sunday herald
sunday august 31, 2003


Stand for half an hour on the M G Road pavement and you'll be amazed at the variety of faces you see. You will marvel at God's creativity, that he can do so much with two eyes, one nose and a mouth, not to mention two ears, all more or less in their designated places.

Faces are a miracle. There's no gainsaying that. A developed sense of aesthetics often interferes to brand them beautiful or not-so-beautiful and sometimes even ugly, but faces are always interesting. Besides being different on different people, faces can change with the dance of expression.
Emotions animate the face so that the same person looks different at different times, conveying nuances of feeling. Thus, the face becomes "the mirror of the soul". There are experts who study and advocate body language to gauge people but the face does, in most cases, give out the secret.

Unless you are one of those inscrutable card-players who stare so impassively at their opponents they melt with bewilderment. Otherwise, the face is the index. And this is what is so creatively used in dance, theatre and cinema and also in day-to-day role-playing.

As if this gamut of expression wasn't enough, man went and invented masks!
Masks mean different things. They can conceal your true self or reveal a different one. They can be used to take on a new personality altogether or to summon up religious entities during a ritual. It was ritual that conjured up the mask in the first place. And they've been around for some 20,000 years now. In southern France they were first found painted on cave walls, showing human bodies with animal heads. This tells us about masked rituals our forefathers indulged in to insure a steady supply of game for their food. Such depictions of ritual masks were also found in Asia, North America and Africa.

But absolute evidence of a tradition was found in the Sahara Desert from 10,000 years ago. The masks there had a strong resemblance to the ones recently used in West Africa, thus establishing a definite link. A masking tradition is also said to have existed in prehistoric Europe between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago. And, of course, we know the Egyptian mummy wore his death mask to bed when he quietly retired from life.

The Aztecs and Mayas of Middle America, the Incas and other civilizations of the Andes, the Chinese and Japanese - and of course, let's not leave behind Indians - have all used masks from ancient times in different ways. Including theatre. So did the Greeks and Romans. Even today tribal and fold societies use masks ritually.

The early Christian Church wasn't too amused by masking and stifled it whenever they could. They associated it with pagan rites and didn't quite relish the kind of things that went on, aided by the mask's anonymity. But they couldn't really keep it down. It survived in rural Europe, in the Carnival and Mardi Gras. The Commedia del'Arte during the Renaissance and the emergence of secular theatre entrenched it firmly in the European tradition.
Think of the different types of masks we have come across or heard of. The ubiquitous Yaksha Gana and Kathakali masks. The Chhau dance mask. The Japanese and Chinese dance masks. The Halloween mask which gets children going, transforming them with qualities they keep suppressed throughout the year! (Okay, the black masks used by killers and thieves and comic heroes like the Phantom!)

What is it about masks? W. T. Benda, a famous international mask-maker, had this to say: the power of the mask "is not due to any exceptional merit on the part of the artist who made the mask." His creativity is only a medium that facilitates that magical transformation, establishing a connection between the mask and its wearer.

George Ulrich, a more recent mask-maker, says: "I am well aware that even the most beautifully crafted mask has fulfilled only part of its potential until it is worn. I may give these masks form, but it remains for you, the wearer, to give them life. As humans," he continues, "we base our identities on our bodies. Of all the parts of the body, it is the face that is most closely associated with the individual 'self'. But social identity and status (married/single, sacred/secular, chief/commoner) are symbolic and require alteration of the body or face in order to communicate or change identity. This is done by either taking something away such as teeth or hair, or adding something through ornamentation: cosmetics, costumes or masks, or various combinations of these."

Here's something interesting. The word "person" comes from a Greek word meaning mask, or the role played by an actor in a performance. Thus, persona - the mask - is related to personality, the self or ego that we reveal to the world. Our faces reveal, while the mask conceals. Or reveals a different self.

So the next time you stand on the M. G. Road pavement and watch those faces, try and spot who's wearing a mask. And who's not. Even without the aid of an outer covering.

(The writer can be contacted at

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