Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Unveiling the Tharu masks

I am a die-hard fan of internet and as I get time no tide can stop me from gluing to my computer monitor. Led by serendipity, I barged into which led to the flurry of pages opening in Flickr, and many more other related pages. The object of fascination was primitive masks.

Tharu masks in internet
I had just come across the masks made by Newars (indigenous people belonging to Kathmandu Valley) which are worn in different jatras and nachs (processions, dances and festivals) in Nepal. The masks of Hindu and Buddhist Gods and Goddesses dominated my imagination all the time. At curio stores I had seen some dark wooden long faced masks and on enquiring knew that they were traditional African masks.

Coming back to the point, the masks that I glanced upon in the internet were of utmost surprise to me. The masks were tagged as Tharu masks. I had never heard of any Tharu masks although had heard that Tharus used to put on masks during some of their almost extinct dances.

Research on Tharu masks
This incident happened almost a year ago. In last February when I was in Dang with Professor Dr Charles W. Norris Brown of Vermont University scouring the views of Tharus on conservation and especially tiger, we met Gisele Krauskopff who along with Pamela Deuel Meyer has edited the book “Kings of Nepal and the Tharu of the Tarai”. She had been in Nepal for the first time almost 30 years ago and since then has developed a strong bond with the people of Terai. This time she was back with a series of photos taken by her guru in Dang in 1969. Among the hordes of photos, was a photo in which two men were posing – one wearing a mask and another one riding a wooden horse and aiming the photographer with a wooden gun. It was an interesting photo and Gisele was in Dang to find out the people who were clicked in the photo in the quest to research on the primitive masks. She had seen the same wooden horse (called kathghori in Tharu language) and similar masks in an exhibition in Paris.

As we roamed around the villages collecting stories on tiger and conservation from the elder Tharus, Gisele was busy locating the people who were still involved in making masks. At the end of the search we came to know that only the word of mouth knowledge on the Tharu masks existed. Once the rich Tharu culture which embraced the use of masks in traditional dances, had nothing left to offer.

High demand of Tharu masks
However, the Tharu masks collected from different parts of Nepal are in high demand among the primitive mask collectors. Not only the masks but the wooden deities worshipped by Tharus have been stolen from the village worship places (Than) and being sold in the Western market at unbelievable prices. The ones involved in the stealing get pennies but the collectors in the West have been paying fortunes to get hold of their precious primitive collection.

Need of conserving mask culture
The demand of Tharu masks have escalated due to the rarity. However, the mask culture among the Tharus needs a revival. The Tharus need to get back to their traditions to save the ancient culture, learning from the vibrant mask culture Newars have preserved till date.