Face off: Paying homage to the ritualistic theatre tradition in Mexico

An exhibition sheds light on the rich heritage of masks in Mexico.

Written by Pallavi Chattopadhyay | Updated: July 27, 2016 12:24 pm
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In typical peasant attire, boys dress up as old men with white-haired masks, bend over in pain, wielding their canes, and slowly break into a performance. Within a fraction of a second, they spring into foot-tapping dance moves, until one stumbles and falls, and the remaining follow suit. Their pink masks representing toothless old men with wide smiles, made of wood, corn husk or clay, form an integral part of one of Michoacan’s humorous traditional dances performed by the indigenous tribe in Mexico. It is believed that after the arrival of the Spaniards in the area, the dance turned into a mockery of how the Spaniards aged and looked decrepit. Others maintain that the dance has been around for years and is a celebration of old age, honouring the elderly in the community. Many such masks used in festivals across Mexico, on display at India International Centre in Delhi as part of the exhibition “Masks of Mexico”, serve as a gateway into the country’s rich culture and brings to life various characters from Mexican legends and myths.

The exhibition pays homage to the ritualistic theatre tradition in Mexico, where masks made from different mediums — ranging from lacquered wood carving, polychrome clay and ceramic to metal, fabric and plastic — have been used in over 4,000 festivals held across the country. Mexican ambassador Melba Pria says, “A mask has the power to inspire imagination. It is a unique tool that hides the wearer while allowing him to become anything he wants: an animal, God or maybe a king. This transformational power is essential to the magical celebrations that are so frequent in Mexico.”

Featuring among the main themes of the exhibition is the Mexican devil mask, that covers a broad range of expressions, either playful or hellish, to introduce concepts of the good, bad and punishment. The “Jaguar” and the “Tiger”, considered sacred animals, are shown depicting both the good and the evil. There are animal masks of species native to the Americas, that were of particular significance among pre-Hispanic populations, such as the alligator, monkey, birds and turtles.

“Fishermen”, Pria’s pick of the lot, has the head shaped in the form of a mermaid, accentuating a joker-like face. Pria says, “It is one of the few in the collection that is not used for dancing, but as a decorative piece that brings prosperity and good luck. Another mask that I like because of its elegant simplicity is one of the Pascola masks. The character of Pascola is, at the same time, a dancer, host, preacher and ritual jester. They can dance all year long but they are particularly important during Easter.”

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