Utpal Borpujari's New Film , THE MASK ART OF MAJULI
Noted Indian film scholar and author, Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji writes on film critic-turned-filmmaker Utpal Borpujari’s new documentary.
Meet Utpal Borpujari. He wears many creative hats but you cannot see him wearing them. He is completely grounded to his roots both as a celebrated journalist, author and filmmaker and also as man rooted to the North East where he belongs. He is not only a National Award-winning journalist but has also won a National Award for his feature film Ishu and several State awards for his films over the years. He has just made a documentary produced by Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), an organisation under Ministry of Culture, Govt of India, on a little-known form of performing art and beautiful traditional art through masks made by traditional artists of Majuli in Assam. The film is called The Mask Art of Majulli.
Majuli is a river island in the Brahmaputra River, Assam and in 2016 it became the first island to be made a district in India. In the 1790s the island covered a huge area in the beginning of the 20th century but having lost significantly to erosion, this has dwindled considerably over the years. Majuli has shrunk as the river surrounding it has grown. The island is formed by the Brahmaputra River in the south and the Kherkutia Xuti, an anabranch of the Brahmaputra, joined by the Subansiri River in the north.
The Mask Art of Majuli is a visually beautiful film as the camera scans the picturesque landscape of the North East as it reaches Majuli where the visuals take on a lot of colour and music stepping into the village where the mask makers are at work and one of them, Khagen Goswami, a handsome and tall man who is a traditional performer is wearing different masks to demonstrate his acts of performing different characters from our famous epics. The art of mask-making has been handed down from generation to generation and though it is a very long and painful process, which is shown by the director step by slow step, we find the veteran masters quite happy with their work with the masks and this applies to the masked performers as well. The mask-making itself is a very very laborious process that passes through several stages till it is ready to be worn by a performer first for rehearsals and then for the performances. The entry of a tourist group that has arrived to see how they make masks is uncalled for in this film.
Image: filmmaker Utpal Borpujari
In his directorial statement, Borpujari says, “This film is part of my continuing endeavour to document various socio-cultural aspects of North East India. The art of mask making in Assam has its genesis in the Ankiya Naat / Bhaona culture initiated by the 15th century saint, social reformer, cultural activist Srimanta Sankardev as part of the Vaishnavaite "Ek Sharana Naam Dharma" propagated by him. The art is, therefore, about 500 years old, but there are very few practitioners of it in Assam. The late Kosha Kanta Deva Goswami (and now his next generation) and Dr Hem Chandra Goswami, both Sangeet Natak Akademi awardees, have been the pioneers in trying to save the dying art. My film is an effort to document that effort as well as visually capture the art of making those masks and their usage.”
To step back into the history of this art and performing art, the numerous Satras (Vaishnavaite monasteries) of Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited river island, are not only religious places of great significance but also form the heart of Satriya culture created by the 15th century saint, poet, playwright, social reformer and cultural icon Srimanta Sankardev.
One key element of the Satriya culture is the masks that are worn by performers during Bhaona, which are dance dramas based primarily on Hindu mythology. These masks – or “Mukha“ as they are called in Assamese – represent an intricate art form, and artisans create them in a unique and totally organic way using biodegradable material.
This film creatively documents the Mask Art form of Majuli, focusing on the only two families that are keeping the practice alive at the Natun Chamaguri Satra, including award-winning mask maker Dr Hem Chandra Goswami.
Adds Borpujari, “The Bhaonas and Ankiya Naats are an intrinsic part of Assamese culture, and as an Assamese, I have known about the art form since childhood. Right now, there are two leading families who are carrying on this rich tradition of mask-making and also, adding to the unique performance art with the masks. : One family comprises Dr Hem Chandra Goswami (Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee and Padma Shri), his nephew Khagen Goswami who is a beautiful performer and younger family members. The other family comprises the sons of the late Kosha Kanta Deva Goswami (Sangeet Natak Akademi Awardee) - Naren, Pradip, Prasanna, Dhiren Goswami and younger family members.”
The masked actors perform the traditional Bhaonas and Ankiya Naats, and the subjects are mainly episodes from Ramayan and Mahabharata as well as Lord Sri Krishna's life. It is preserved and performed in its original form. The visuals that you see in the film are from all over Majuli, but the mask makers are based in Chamaguri Satra (Satras are Vaishnavaite monasteries), where the core of the film was filmed.
When asked how long it took him and his crew to shoot the film Borpjari says, “I started the film in 2019 and finished it in 2022. While the principal shoot was done in 2019, the film's post-production got delayed because of the Pandemic. Also, it being a government institution produced film, there is a procedure of previewing rough and final cuts, which takes its own time.”
The Festival screening selections as of now are – the 29th Festival International Cinemas d'Asie, Vesoul, France (Feb 28-March 8, 2023): in competition, Documentary section, then, the 11th Chennai International Documentary and Short Film Festival, India (Feb 20-28, 2023): in competition and the 6th International Folklore Film Festival, Thrissur, Kerala, India (January, 2023. Add to this the 2nd Indie8 Documentary Film Festival, Shillong, India (March 8-10, 2023) .
According to Borpujari, “It is inspiring to see how the mask makers are trying to preserve and revive a dying art. Their artistry is mesmerising, as is their simple and humble lifestyle. We city dwellers have a lot to learn from how they lead their lifestyle. I am happy that wherever the film has been screened till now, the audiences have liked its treatment. That is the most satisfying thing for a filmmaker.”
The Masks of Majuli is not only an enlightening film but it is also an enriching film that is beautiful to watch with a melodious musical score that does not overwhelm the visuals at any point but rather, complements them. Besides, since different kinds of percussion instruments are common in the North East, the sound beat of drums adds a beautiful rhythm to the film.
Though it is a documentary film, it is a must-watch by all.