The glassy waters of a gurgling brook reflect the changing colours of the day like a mirror. Gray-blue in the cool morning air. Red-orange in the heat of midday. A burst of sunset hues as evening descends over Seraikella, a vast land of jungles and rivers nestled between the rolling hills of Saranda and Bangriposi in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
Here, very much like the clear waters of rivers that reflect surrounding vistas, inhabitants have learnt to capture the changing expressions of human visages. Since ancient times they have encapsulated smiles and frowns, desires and angers and turned emotions into tangible art forms.
Seraikella, situated in the heart of Singhbhum (literally “land of the Sun God”) in Jharkhand’s Kharswan district, is one of the original loci of the traditional dance form known as chhau and here artisans have, over centuries, mastered the art of making masks, the main prop used in chhau to convey the complex emotions and expressions of the characters in a dance drama.
A recent documentary entitled “Where the Mask Speaks the Mind” by filmmaker Malay Dasgupta traces the journey of the ancient art form from its inception to the present, delving into its history and delineating the trials and tribulations of the tribal artisans who perform the dance as well as create the colourful masks that are integral to the performances. “The mask completely conceals the face and becomes the principal device of this dance form, depicting the expression of a particular character,” says Dasgupta. “It remains the core of the Seraikella chhau form as it distinguishes itself with the absence of vocal support (vachikabhinaya) and facial expressions (mukhabhinaya)”. The static expressions that each mask captures emphasizes the significance of particular emotions and expressions of the characters in a chhau act, in which the fluidity of body movements, hand gestures and colourful costumes of the same characters further heightens that significance.
Dasgupta focuses particular attention on the master mask-maker Kanhaialal Maharana and his interviews with the octogenarian provides rare glimpses into the philosophical dimensions of the indigenous dance and art form, which originated in the royal house of Seraikella. “Pratap Aditya Singh Deo, the descendant of the royal family of the former princely state of Singhbhum narrates how Parikhanda, the martial art techniques gradually evolved when Bijoy Pratap Singh Deo, the brother of a king in 19th century, stylized the exercises practiced by the soldiers into such a striking choreography of movements,” says Dasgupta. The film, which is shot on location in Jharkhand, brings to life the past with visuals of the royal palaces where chhau was often performed, depicted as though they were images in the present, recreated with sounds of birds chirping, brooks gurgling and breezes blowing through leaves of trees. The tales of how royal patronage kept chhau alive and kicking (often quite literally as characters in the dance dramas went about fighting each other in simulations of battle) is an essential component of the narrative.
The camera pans over Seraikella’s landscape, following the flow of the crystal clear waters of its rivers to finally zoom in on the dancers acting out their stories and the artisans at work as they create the masks, paining the lips and the laughter, the eyes and the expressions. “The expression is everything,” says Kanhaialal in one of the interviews to Dasgupta.
Kanhaialal died while shooting was half-way done. Dasgupta felt his loss deeply. It was not just that he had to complete his documentary without its real life hero. But it was also that the expression behind the mask would no longer change. There would no longer be smiles or frowns. Desires or angers.
There would now only be one static expression. Is it one of sadness? Is it one of joy? To know, one has to travel to “where the mask speaks the mind.”