The locals of Mahishbathan village in Kushmandi block of Dakshin Dinajpur practice the art of making wooden masks. The masks are traditionally worn by dancers on the occasion of Gomira Puja which is held at the end of the Bengali calendar month, Joishtho (May-June).
The Gomira dance is highly popular among the Desi and Poli communities of the Rajbanshis and starts with the Buro and Buri who are the human forms of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Masks of various characters including gods, goddesses and animals are part of this art form. When not performing, the Mukha artisans work in farmlands.
For last many years the artisans of this genre were facing severe economic distress, however today with the help of government support and the district administration the artists have successfully mde their art a source of livelihood.
Paresh Chandra Sarkar, the Secretary of Mahishbathan Gramin Hasta Silpa Samaboy Samiti Limited, founded the organization in 1990 which later got registered under the West Bengal government in 1995.
Initially the workplace had only an asbestos roof. But with government support the society has now grown and helped the artisans thrive economically.
The masks are made from Gamari wood, a type that does not get infested with mites thus making it beneficial and durable. The wood is cut into semicircular pieces, designs are drawn on it with pencil and then they are engraved using hammer and chisel. Once the wood is dried it becomes light in weight and is then the masks are painted using natural colors.
The Department of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises and Textiles, under Government of West Bengal, has promoted Biswa Bangla Marketing Corporation (BBMC) to support traditional artisans and craftsmen of West Bengal through efficient marketing of their products. Mokha craftsmen are regularly trained under this initiative and are sent to Bangalore, Goa, Delhi, Mumbai as well as Paris for exhibitions.
The state government has also arranged exhibitions at Science City, Kolkata and provided the artists with a working capital of Rupees 5 lakh. The government also places orders in bulk once every three months which adds to the income of the artisans. For economic security the artisans rely on loans arranged through cooperatives.
The wooden masks of Kushmandi received geographical indication (GI) tag in 2018. The GI tag is used for heritage products which possess special qualities due to geographical origin. It is an intellectual property right legalized through the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act of 1999. This has led to a spurt in domestic and international demand of the masks thereby benefiting the artisans.
However, the ongoing pandemic along with the nationwide lockdown had led to stagnation in demand causing distress among artisans. The handicraft fairs held at different locations in the state and outside were cancelled due to social distancing norms, leading to substantial loss for the artists. With cases decreasing in Bengal, the situation seems to be reviving gradually for these practitioners of intangible cultural heritage.
“We started this craft with a few artisans but now there are 180 members in the organization. We make masks on various themes and create showpieces for home decor as well. Local artisans are trained by master artists who have been felicitated with state awards. We started off in a very small way but today our craftsmanship is globally recognized,” informed Paresh Chandra Sarkar.
Men and women are equally involved in this craft and with the exposure of the art form the youths are now drawn towards it.