At an exhibition of traditional masks in Pune earlier this year, artist Annada N Menon came across one that particularly intrigued her. It featured the androgynous deity Ardhanarishvara, who according to Hindu mythology is half male and half female, a composite of Hindu god Shiva and his consort, goddess Parvati.
The deity, representing the synthesis of the masculine and feminine energies of the universe, is celebrated in Gomira, a dance form from the Dinajpur district of West Bengal. During sowing season, villagers perform the dance, while wearing colourful masks, including of Ardhanarishvara, to appease a local deity called Gram-Chandi.
The Gomira masks inspired Menon, as did the other exhibited masks made by tribal artisans from Assam, Odisha and Telangana. “These were not flimsy little papier-mâché masks we usually find in cities,” said Menon. “These were the real things made with wood and clay, each layer painted with patience over several days.”
Menon began illustrating the masks earlier this year, but began posting them on Instagram for Inktober – a worldwide challenge inviting artists to paint every day in October. Among the series are a Majuli mask, a Sri Lankan mask and a mask of Hanuman from Varanasi. A Krishna mask, which was her entry for day eight of Inktober, was inspired by the work of Maharashtra’s Warli community.
As part of her research, Menon visited the Tribal Research and Training Institute, commonly called the Tribal Museum, in Pune. The museum had several “well-maintained” masks belonging to tribes from Maharashtra, but no visitors. “There is little interest in this art form,” Menon said.
She used postcards to illustrate on, hoping to give another dying tradition prominence. “It [using postcards] worked out really well because I also liked the yellowish tinge that it gave to all my illustrations, which ended up giving the masks a raw, authentic and natural look,” she said.
Some of Menon’s favourite masks in the series belong to the traditional Chhau martial dance form. While the dance is performed in Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal, the masks are used only in West Bengal. “I love the creativity that one gets to witness in these masks. Even though the Chhau enacts stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are many masks that don’t correspond to any specific character in the epics and are just [a result of] the mask-makers’ creativity.” The masks of Kirat and Kiratin, a tribal couple, similar in likeness to Shiva and Durga, are an example of such creativity. The pair is an essential part of a Chhau performance.
Illustrations of Cherial masks also feature in Menon’s series. Cherial, a village in Telangana, is known for its rich storytelling tradition. Brightly coloured scrolls, along with masks, are used by the village bard as visual aids in his storytelling.
Menon’s series has been praised on Instagram, and the artist is receiving requests for prints. “The goal of the series was to move beyond seeing masks as just living room decorations and recognise them as a part of a larger tradition,” she said.