From the shelf

Gods and Masks

Dec 14, 2017 |

Cultural objects are meant to serve various composite functions in a given society. Categorization of these objects into ‘religious’, ‘secular’, ‘artistic’, ‘social’, etc. may be necessary to have a certain academic understanding of a particular cultural trait, such a categorization has often led to reconstruction of a fragmented picture of the society or its cultural expression. The modem museum and exhibition dominated society as ours is used to display ing cultural objects of ‘other’ societies as ‘art’ in one context and publishing lengthy discourses on their artistic merit, and a few months later, the same object is shown in another exhibition where its ‘ritual’ context is glorified without any comment on the object’s artistic merit.

The presence of masks as both ritual and art objects is attested among the traditions of mankind’s oldest civilizations. Cutting across cultural and geographical barriers, they have exhibited a remarkable range and diversity of meanings throughout history.

The present study focuses on the masks worn in the Kathmandu Valley by the main ethnic group, the Newars. A specific aspect of the Newars is that, despite the political dominance of Hinduism, Buddhism is still alive. The masks represent gods, goddesses and demons, but never the dead or the ancestors. The author argues that the reason for the absence of figurations of the dead or ancestors is to be explained by the funerary rituals. There are no memorial monuments or other objects which perpetuate the memory of the deceased: It is through rituals performed after their death that the memory is preserved.

The distinction is made between statuemasks and the masks worn during ritual dances. The author focuses on the contexts in which the masks are worn by professional dancers and draws attention to the legends which explain the origin of the dances and their ritual role. Detailed descriptions are given of the dances performed during different festivals in the localities of the Kathmandu Valley.

The masks then worn are destroyed and re-made ritually each year by painters. Anne Vergati explains the relation between the dancer as a social person with a social identity and the mask which represents a god or a goddess. The mask is not supposed to hide the face of the dancer but to transform his identity in such a way as to make of him a deity.

This is not a Book Review; this is just an effort to conveying information to the readers on rare and valuable books on art and architecture. This column aims to give a helicopter view on such books and thus presents the excerpts and illustrations either from the preface, introduction, jacket or main contents of the book from the shelf. This book was kindly provided by Mandala Book Point, Kantipath, Kathmandu (Tel. 4227711).

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