“Masks” is a fascinating word!!! Whenever we hear the word mask we think of different colorful faces, emotions, and expressions. The most commonly known masks nowadays are the African masks of Sub Saharan and Kathakali Masks of India. But did you know “Masks” have its eons-old history and it is a universal feeling shared across cultures throughout human history.
Though some mask ceremonies have died out over the years, there are many cultures that have preserved their traditions and have held onto it. Today, let’s learn the meaning behind some of the fascinating masks from around the world.
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Kathakali is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance and can be distinguished by the elaborately colorful make-up, costumes, and facemasks. This dance form is originated from Kerala: “God’s Own Country “. The masks worn by these Kathakali dancers are known as Kirtams. It is one of the oldest and important elements of Indian theatre culture. These head gears are made of wood, gold threads, silver beads, glass and artificial stones. Further ornamentation is in the form of woollen frills and various colored foils, peacock feathers, and quills. ‘Pacha’ (green color) is for the compassionate and noble and ‘Kathi’ (knife) symbolises evil and demon-like characters. Kiritams mask has beards of 3 colors red, white and black. Each defines a character. Red-bearded is vicious and vile; White-bearded is strong, gentle, devoted and loyal; Black bearded is like Kali destroyers of evils.
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African tribal masks have influenced many western artists like Pablo Picasso, and Andre Derain. They used African cultural art to refresh and update the drained tradition of figure painting in Western art. There are two important factors that influence the style of the African tribal mask; traditional masks and individual vision of the craver. The traditional style masks are dictated by the social and religious belief of the tribal community. Although some realistic portraits are made, African tribal artist does not make the exact replica of the subjects; instead, they try making more abstract qualities like dignity, grace, humor, mischief, beauty, courage, and much more. African masks come in various shapes like human, animal, oval, circular, rectangular, elongated, heart-shaped, or any combination of these. It is believed that African masks often represent a spirit of the ancestors which possesses the wearer.
Venetian masks are a centuries-old tradition of Venice, Italy. These masks are typically worn during the carnival but have been used for many other reasons in the past with the main purpose of hiding one’s identity. The Carnival of Venice is a world famous festival known for its elaborate masks. This carnival of masks is an annual festival held in Venice every year. The carnival ends with the Christian celebration of Lent, forty days before the Easter. The history of these carnival masks dates back in the year 1162. It is said that the Carnival of Venice was very famous until the eighteenth century. However, under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was banned entirely in the year1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden. It was in 1979 when the Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the Centrepiece of its efforts. The redevelopment of these masks started as some Venetian college students used it for the tourist trade. Since then, 3million visitors from around the globe come to attend the Venetian Carnival. One of the most important events held in the carnival is the contest for “la Maschera più Bella” ("the most beautiful mask") which is judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers.
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Junkanoo festival is one of the greatest cultural events in the Bahamas. It is said that this festival may have originated several centuries ago when slaves on plantations in The Bahamas celebrated holidays granted around Christmas time with dance, music, and costumes. It is a street carnival that is celebrated on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day (1st January). Junkanoo is the strongest remaining African tradition in the Bahamas. During the Junkanoo festival, you can see lovely colorful mask worn by people and performing arts that will mesmerize you. The parades are characterized by extravagant costumes made of crepe paper and masks made of colorful cloth and leather. The street dancers, acrobatic dancers, and clowns dance on the powerful traditional rhythms beaten on goatskin drums, whistles, bugles, conch shells, cowbells, and horns. The largest Junkanoo parade happens in the capital Nassau.
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Dinagyang is one of the most colorful festivals celebrated in the Philippines. The festival brings music and dancing in the streets with participants wearing full-body costumes or body paint along with the exquisite masks. This festival is celebrated in Iloilo city on the fourth Sunday of January. It is a religious festival celebrated to honor the Santo Niño, which is believed to be the oldest religious image of Jesus in the Philippines. However, the other reason of celebrating this event is the arrival of Malays on Panay Island which was sold to them by the indigenous Ati tribe. Dinagyang revelers wear dazzling masks and costumes in the parade and dance on rhythm traditionally beaten on drums. These masks are made of colorful materials, including feathers, beads, and sequins.
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Chinese New Year is the biggest festival of the most populous country in the world, celebrated with the advent of the lunar moon. It is a week-long celebration where streets are decorated with beautiful lanterns, various masks are worn and traditional dance is performed. Chinese masks first made its presence in China during the Shang & Zhou dynasty around 3500years ago, since then the culture of wearing a mask is continued and appreciated. Chinese masks are segregated into two main categories- The Chinese New Year Masks & the Chinese opera performance masks. These masks are made from materials like stones, metal, leather and colorful cloth. The colorful masks are designed to display the moods and emotions associated with the festival. The masks represent the deities, spirits and fabled animals that Chinese New Year mythology originated from. Unlike the Chinese opera masks, the New Year masks are made exclusively for the New Year season as they portray the feeling of joy and happiness welcoming New Year and are not repeated for the entire year. Lion and dragon are quite a recurrent theme of the masks. You can see a plenty of red masks visible during the Chinese New Year celebration as red is considered to be an auspicious color. The Chinese New Year Masks being exquisite are made by the art curators and aficionados all over the world.
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Brazilian carnival masks are similar in style to Venetian masks and are also worn during the celebration of Carnival during the week before Lent. Though there is a vast difference in the history of Brazilian carnival and Venetian carnival. Brazilian carnival first started between the 17th & 18th century when a cobbler named José Nogueira de Azevedo started having parades with his friends and family. In 1855 these parades started getting more organized as aristocrats and Emperors were also involved and were called as the Grandes Sociedades or Great Societies. Until 19th-century masks were not observed in the parades. The lower class parading revelers called Cordões wore these masks in order to join the more organized parades of the aristocrats and upper class. It was during this period where Samba was born. These masks are made of leather, metal, and cloth. Embellished with beads, feathers glitters and colorful stones Brazilian carnival masks will surely steal your heart!!!
The Brazilian masks are also influenced by the mask culture of Africa. African slaves were not only imported to the United States, but also in many other parts of the world, especially Brazil and Caribbean. As these slaves escaped and were freed they started having their own Carnival celebrations wearing colorful masks. This idea of wearing masks plays a very important role in Brazilian carnival masks.
Today, Brazilian Carnival is world famous. Many tourists visit Brazil during the carnival just to observe the great festive celebrations.