The Masked Reality
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After studying India's two masked theatre forms, a new book makes a pitch for a legislation to preserve traditional art.
The thought of giving up dancing horrifies Khirod Singh Munda, a Purulia Chhau exponent. "If we stop dancing, we would be left without a soul," he says. For this 55-year-old — considered to be one of the few artistes who have preserved the purity of this traditional art form — dance is a way of life. Even though practising this art form for more than four decades has not been financially rewarding, he is hardly complaining. "I don't need money to promote this art form. We can't attach monetary value to it," he says.
Though Munda's ideology and passion for art is more than evident, his words also hint at the problem this age-old art form has been encountering. Most of the Purulia Chhau dancers live in poverty and are caught in a debt trap. Chhau and Kutiyattam are two of the eight UNESCO recognised art forms of India. "While Seraikella Chhau dancers understand the significance of this status and leverage it to their advantage, most of the Purulia Chhau dancers are unaware of it," says Shubha Srinivasan, the author of Masked Identities.
The book — which has been put together in association with Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Asia Society, and INTACH — seeks to identify and highlight India's intangible culture heritage (ICH) such as oral traditions, languages, performing arts, social practices and traditional craftsmanship. More importantly, it analyses the steps taken by the government to preserve them, the problems faced by the artistes and comes up with recommendations to tackle them. "While people understand that many of our cultural expressions are vanishing, they do not comprehend the loss of identity and livelihoods."
For the book, ORF chose two theatrical dance art forms that use masks. Srinivasan says masks are symbolic of a way of life. "The book also keeps the reader visually engaged through a combination of performance photographs and those depicting artistes' life. This allows the reader to realise that the life of artistes and artisans is not so glamorous behind the colourful costumes," says the author.
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