For me, the meaning of travel has changed over the years. While it used to be “excursions” at school, it was “sight-seeing” in the teen years. I no longer delight in visiting the touristy landmarks just for that cliched photograph in front of it, but try my best to get a flavour of local customs, arts, crafts and cuisines while travelling. Time usually does not permit, but I try to squeeze it into the itinerary and it usually leaves me with a more open mind, and a greater appreciation of the place and its people.
The idea is not just to buy crafts as “decor accessories” to adorn some random shelf at home. I also get a high on watching artists at work, seeing art supplies strewn around, savouring the smells of the craftroom (of wood, paints, etc.) and just absorbing the positive energy that emanates out of creating art.
And so, a super-short beachside vacation planned in Sri Lanka HAD to be peppered with visits to a mask making factory and a 140-year old Batik artist’s home.
Now if you and I are on the same page, Ambalangoda in South Western coastal Sri Lanka is one of the destinations you can bookmark if you are planning a visit to the island nation and would like a flavour of local, traditional crafts. I must say that the predominantly grotesque demon masks with bulging eyes didn’t look appealing to me at first sight.
However a glimpse into the stories behind these masks, and watching the carving and painting process in one of the workshops, made me respect this age-old craft.
The masks are painstakingly carved of Balsa wood, painted bright with vegetable or chemical dyes and used in traditional dance dramas, folk plays, pageants and processions.
The master carvers apparently have traditional formulae for carving different types of masks. The entire process (for us laymen) is this ... sawing wood into blocks > measurements, applying the formulae > hollowing out the wood as per design > smoking for weeks > demarcating main features > smoking, drying > chiselling as per design > smoothening > painting.
|Craftsmen at work in the chiseling stage|
|Wood shavings, tools, and a vintage radio to lighten the mood|
Oh, and not all of the masks looked evil, you know.
Traditionally, the demon lookalikes were used in driving away illnesses and in exorcism.There are the theatrical Kolam masks which are used in folk plays which are distinctly different – they portray kings, queens, men and animals.
The whole story of mask making which used to be practiced in the hinterland villages sounded deeply mystic to me. One little story of queens satisfying their pregnancy cravings of watching mask performances seemed particularly delightful to me.
It is a completely different scene in contemporary Sri Lanka. Mask dances are performed only for tourists and mainly in the beach resorts. Mask making which used to be a deeply ritualistic process is now only a means-of-livelihood for some families on the coastal regions. And masks are now highly marketable handicraft products for art collectors and tourists.
Time takes its toll on traditions; however this craft still remains ever in demand. And it added colour (vibrant primary colours, mind it :-) to my otherwise blue-green beachside vacation.