Heavy, typically metal alloy-based masks worn by dancers for Bhuta Kola performances, bhuta masks are used predominantly in the coastal regions of Karnataka and in parts of Kerala, a region referred to as Tulu Nadu.
Bhuta masks incorporate influences from both Puranic mythology and local folklore. The term ‘bhuta’ refers to a spirit, and the masks depict many types of such spirits. They may be of totemistic origin, such as the boar bhuta Panjurli; they may be forms of deities such as Vishnu, Shiva or various forms of the Mother Goddess; they may be individuals who became spirits after a heroic death or were killed due to social injustice; or they may be serpent spirits. Metal bhuta masks are held sacred enough to be worshipped even when they are not being used in the performances. They are repaired if damaged over the years.
Masks in bhuta kola are charged with meaning, and the mythologies and performances attached to them often reflect hierarchies of social and religious power in Tulu Nadu. The masks are worn by male performers from the Parava, Pambada, Kopala, Nalke, and Panara Scheduled Castes; during the course of the ritual performance, they are believed to become indistinguishable from the local deity and are involved in resolving local disputes and grievances. Scholars have identified a complex interplay between indigenous traditions and castes and the caste and class hierarchy of Hinduism, elements of which can be seen in bhuta masks.
Masks representing Jumadi, an androgynous spirit from Tulu Nadu, are now identified with the Shaiva icon Dhumavati and are marked with Shaiva symbols such as the sun and crescent moon. Similarly, Panjurli masks depict a boar originally identified with a bhuta from a pre-Puranic local cult, but Panjurli today is believed to have sprung from the sweat of the god Vishnu. These boar masks are sometimes used for other characters, such as Bante, an assistant of Jumadi. On these occasions, rather than being worn, the mask is carried in front of the dancer's body to signal the bhuta’s lower social status.
These masks are often richly decorated. The Panjurli mask, for example, features auspicious marks on the forehead and two small ornamental bands around the end of the snout. It is also provided with a crown decorated with three tiers of nagas (snakes). The first features stylised snake hoods, the second a number of small s-shaped snakes with their hoods erect. The crown is surmounted by eleven cobra hoods with engraved details, with the spaces between them filled with spear-like ornaments.
Bhuta masks are usually cast in high relief (traditionally in bronze), going up to 30 or 40 cm in height and may weigh up to 10 kilograms. Brass, wood, bell-metal, gold and silver may also be used. They are generally made using the lost wax technique. Additional details are engraved after the mask has been cast and polished.
A ceremony is usually performed on masks commissioned for ritual use at the end of the manufacturing process. The craftsman sacrifices a rooster and engraves the eyeballs of the mask, thus figuratively ‘opening’ the deity’s eyes. A sacred ablution is then performed with coconut water or palm juice. Once the ritual is completed, the mask is believed to contain the powers of the bhuta it depicts.
During a bhuta kola ritual, the dancer-performer first dons makeup, costume and various ornaments. He then puts on headgear and the ani (a halo-like structure attached to his back as a backdrop) before finally wearing the bhuta mask and wielding weapons associated with it. As the ritual progresses, the dancer is believed to be possessed by the deity and interacts with the audience.
Bhuta masks are predominantly used for rituals in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, Karnataka and Kasargod, Kerala. Each region has their own stylistic variation. As of writing, bhuta masks are also produced as collector’s items and are available for sale in urban centres such as Udupi.
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