Carved from wood, rabankata masks are used to celebrate the Rabankata Utsab (The Ravana Killing Festival) in Bishnupur, West Bengal. This annual festival, inaugurated by the Mallabhum kings in the seventeenth century, is conducted over three days near the Raghunath Jiu temple in Bishnupur. Each day culminates in the ceremonial killing of antagonists from the Ramayana, starting with Kumbhakaran, then Meghnath and finally Ravana. The masks are used to represent these characters as well as others from the Ramayana legend.
The masks are usually made out of gamhar (white teak) wood by local communities. The masks of upper caste characters like Kumbhakaran and Ravana are kept in Brahmin households or the Raghunath Jiu temple throughout the year, while vanara (monkey) masks are kept in lower caste households. The former are usually held aloft during performances associated with the festival, while the latter are worn by dancers. These dancers are believed to descend from warrior families chosen by the kings of Bishnupur to wear the masks when the festival was first conducted, They enact a local variation of the Ramayana legend where the monkeys, not Rama and Lakshmana, attempt to kill Ravana and his demons.
The masks are usually handed down patrilineally from one generation to another. They are held to be impressions of designs made in the seventeenth century, and are often used over several years, with repairs and re-painting done by Patuas before the festival dates.
The masks for Ravana (including his ten heads) and Kumbhakaran are usually put on effigies or dummies made from clay and thatch, which are then shot at with arrows, set aflame, or hacked at by a performer in a symbolic act of killing. The Hanuman mask is white and does not resemble an ape, possessing large black eyes framed in red and black paint, a prominent nose, red lips and white teeth. A moustache is painted over the lips. The dancer peers through gaps in the teeth, because there are no holes for the eyes. A red mark is painted on the nose and ‘Jai Sita Ram’ written in Bengali along the sides of the forehead. The mask of the monkey king Sugriva is largely similar.
The mask of Bibhishan, a younger brother of Ravana and ally of Rama, is painted red. This mask has holes for the eyes, and the mouth is painted rather than carved out. The Jambuban mask represents a black bear, with white floral designs across the cheeks and chin. There is an opening in the mouth, between the teeth, which affords the dancer a view outside.
The Rabankata festival was earlier performed in the royal palace of Bishnupur, but is now largely confined to the Nimtala area. It has received some state support in recent years, with performers being invited to some state-sponsored festivals and fairs in West Bengal.
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