thus Narasinghi became Narasingha. As a result, the mask too evolved - from that of a form of Chandi to one of the half man-half lion avatar of Vishnu. There is also a very primitive tradition of using a Mashan mask (Mashan Kali) at the very end of the dance. This is a ritual with a skull of a person deceased the previous night. The practice has mostly ceased. 

Masks for the Gomira ritual have traditionally been made by the Deshi and Polia communities of the Rajbongshis who constitute the major bulk of the region. The use of the mask too is strictly confined to these people and for this specific ceremonial annual occasion. The mask maker has to observe certain ritualistic restrictions when making the masks, especially those of Kali, Shiknidhal and other powerful deities. The dancer, the wearer of these masks, too must observe specific rituals, and keep himself cleansed both in body and in mind, so that he is protected against any interference from malevolent spirits.   

Wood is the principal material for the Gomira mask. Originally, gamar wood was used for the convenience of carving,  being a soft, light wood, but wood of the neem, chhatim, mango, jackfruit or fig  tree (pakur) are also been used. The craftsman would carve a block of wood, about 18 inches long, with his simple iron tools to obtain the required dimensions and contours of a specific mask. The masks used for performance would have elongated slits directly below the eyes. The craftsman would then smoothen  the surface with sandpaper and finally apply colour over a base of white clay (khori mati) using basic home made brushes. Each category of mask would have a specific form and colour. Natural dyes like red from the leaves of the teak tree, green from the leaves of the sheem (broad beans), violet from the jamun fruit and grey, white, vermillion and saffron coloured clay would form his palette. These would be mixed with the glue obtained from the bael plant or powdered tamarind seeds. Such was the traditional process of yore. 

However, traditional methodology gradually gave way to convenience and eventually, market demands. Natural dyes were substituted with synthetic powder dyes and the natural glue with arrowroot and more recently “fevicol”. The masks began to assume a  more “finished” look involving greater detailing and emphasis on the facial features. Enamel paint too has been used.  

While Gomira masks have been actively promoted in recent times and there has been a spurt of commercial activity around them, in the old days, just a few new masks would be made each year for ritual needs, with older ones being touched up or repaired. Thus this craft was almost a spare time activity. Its production was further restricted by the fact that rituals are involved in the process of mask making and not all wood carvers had the courage to risk incurring the displeasure of the spirit of the mask. 

Such was the fear associated with these old masks, that they would be kept far away from their owners` homes, hidden in a field or perched on a pole in the middle of a vegetable field to divert the evil eye. These were called Chhebuyan and would be re-used in the following year at the next gomira festival. It was strictly taboo for those who had not completed necessary rituals to come in contact with these masks which could endanger their very lives. Thus only a few brave wood carvers would be approached for the job, irrespective of their wood carving expertise.  This probably accounts for the typical “look” that defined a traditional Gomira mask – simple, crude relief work and a near absence of carved decoration. 

While traditional masks used to be made of wood, masks made of papier mache with shola pith (sponge wood) decorations also go back several hundred years and are today more commonly used than the wooden masks, being cheaper, lighter and therefore more convenient to use. While wooden masks have greater longevity, the fragile shola masks have to be replenished more often. So unlike the wooden mask makers who were sustaining themselves with difficulty until recently, the shola mask makers (malakars) were kept busy all year. Lack of demand was never an issue for them. This is also due to the fact that most rural households keep a shola mask of their griha devata (household deity) in their shrines at home in lieu of images. So a shola mask pertaining to the household deity would be ordered for every ceremony or ritual.  These masks are however not for use in the Gomira dances. 

After the Gomira rituals are completed, it was traditionally customary to place the masks back at the thaan where they would remain till the next year. However, for the past few decades, innumerable cases of old wooden masks being stolen from the thaan and resold at high prices outside the country, came to light. As a result, wooden masks are returned to the safety of the homes of the families who own them; they are worshipped at home once a year and then brought back to the Gomira thaan with a fresh coat of paint before the annual rituals begin. The papier mache masks remain at the shrine. At the shrine in some villages, the masks are often arranged in front of  a chaali - a backdrop decorated with pictures or sholapith images of the mask placed in front of it.   

Traditional masks first began to move from the performance area to urban drawing rooms sometime in the early nineties, thanks to the promotion of this unique craft in Kolkata by art connoisseurs like the late Abhijit Gupta. It was actually in 1990 that the craft had begun to get organized in Mahishbathan in South Dinajpur, thanks to the initiative of local librarian Paresh Roy. Paresh, with the help of two local master craftsmen, Moinuddin Ahmed, an expert in bamboo craft and Shankar Sarkar, an experienced wooden mask maker, decided to start a co-operative. Between them, they encouraged unemployed local youth to learn the crafts, with the bamboo and wood procured centrally and a fair payment assured. Enthusiastic and skilled young artisans from nearby villages within Kushmandi block like Ajit, Kyakaroo, Sanjulal, Ananto, Gopal Boishyo, teenaged Shankar Das and others joined as trainees and went on to become master craftsmen. As word spread, villagers began to visit them for their ritual needs before the agricultural season commenced and over time, the co-operative was also able to establish ties with local authorities and start marketing their crafts (sets of Gomira masks) at local fairs and later at handicraft fairs around the country. The craft received a further boost, thanks to a memorandum of understanding signed between the West Bengal government and UNESCO to promote culture-based livelihoods, under which the Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited at Mahishbathan developed into a rural craft hub. Today, the co-operative supports about 250 artisans carrying forward the tradition of wooden mask-making of the Rajbongshi community in South Dinajpur. Other villages where the craft is practiced are Ushaharan, Deul and Kokil in South Dinajpur and Krishnabati in Kaliaganj block of North Dinajpur. The gomira mask now has a country wide market and some of the Mahishbathan craftsmen have also had opportunity to travel abroad with their crafts.

Shola pith (on papier mache) gomira mask making is to be found across villages like Dehat, Muskipur, Harirampur and Aminpur in South Dinajpur and Karandighi and Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur.  

With an eye on commercialization and changing market demands the Gomira craft is evolving. As a result, the Mahishbathan artists in particular have whole heartedly welcomed design intervention and have started trying new designs, styles and materials, not exclusive to mask making. Miniature masks for home décor and fridge magnets have become popular. The old order changeth. However, much to the satisfaction of the traditionalists, some of the older craftsmen are still able to reproduce the old masks. 

Wooden masks are also used in the Ram Banobash Pala, a folk drama of the region. Masks are particularly used by the non Aryan characters like Ravan, Surpanakha , Garur etc. But the masks used here have nothing in common, either in form or function, with those of the Gomira dance.