Raas Utsav, a two-day festival in Assam featuring plays in which actors sport masks made of natural materials, will be held with precautionary measures this year
The pandemic had the people of Majuli in Assam in a fix. The inhabitants of the world’s largest river island, which holds the famous Sri Krishna Jatra, were not sure if they would be able to continue the 150-year-old tradition of hosting the event on raas, a full-moon night.
They heaved a sigh of relief and swung into action when the district administration gave a go-ahead to hold the jatra with a list of precautionary measures to be followed. Among them was the rule that no artistes below the age of 10 can participate.
What is Raas Utsav?
The two-day jatra, that will be held from November 31 to December 1, is significant because the performance involves traditional handmade masks.
Raas is a celebration of 500 years of cultural and artistic contributions of the various sattras (the seat of Vaishnavite preaching introduced by medieval saint Srimanta Shankardev for an all-inclusive form of religion) in Majuli.
The jatra is an annual festival that involves song, dance, dialogue in a performing art form depicting the story of the life of Lord Krishna.
It begins with the birth of Krishna, his growing up, his tending to the cows at Gokul along with his fellow cowherds, his childhood, and his vanquishing of demons like Bakasur, Putana, Kaliya, and Kamsa. The entire performance happens without a break and is a continuous process involving more than 60 actors playing various roles. This is where the masks come to play. Srimanta Shankardev, apart from being a preacher, was a dramatist, philosopher, social reformer, artiste, painter, linguist and an actor. He used dance-dramas to share the stories of Krishna with his followers who did not understand texts written in Indian languages. He also introduced the tradition of masks.
story telling masksHemakanta Goswami of Samuguri sattra in Majuli explaining about masks, Khagen Mahanta showing some of the dramatic masks used at raas, the team at Samuguri sattra, a file photo of a scene from raas jatra, masks getting ready, the shola stems used to masks Ritu Raj Konwar prabalika m borah
Forty five-year-old Khagen Goswami, a leading mask-maker who comes from the sattras lineage, says, “Performances during raas involve many traditional musical instruments like khol (a percussion instrument that resembles a mridangam), taal (big brass clash cymbals), nagara (huge folk drums) and doba (a drum mostly played in prayer halls or temples). It also involves Assamese classical music and dance.”
During the festival, all chapters of the plays use the Brajavali language popularised by Shankardev which is a mix of five different Indian languages viz Sanskrit, Maithili, Bengali, Assamese and Hindi.
Of the many sattras in Majuli, Samuguri has been hosting raas for the past 150 years. The festival at Majuli is unique because it involves traditional handmade masks and costumes using natural materials like bamboo, soft clay from the river bed of the Brahmaputra, shola or kuhila stems, a water plant. This apart, they have been following the culture involving four basic components like angik (expression), bhasik (words) xattik (calmness) and aharjjo (costume and mask) as preached by Srimanta Sankardev. The days leading to raas are a grand affair. People are upbeat and make it a point to visit the Utsav. The event takes place in an open-air set-up and happens at night. “Traditionally, we begin at 9 pm and wind up at 5 am the following day. Even though we enact the same scenes year after year, everyone waits for this gala event because it is one of its kind. Imagine seeing a hand-made 40-feet long python swallowing a demon (an actor) on stage. The story never gets old,” explains Khagen.
A week ahead of the event at Samuguri, preparations are on full swing. Masks are being dried and painted.
Hemchandra Goswami of Samuguri Sattra, is explaining to visitors the work involved in making masks. He takes them patiently through the history of the sattra and also explains the craft and the tradition.
He says, “The lockdown gave me more time to focus on certain aspects. We modified some masks, taught wood carving to my students and made a lot of new masks.We first make the frame with bamboo by peeling the tender ones to make them smooth and agile to be bent into different shapes. After that, we apply a layer of fine cloth on which we rub smooth river clay. We repeat the process a few time and then paint it. It is an expensive craft, rare and unique to Majuli.”
Rajob Gam, a tour guide, says that during the pre-pandemic days, raas attracted tourists from various parts of the world apart from Assam. Rajib says, “This year, as a precautionary measure, the authorities have requested elders and children to watch the event on TV from home — it will be telecast live by various TV channels including Doordarshan. We are also expecting visitors from nearby districts of Assam.”