From terrifying demons in Sri Lanka to the young aristocratic prince in Japan, mask forms in Asia belong to the codified world of dramatic art. While occasionally presented on the thresholds of buildings in Nepal or Vietnam, masks most often evolve by being worn on stage, where they bring numerous characters from Japanese No or Thai Khon dramas to life. This consistency in the formal repertory also corresponds to the dissemination of the cultural model of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics that inspired most of the dramas. In China, the purifying function of masks that is solicited in Nuoxi performances or Dixi opera is often counterbalanced by interludes that demonstrate the need to combine the tragic and the comic. Characters in Japanese Kyogen theatre or the Korean Pyolsandae drama also echo this coexistence between lyrical drama and burlesque poetry.
▪ Dixi Mask
China / Polychrome wood / 19th century / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 70.2001.17.19
▪ Exorcism mask
Sri Lanka / First part of 20th century / Polychrome wood, fur, plant fibres, porcelain, shell, leather, wire / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 70.2003.22.2
In Sri Lanka, sanni yakuma exorcism rituals are performed to cure a person who is ill. In ceremonies held at dusk, masks with eyes widened by fever and corneas tinged with yellow mime the illness in a frenzied dance. These masks personify the disease-spreading demons, identified by their particular features and way of dancing. This one could be Deva Sanniya, responsible for cholera and smallpox epidemics and infectious diseases, or Kola Sanniya, the chief demon, both of whom have fangs.
▪ Khon ngoh Mask
Thailand, Papier-mâché, lacquer, paint, mother-of-pearl, metal / Christine Hemmet Mission / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.19188.8.131.52-2
Khon theatre flourished in Thailand in the fourteenth century in the reign of Ayutthaya. This royal entertainment was originally inspired from the Ramayana, the version adapted to Thai culture being called Ramakian. The mythical epic tales of Rama exalt the triumph of good over evil in an allegory of the virtues celebrated by society. The ngoh mask pays tribute to the humility of the hero of the Sangh Tong drama, the son of King Yosawimon. He renounced courtly life by camouflaging his golden face under a black skin to live among the most humble. Yet he was nonetheless chosen by the beautiful Rochana, who managed to sense his virtues under his disguise.
▪ Chhau dance mask depicting Ravana
Charida, Purulia / India / 20th century / Paper and canvas, covered with plaster / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1996.28.1
The Chhau dance is a tradition of east India which takes its inspiration from episodes of the epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and from local folklore and abstract themes. It is intimately linked to regional festivals, in particular the festival of spring, Chaitra Parva. The Chhau dance is taught to dancers (exclusively men) from families of traditional artists or local communities. It is performed at night in an open air space to the accompaniment of traditional and popular melodies, played on reed instruments such as the mohuri and the shehnai. This mask of the demon Ravana with ten heads used in the Chhau dance is one of the principal personae of Ravana. The mask expresses the principal emotion ("rasa"), while the other emotions ("bhava") are conveyed by means of the dancer's posture and the movement of his legs (particularly the jumps he performs).
▪ Pyolsandae Mask
Yangju, South Korea / Papier-mâché, textile, fibres, pigments / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1971.66.27
The Pyolsandae masked drama in the village of Yangju features twenty characters who play members of high society and denounce its weaknesses. The characters can be identified by the bright colours and occasionally deformed features of the masks. The white face adorned with red discs embodies Somu, a young dancer and prostitute who arouses desire in the old monk and sparks rivalry between him and his student, Prodigal.