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Donning a mask opens an artist to endless possibilities. Whether it’s an actual mask or painting on a new face with make-up, here’s a look at how different performance traditions transform you into a celestial hero, an intimidating ogre or comical sidekick.
Kathakali – Indian traditional dance
Origin: 17th century, India
Kathakali is a form of Indian traditional dance that is known for its elaborate and striking costumes and make-up. There are five basic make-up styles, known as vesham, and pacha, literally meaning “green”, is one of them. Pacha characters are heroic or virtuous, and include kings and deities.
Kathakali is traditionally performed by an all-male troupe and some performances last over a few nights, starting at dusk each day.
Iwami Kagura – Japanese traditional dance
Origin: Classical period Japan
In Japan, Kagura refers to a sacred Shinto ritualistic theatrical dance that is performed to the gods, and Iwami Kagura is the form that originates from Iwami in the Shimane Prefecture, a coastal region rich with Shinto mythology. A popular tale told in Iwami is of Susano-o, god of the sea and storms, slaying the eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent Yamata no Orochi.
Of the traditional dances of Japan, Kagura is the most dynamic and high-energy. And Iwami Kagura is the most popular.
Seraikella Chhau – Indian traditional dance
Origin: Jharkhand, India
Hailing from Eastern India, Seraikella Chhau is the traditional dance originating from Seraikella in Jharkhand. Traditionally performed by all-male troupes, Seraikella Chau does not use dialogue, and portrays a wide range of stories and topics through evocative and poetic movements.
There are three types of Chhau, and Seraikella Chhau is one of the two that uses masks.
Cambodian classical dance drama
Ravana, an evil demon king, originates from the ancient Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. In Khmer classical dance, Ravana features in dramatic dance presentations depicting scenes from the Reamker, a Cambodian epic poem based on the Ramayana.
There are four main role types in Khmer classical dance. Ravana is classified under the yeak role, which includes ogres and asuras.
Mah Meri mask dance
Origin: Selangor, Malaysia
For the Mah Meri people of Pulau Carey, each intricately carved mask represents a specific moyang, or ancestral spirit. They put on these different masks during happy occasions and perform the main jo’oh dance to invite their ancestral spirits to join in the celebrations with them.
The Mah Meri mask dance is the only known mask dance practiced by an indigenous community in Malaysia.
Oni Kenbai (Ogre Sword Dance) – Japanese folk dance
Origin: Kitakami, Iwate, Classical period Japan
Oni Kenbai folk dances can feature up to eight dancers, all wearing matching costumes and fearsome masks in five different colours. Despite the name “Oni”, meaning “ogre” or “demon”, the dancers each represent a different incarnation of Buddha, and are led in energetic and lively dances by the white-masked Buddha.
The art form is kept alive by children in Kitakami, who learn it in school and then perform the Oni Kenbai in local festivals.
Dengaku – Japanese traditional dance
Origin: Edo Period (1603–1868), Japan
Hyottoko is a lucky spirit with mythical origins, and different regions of Japan have their own myths about Hyottoko. In Japanese dengaku however, Hyottoko is portrayed as a comical figure that accompanies the traditional dancers.
Hyottoko gets his name the Japanese words for “fire” and “man”, and blows fire through a bamboo pipe, which explains his expression.
Bongsan Talchum mask dance
Origin: 12th–14th century Korea
Talchum refers to mask dances in Korea, and this particular dance drama form originates from the Bongsan region in Hwanghae. Bongsan Talchum takes place outdoors and comprises seven acts involving different caricatural characters and even a lion.
Malttugi is a comic character who is a wisecracking servant to an unwitting nobleman.
There's more! Find out about other masks and make-up in part two of this series. Faces in Performing Arts continues here