Majuli’s mask art: Assam’s hidden gem in India’s northeast

By Indira Laisram
Majuli mask artists // Pic supplied

Nestled in Assam’s Brahmaputra River, there lies a river island known as Majuli. This enchanting island made history in 2016 by becoming the first-ever in India to be designated as a district. However, Majuli’s significance doesn’t stop there. It also holds a vital role as one of the prominent sites where the art of mask making continues to flourish.

For Utpal Borpujari, a former journalist turned filmmaker, India’s northeast region, of which Assam is a part, still suffers from a significant information gap when it comes to the outside world.

Through his films, Borpujari aspires to bridge this gap and shed light on the region’s rich cultural heritage and untold stories, showcasing them on the big screen.

The Mask Art of Majuli is one such attempt. In it, Borpujari creatively focuses on the only two families that are keeping the practice alive at the Natun Chamaguri Satra, including the award-winning mask maker, Dr Hem Chandra Goswami.

Borpujari finds observational filmmaking fitting for capturing this dying art that a handful of people are trying to revive, ensuring the narrative remains accessible and engaging.

The film holds great significance in the context of Northeast Indian culture.

“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 that was created by 15th century saint, poet, playwright, social reformer and cultural icon Srimanta Sankardev.

Filmmaker Utpal Borpujari // Pic supplied

“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,” explains Borpujari.

Understanding the importance of audio-visual documentation for traditional art practices, especially from the information-lacking Northeast region, Borpujari emphasises the need to enlighten the world about this vibrant culture.

This August, Borpujari ‘s documentary The Mask Art of Majuli, produced by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) will make its way to Australia as part of the 14th Indian International Film Festival (IFFM). It will be accessible online during the 10-day festival.

Believing in the observational style of filmmaking, Borpujari finds it particularly fitting for subjects like The Mask Art of Majuli, where the practitioners are the ones who know best about their craft.

“In this film, I let the camera capture the entire flow of mask making and also the philosophy behind the use of the masks in the Bhaonas. The Mask Art of Majuli is likely deeply rooted in local traditions and beliefs.”

One of the key aspects in Borpujari’s filmmaking process is building trust and rapport with the local communities and artists to gain access to their stories and practices.

“Before filming, I made a point to visit the two families featured in the film, engaging in extensive discussions with them. This allowed me to understand their processes and also helped them become familiar with the filmmaking process, ensuring that the camera was an unobtrusive presence around them for an extended period.

Majuli mask artists at work // Pic supplied

“In documentary filmmaking, it often takes time for the characters to become oblivious to the camera’s presence, but once that happens, the filming process flows naturally, capturing authentic and intimate moments,” explains Borpujari, who also holds an M.Tech degree in Applied Geology from the Indian Institute of Technology (Roorkee).

Borpujari’s passion and talent in filmmaking have earned him several prestigious awards. In 2003, he was honoured with the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic, and in 2018, he received India’s National Film Award, along with five Assam State Film Awards, for his remarkable debut feature film Ishu, which was also part of IFFM 2018.

His cinematic efforts aim to not only inform but also inspire audiences worldwide to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the unique and diverse aspects of India’s Northeast.

“Since I come from Northeast India myself, I have great interest in understanding and learning about the various aspects of the region, which has been an ongoing process for last several decades, including in my previous avatar as a journalist. Every day, one learns something new and makes one aware that the region’s diversity is so wide that it would take more than a lifetime to really know it.”

Borpujari believes documentary films are the best tool to know about culture and communities, as it combines research, information, audio and visuals to present the subject to the people, making it an immersive experience.

The Mask Art of Majuli stands testament to it.

(The film would be available throughout Australia on the IIFM platform during 11-20 August)

Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter

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