The Utilitarian Mask
Back in the summers of 2003, I had an altogether fresh zest for life. Well, why wouldn’t I, I was 5 years old, teeming with energy and curiosity. Every Saturday, I would religiously plead with my mother to take me to Clown Town, an amusement park in the heart of South Kolkata. It’s a shame that it shut down in a short while, but I recall having a solid 2 years of fun and frolicking.
Although it had numerous rides and a colossal pool of plastic balls that I’d often dive into, my favorite was the tattoo artist who’d occupy a tiny spot in the corner of the park. Each time, I would waddle my way towards him and watch his palette of resplendent colors, with my mouth agape. Eagerly awaiting my turn, my eyes would trace his lucid brush strokes painting a butterfly on someone’s cheek, or a flower on someone’s hand. And when it was finally my turn to get painted on, his mundane voice sounded like saccharine music to my ears, “Ki chai, kothaye chai?” (What do you want? Where do you want it?)
My imagination knew no bounds, I wanted anything and everything painted all over me. But this one time, I was finally able to articulate what I really wanted. I asked him to paint around my eyes, as if I was in one of those European carnivals, wearing an enigmatic mask, in an attempt to disguise my identity. In retrospect, he made quite a shoddy attempt, but back then, I wore my painted mask with pride, till the sweltering sun wiped it off my face.
Fast-forward to my boisterous pubescent years, I had yet another rendezvous with masks. This time I studied and learned all about their history. How their conception traversed all the way back to the ancient Greeks, their long history in Japanese theatre, African culture as well as Indian performative arts. For the longest rebellious phase in those years, which I had dreaded would become an indelible fragment of my personality, I had thought of getting the Melpomene and Thalia masks tattooed on my chest. It thrilled me to know that numerous cultures around the world celebrated the tradition of hiding one’s identity behind a mask; picking a day to commemorate all that they would want to be, masquerading all their desires behind a mask.
I was further overcome with awe when I studied more about the carnivalesque and masquerade in college. Emanating from the practice of medieval carnivals, people would indulge themselves as they put aside all their labors and responsibilities, thus suspending all rules and restrictions. These carnivals also marked a celebration of sexual and other bodily pleasures of eating and drinking. While women were constantly rebuked into keeping themselves under wraps, these carnivals would serve as the perfect means for them to explore their erstwhile clandestine desires. This was the only time people had the license to hide from the actions they would participate in. And mind you, while this was liberating for some, it also served as a free pass for the so-called gentlemen to unleash the darker side of male domination, uninhibited.
It never ceased to astound me, that all it needed was a mask, to be a version of yourself you can’t be under average circumstances, to do things you would never dream of doing without this protective casing shielding your face. Yet somehow, over time, the concept has reversed itself. Even when we do have a window to be all that we want to be, we choose to mask it. Let’s take laughing or smiling as an example. It is a psychological reaction that is involuntary and spontaneous. You don’t have to plant a smile or orchestrate laughter, because it comes naturally, as a response to something said or done. But when we try to fix a smile on our faces, plastering one across our mouth, even when we feel otherwise, we antithetically, hide what we actually want to express. And eventually, this amounts to a mask, even though we may not consciously realize that it functions as one. And so, it is nothing short of putting up an act, a carnivalesque performance.
And finally, in light of the pandemic that we have been battling for over a year, the mask is now our saving grace. It is as basic as it can get, we need the mask to save our lives. So, tracing its inception, all the way from ancient Greek drama, to carnivalesque celebrations across different cultures, to self-built invisible masks to camouflage our heartfelt emotions, to combating an unidentified virus, I can safely say is that the mask’s multi-utilitarian design is infinite.