Mask depicting Shiva
India, West Bengal, Puruliya district, 1962
Painted paper mâché
Lent by the Museum of Anthropology, MU (Gift of Robert F. Bussabarger)
Shiva’s association with snakes is prominently indicated in this mask by the two cobras that emerge from the sides of his head, while a third is coiled at the top. The cobra symbolizes Shiva’s power of death, but also–– just as a snake sheds its skin in renewal––it references the god’s power to bring new life into existence. Shiva’s third eye is shown on his forehead. That eye usually looks inward in perception, but when it looks outward it burns everything to ashes. Also on his head is a crescent moon––its cycling phases symbolize the passage of time. A small female bust of Ganga is present on his head too; Ganga (the Ganges River deified) brings forth life-sustaining water. All these attributes reveal Shiva’s dual nature as both a creator and a destroyer, continuously at work. Shiva is ultimately worshipped because of his ability to liberate human souls from their endless cycle of existence (samsara) and to bring them transcendent peace.
This mask was made for use in the popular Indian theatrical dance called Chhau. Probably originating as a war dance, Chhau performances now feature re-enactments of episodes from the great Indian epics including the Mahabharata and Ramayana, all reinforcing the underlying moral theme that good will always overcome evil. Chhau is a vibrant, powerful, and ritualistic folk dance form. Brightly-painted masks and elaborate costumes figure prominently, as do the bold movements of the actors and the reverberating music of the orchestra.
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"I still remember the feeling of awe and disbelief when I was alone and walked in the room with those casts." --Ruth Tofle, chair of architecture, winner of the 2013 distinguished faculty award from the MU Alumni Association