ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the remote island of Majuli on Assam’s Brahmaputra river to cover its satras (Vaishnava monastic orders), which specialize in centuries-old traditions in mask-making, music, dance and theatre
We’re in a room full of decapitated heads. A blue, multi-limbed torso of Narasimha glowers at us from a corner. Close by, Putana, the silver-tressed ogress who breast-fed Lord Krishna poison milk, waits patiently until Som, the mask-making apprentice introduces us to a monster bird called Bakasura. Mohini, Hanuman, Sugreeva, and Ravana are queued up.
At the home of master craftsman and satradhikar (monastic head) Hem Chandra Goswami in the island of Majuli in Assam, traditional art of mask-making has been in practice since the mid-17th century. These masks, used in raas leela and bhaona, an ancient form of Assamese theatre, are the signature craft of Natun Samaguri Satra.
Floating like a breakaway branch of water hyacinth on the mighty Brahmaputra River, Majuli is a national treasure not only because it is the world’s largest riverine island but also the nucleus of Assam’s cultural heritage – the 15th century neo-Vaishnava tradition. Led by Assamese saint and social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva, this religious movement triggered a cultural rennaisance through music and the arts with the establishment of satras (monastic centres).
Each satra is engaged in distinct artistic and spiritual forms of expression to worship Lord Vishnu through music, song, dance and tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharat. As centres of learning, these institutions also act as repositories of Assam’s history with collections of antiques, utensils, weapons, jewellery besides royal and sacred relics.
Wrapped in a cotton Assamese chaddor (shawl), Goswami, the humble Sangeet Natak Academy awardee took us through Samaguri’s mask-making tradition. Mukha bhaona masks cover the face, Lotokoi masks are a little larger while gigantic Cho masks usually consist of two parts – a head and a body. Masks are prepared using terracotta, bamboo, wood, pith or metal. The Samaguri technique of mask-making is complex.
First, a star-shaped grid of finely stripped bamboo provides a skeletal framework. Then, strips of cloth dipped in smooth clayey soil from the banks of the Brahmaputra are wrapped and layered over the frame and left to dry. A blend of cowdung and clay is used to create the necessary depth and contour. Bark, fibre or jute is used for texture, facial hair and accessories. A kordhoni or bamboo file is used to smoothen the surface. Indigenous vegetable dyes are brushed on for colouring and finally, the masks transform into representations of different emotions for mythological characters on stage!
Being the torch-bearer of a family heritage that has survived for over a century, Goswami recognizes the need to preserve this dying art. He conducts workshops and courses across the state, in West Bengal and Orissa as there is burgeoning interest. Today, smaller portable masks are being created as decorative pieces for homes to add commercial value to the craft. Yet, local youth are wary about learning this art citing the seasonality of raas as an unsustainable income.
The raas was on. We criss-crossed the island on a rusty hired motorbike to witness the rousing drama at Garamur Satra and listen to borgeet (devotional songs) in the naamghar (prayer hall) of the island’s oldest surviving satra at Bhogpur. Throngs of villagers and visitors flitted from one satra to the other like butterflies seeking different flavours of divine nectar.
At Auniati Satra, the house of celibate monks, we watched young painted boys perform Apsara Nritya (cross-dressed as celestial maidens), Paalnaam, Gayan-Bayan (song and dance) and a stirring Dashavatar Nritya rendition by Khagendranath Lekharu, the doyen of Satriya dance. We made dusty rides to the satras at Natun Kamalabari, Bengenati and Dakhinpat and returned to Samaguri at twilight in time for a visual spectacle.
As we sat braving pungent betel odour and mosquito bites in a jam-packed hall, a clang of cymbals and drumbeats announced the arrival of satradhikar Goswami and his troupe. In minutes, the masks of Majuli sprang to life on stage like they had for centuries before us.
Getting There: Originally a 1,250 sq km riverine island on the Brahmaputra, Majuli is currently spread over 460 sq km and prone to severe erosion. Drive 14 km from Jorhat to the nearest ferry point Nimati Ghat, from where boats take you to Kamalabari Ghat (20 km), a 1 hr 15 min journey. Local minivans ferry visitors to Garamur, 7 km away. There are regular ferries every day starting at 8:30 am though timings and frequency increase in tourist season. Since most satras on the island are quite remote, hire motorbikes/bicycles to get around.
Guided Trips: The best time to witness Majuli’s vibrant satriya culture is the famous Raas festival in the 3rd week of November, a 2-day dusk to dawn festival of music, dance and theatre when satras vie to outdo the other by showcasing their speciality. For more details, contact Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority. majulilandscape.gov.in
Stay: Majuli has a few Circuit Houses, PWD Inspection Bungalows and basic Guest houses for visitors. La Maison D’Ananda or the House of Joy (Doubles Rs800; Ph 99571 86356 Manjeet) in Karpunpuli, Garamur, is a cluster of two bamboo cottages inspired by a Chang ghar (Mishing hut). Do:Ni Polo (Sun-Moon Cottage) nearby is named in honour of the Mishing gods and has 4 rooms (Doubles Rs.300-600). Me:Po Okum or House of Happiness (Doubles Rs1,000; 94352 03165) at Chitadar, Garamur is a bamboo cottage near the river with 5 rooms and a dorm (Ph 94352 03165 Haren Nora).
Some satras also run guest houses for visitors with basic facilities. Garamur Satra has 4 rooms at Rs.200 each (Ph 9435203306 Minal Bora). There’s also a Government-run Inspection Bungalow in Kamalabari and a Circuit House in Garamur (For booking contact Sub Divisional Officer, Garamur Majuli Ph 03775-274475)
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine.