Archive for February, 2012


                                      Fasnet: A Seasonal Masked Festival (Satis Shroff)



                                   The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains.

          Scepterless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

                                   Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless. (PB Shelley)                                                                                  


Since ancient times masks have been regarded as living images of spirits and gods…and these beings receive tribute and homage through sacrificial offerings carried out with ancient rites.

In some cultures the very glance at a taboo mask can bring illness or death when one is not initiated. When the African tribe of Dan is on the warpath they take special care not to damage the sacred masks of the enemies, because they want to be at peace with the spirits for they fear the power of the spirits.

Whether in the Alps, Dolomites or the Himalayas people have believed in spirits and demons in the forests, bush and the mountains with the result that there are so many legends and myths about primordeal forest spirits (Urwaldgeister) and mountain-spirits (Berggeister) And masks have been created to depict and appease these demons, gods and spirits.

In the lovely Black Forest town of Kappel, as in other parts of Germany, we have the Brauchtumsabend with the goal to present old beliefs and traditions authentically. But the problem with such events is that the more historical character they have, as in the case of town-festivals, market-celebrations, village-markets, the more research is done by social scientists and European ethnologists. However, the withholding of such olde traditions (Brauchtumspflege) must not be dated back to the Third Reich period. The tradition began much earlier and has been the working fields of sociologists, historians and pedagogues. In the seventies intensive research was done about festivals not only in Germany but also in Europe, where interdisciplinary field research was done on themes like: daily-life, pastime and direct communication with the participants and organisators at all levels.

As a result all sorts of festivals were documented, analysed and their meaning for the respective societies was researched and this became the central theme for anthropology (Volkskunde and Völkerkunde) and European ethnology and all relevant aspects for the social interaction in such festivals. Every country and area in Europe has its own customs, traditional costumes, clergical and seasonal events.

In addition to academicians, journalists from television have also joined the bandwagon  and they present and comment about the Allemanic-Swabian fasnet, fasching, carnival masks, attires, traditions as well about other season events, which are very important in the provincial areas in the valleys in the Schwarzwald and the Alps and Dolomites, where the mountain villages are isolated from the rest of the world, despite skype and internet.

Interdisciplinary research and analysis have been introduced since a long time in the field of folklore, traditions and festivals. The reality of such festivals-for-all and the aspirations of the folk in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, or for that matter Himalayan states like Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim (India), have found their outlets in calendars, with where and when they take place, so that the tourist agencies of the hamlets, towns and cities can use them for their ads.

Folklorism is one such term which denotes the mask-tradition, whereby the masks have been changed, the traditions removed from their original functional aspects and changed to suit new purposes and given new contexts to make them seem original and authentic. Hans Moser  said back in1962 thus about folklorism: ‘ Folklorism is the calling of old traditions that never existed, with emphasis on so-called ‘real.’

With tourism getting even to the most remote corners of the world, ritual and sacred masks and statues are displayed as though they are common everyday objects and are often sold to all and sundry. As a result the once treasured sacred and awesome objects become reduced to conversation-pieces in the living-rooms of western cultures.(The gods seem to be leaving Kathmandu Valley). It was Picasso and the German expressionists who discovered the styled power of the masks (from Africa) and shaped and painted them in pastel colours to suit European tastes in impressionistic styles.

When a European takes a chisel in his hand, he has a subjective idea in his head which he wants to create in a concrete way, thereby following abstract aesthetic categories. But an ethnic Nepali (Newar or Lama) African or Indio will try to recreate a time-tested form which recall the Gods or Spirits of his pantheon. (The same thing is happening to traditional carpets. We rob their very  ethnicity when we order modern designs in pastel colours. The ethnic Nepalis and Tibetans oblige and soon the traditional designs with dragons and mandalas become  things of the past). The traditional carpet-makers of Afghanistan in Heart and Kabul started producing carpets with war-themes like weapons, helicopters, jets and the dying and dead in their attempt to tell the world.

Masks have functional purposes and can be sacral works of art and express thoughts about life and death, heaven or hell and life after death.

Masks have an integrative function which binds and makes the humans melt in their surroundings.

Masks are used in ritual dances by the initiated (or people who have done a course) and express religion (temple dancers of India and Nepal, lamas dancers at the Mani Rimdu festival etc), sexuality and all the emotions like joy and sorrow, hope and fear and sexual desires.

Masks for different occasions: People wear masks and dance to celebrate the change of season, the birth of a child, to celebrate a marriage or even to mourn a death in the family in some cultures. Masked dances were always a deeply religious expression of feeling and a means to communicate with Gods and Spirits. Masks have indispensable in religious dances.

Types of masks: There are masks which only cover the faces, the entire heads and sometime the whole anatomy, painted faces, wooden masks, fasnet, fasching, carnival masks.

Sacred dances are held on full moon nights, whereby the moon plays a big role.

In some cultures the intensity of sexual ecstasy during ceremonies is related to the moonlight, and places with  moonshine are thought to be frequented by spirits and demons.

Every hamlet has its own sacred places and own Gods who live in a holy forest, rock, cave or river. Dead people are buried with vedic rites (or other rites in other cultures).

In animism the natural environment is regarded as living and has a soul eg. trees, mountains, rivers, lightning and thunder, sun, moon and rain. One can speak with them, beckon them and ask them for help. Like the Christian cross and holy statues of saints, the Hindus and Buddhists also have their shiva-lingams. The Hindus and Buddhists aren’t ‘pagans’ and ‘heathen’ either, because the effigies they worship merely symbolise higher beings.

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