The Charida Mask Village
Charida village has the distinction of being the only place in the world where masks are manufactured for Chhau dance – a specific ornament used for the acrobatic martial art-based dance
Snuggled in a corner of the culturally-rich Purulia district, lays Charida, a village of 300 skilled mask makers, who craft ornaments for Chhau, a celebrated dance form of the region. The prime motorable road that passes through the middle of the village has hundreds of shops dotting the street with angry demon faces greeting you amidst a plethora of Hindu gods and goddesses.
About 500 families in Purulia's Baghmundi block, some 300 odd km from Kolkata, are involved today in crafting the large and colourful Chhau masks. Charida, popularly known as Mukhosh Gram (Mask village), is about 5 km from Baghmundi village which was once a hot bed for Maoists. However, since 2011, when the Mamata Banerjee government assumed power, the Maoists in Bengal have been successfully thwarted. Peace now reigns in Purulia and the other districts of Jangalmahal – Bankura, West Midnapore and Jhargram.
"We are thankful to the present government for putting an end to the Maoist problem. The state government has promoted masks, among other handicrafts, under the Biswa Bangla brand. Now, fairs and exhibitions are held in different parts of the state throughout the year where we showcase and sell our masks," said Kartik Sutradhar, an artisan involved in making Chhau mask since three decades.
A Rural Craft Hub has been developed at Charida by the state Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises & Textiles, in association with UNESCO. Mask making, the traditional rural craft, an integral component of the semi-martial art dance form of Chhau, was awarded the GI (Geographical Indication) tag a few years back. The artists in Charida have formed a collective called Chau Mukhosh Shilpi Sangha. There is a resource centre with a workshop space in the ground floor of the Sangha.
"There are more than 500-odd families in Charida village and 99 per cent of them are into mask making. We have been doing this for generations. I have heard from my grandfather that even his father was into this trade. Even the young ones here know the art of mask making. They go to school and study, and in their spare time, they make masks. Women are engaged in their homes and besides household chores, they do mask making," said octogenarian Ganapati Sutradhar, who is still fit enough to do the work himself alongside training his two grandchildren in the art.
"This is the only place in the entire state where such masks are made. We cater to the demand of the entire state and, wherever in the state you find these masks, they have all been sourced from Charida," maintained Ganapati.
The traditional masks depict Rama, Hanuman, Ravana and other mythological characters but designs have evolved over the years. The masks now depict animal and bird heads like peacock, tiger, monkey, lion etc.
"Tourists look for variety and now, we make masks of Durga, Ganesha, Shiva, Rama and Ravana. Every day, we have to think of newer designs and varieties. The mask of a married couple sporting traditional tribal make-up and hairdo is one of the most popular Chhau masks picked up by tourists. They are commonly referred to as adivasi or santhal masks. Interestingly, these masks are not inspired by the Santhals who live in the hills of Purulia; instead, the Kirat-Kiratin avatar of Shiva and Durga is the inspiration behind them," added Ganpati.
The range of shapes, sizes and decorative variations of the masks is remarkably striking. Some pieces fit into palms, while others could easily be the size of the torso.
The Chhau craft dates back 150 years to the reign of King Madan Mohan Singh Deo of Baghmundi. "Charida's name has gone global and now, famous craftsmen travel to foreign countries to showcase our work and popularise Chhau. My father Drimi Sutradhar went to Norway for a ten-day workshop in October. He carried raw materials for making the masks and showcased the entire process of mask making," said his son Bishal.
"Traditionally, we are the sub-caste that was exclusively supposed to make masks. Nowadays, everybody makes them," he added.
"The peak season is from November to February when our shops are abuzz with tourists. Even foreigners come in large numbers and pick up souvenirs. We earn around Rs 20,000 a month. People put these masks on walls to decorate their homes," said Shatrughna Dutta, another mask maker. The smaller masks come at Rs 20 and can go up to Rs 5,000 depending upon the size.
He added that most artisans are adept in idol making. "We make idols of Durga and her entourage and also Kali idols during the summer and the rainy season when the tourist flow is relatively low."
Paper pulp and clay are used to make Chhau masks. Decorations are mostly done with plastic feathers and beads. Embellished with zari, glitters and foils, the eyes of the masks are wide open. Each mask takes at least three days, up to a week, depending on the size. It involves five elaborate processes.
Now, what transforms the flimsy papier mache moulds into works of art?
"First, we handcraft the earthen mould for a specific mask. Lathered with ashes from clay stove, it is then topped off with 8-10 layers of paper pulp, mixed with a special glue. A layer of earth is spread thin on top, after which, the moulds are polished and left to bake in the sun. After it has dried, the mask is plastered with khori mati – soil with high calcium content. Colours are then applied and the masks are decorated with beads, ribbons, artificial flowers and leaves," said Ganapati.
Chhau dance is believed to have its origins over a century ago. It is the lifestyle art form of this area. The lives of the bearers of this tradition have been intrinsically linked with the jungles they have dwelled in. The local dance form exploits its tribal and martial arts roots for storytelling and relies heavily on the drama communicated through these masks which mimic gods, animals and fanciful characters from epics.
The acrobatic martial art-based dance form is inscribed in UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The pinnacle of this dance form was reached under Gambhir Singh Mura, probably the most prominent exponent of the dance form that has become one with the name of the district. An exponent of the Purulia school of Chhau, Mura was born in a tribal family to Jipa Singh Mura, at Pitikiri Bamni village in Purulia district. He performed in many places such as England, France, Japan and USA. The Government of India awarded him the fourth highest Indian civilian honour of Padma Shri in 1981. His statue is located at one corner of Charida that stretches across an area of around 3 km.
The best time to visit Charida is during the artists' annual village festival held every year in December. The nearby Ayodhya Hills and the panoramic view from the PPSP Dam are additional attractions. One may also plan a stay at the nearby Gandhi Ashram at Nimdih from Charida.
The nearest railway station is Barabhum. Charida is 36 km away from Barabhum station. It is about a six-hour drive from Kolkata.