The most striking feature of the Bhari Gan theatre tradition of the Rabha tribes of Assam are the heavy wooden masks that are used for various characters of the play. The features of these masks are so unique and bold that they draw the attention of any viewer. It is the eye-catching masks that, in a way, give the art form a distinctive identity. Although the uses of the masks in the plays are for a comparatively shorter period of time, they still hold a very prominent place and are the most integral constituents of the art form. Except for the Dadhi Mathan play, the majority of Bhari Gan plays depict different episodes of the Ramayana. Masks are used only for the plays based on the Ramayana stories and no mask is used in the Dadhi Mathan play.
Masks are worn in Bhari Gan plays for characters like Raban (Ravana), Mahiraban (Mahiravana), Patra Mantri, Sarathi (charioteer of Ravana), Ketuwa (associate of Ravana), Hanuman, Sugrib (Sugriva), Jambuban (Jambavan) and Bibhisan (Vibhishana). Significantly, masks are not used for characters like Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. Masks are also found for characters like Kali Ma (Goddess Kali), Shiva, Jham Raja (Yamraj), Vishwakarma, Burha (old man), Burhi (old women) and Bamun (Brahmin priest). Masks for some animal characters like bagh (tiger) and kawri (crow) are also used by some groups. Use of masks in the farce plays is also not uncommon, particularly for some animal characters like bagh (tiger) and gahari (swine) and also for supernatural entities like pikhas (ghost).
Masks are carved out of wood and are quite heavy. Except for the mask of Ravana the masks of the other characters are found to be carved out from a single piece of wood. The masks are marked by typical features like bold and large eyes, contrasting colours and a decorated headdress. The mask of Ravana with its ten heads is the most noticeable one. The mask of Ravana comprises of four parts: one central bigger head, two sets of smaller heads comprising of four heads in one set and five in another and a piece of cloth that hangs on the back side of the mask. The two sets of smaller heads are fixed to the bigger head in a folding system so that the mask gets the looks of the ten-headed demon king and can be carried in four pieces when not in use.
The mask of Ketuwa is also an interesting one. There are usually two Ketuwa characters in Bhari Gan plays, while both are known as Ketuwa they are actually brothers. The two Ketuwas are two clown-like characters and they are the associates of the demon king Ravana. Masks of both the Ketuwas are generally similar looking and they possess comical features like bent faces and bent mouths.
The masks generally do not bear eyeholes; hence the artistes are unable to see properly after wearing them. As a result, performers donning masks are to be guided by others on their way to the performing area. Sometimes even during the performance somebody has to correct the position and direction of the artistes in masks. This unusual happening adds humorous flavour to the scene and the audience gets amusement from it. As the wooden masks are heavy and hard the performers have to use a roll of cloth around their face as cushioning before wearing the masks for comfort and protection.
So far no separate craft tradition or practice for making of Bhari Gan masks has been found. Most of the troupes are using their old masks for a long period of time. Therefore, it seems that masks are prepared only when they are required. Each group generally possesses ten to fifteen wooden masks depending on the play they perform. Names of the respective characters are written on the back side of each mask for easy identification.
Some group also possess a few unused masks which they are not even able to identify as they are very old and are not in use for quite some time. The masks possessed by most of the Bhari Gan troups are found to be quite old, many being not less than a century old. For instance, the masks belonging to the troupe of Baijuri village are more than a hundred years old. This set of masks is so old that the present members of the troupe do not know who actually crafted them and when.
However, groups with masks that are not very old is also not uncommon. The masks of the nearby Bardak village are not older than ten years. Likewise the masks of the Sri Sri Ram-Krishna Bhari Gan Sangha group of Khamari were made in the late nineties. There are also Bhari Gan troupes who have a combination of both old and new masks.
The masks of the Bhari Gan plays are considered to be highly sacred. There are certain beliefs associated with these masks and they are treated with great respect by the Bhari Gan troupe members. There are a few groups that keep their masks in shrines and also worship them—particularly the masks of Goddess Kali and Shiva—on certain occasions of the year.
It is a practice in some villages to store the masks in a separate house or shed specially built for the purpose of keeping the masks. These sheds are found in an isolated location of the village, usually near a road. Such a practice is found in comparatively more remote villages. In candid talks the villagers disclosed that they follow this practice because of their fear of keeping the masks inside their residential campuses as they believe that deities reside inside the masks. However, there are also some groups like the Sri Sri Ram-Krishna Bhari Gan Sangha of Khamari that keep their masks inside their household campus generally on the ceiling or on a raised platform.
There is a strong belief that the masks may cause scuffles among them if masks of both the opposing groups i.e. Rama and Ravana are kept together. It is believed that when masks of both the opposing groups are kept jointly some sounds are heard. This belief is strong among all the Bhari Gan troupes. Therefore, masks of opposing groups are kept separately. Thus, the masks of allies of Sri Rama, i.e. Hanuman, Jambavan and others, are never kept with the masks of Ravana, Mahiravana, Ketuwa and other associates of the demon king. Generally, masks of both the groups are kept in separate sacks during transportation and storage.
For the making of the masks generally durable and comparatively light wood are chosen. The varieties of woods that are used for making the masks are Burung (Barun), Khoj, Mukum and Gamari wood (all local names). No specific ritual has been found in connection with the preparation of new masks. However, for some, providing eyes (Saku Dan) to the masks is considered as an important phase which is executed as the final step of crafting a mask. On the other hand, the induction of new masks is considered as an important occasion by some groups and some rituals are also observed to introduce new masks.
The colours that are used to paint the wooden masks are hartal for yellow, nil (indigo) for blue, khoyar (chalk powder) for white and sendur (vermilion) for red. While most of the troupes use the above materials, there are also a few groups like the group of Khamari that uses synthetic enamel paints to colour their masks. In some villages the masks are painted anew before each performance.
One does not find the dramatis personae of the Bhari Gan plays wearing the wooden masks throughout the play. The various masked characters of the play take off their masks after their initial performance on stage. The artistes remove their masks after their introduction to the play and keep the masks near a post in the front side of the performing area. As the masks are very heavy, it is a possibility that the performers are unable to use them throughout the play; and hence it is a practice to take the masks off after the initial appearance of the characters.