Saturday, 22 February 2014 11:42
Reviving the art of intricate wood carvingBy Cheranka Mendis
There is something about traditional wooden masks of Sri Lanka that immediately catches attention of the beholder. With big eyes, long and sharp teeth and the intricately carved snakes and faces that are comical yet terrifying, wooden masks create shock at first glance and awe in the next with beautiful lines, bright colours and delicate details.
Masks used since antiquity for both ceremonial and decorative purposes have lived a long life, being passed on from one generation to another.
Family business to three villages
While most of these traditional crafts are fighting for breath in the modern world, a small village called Olabaduwa in Horana is fighting a battle for survival, with the support of the National Craft Council.
Mask carvings in this area was initiated by Nadha Gurunnanse, whom, along with his family produced masks to be used specifically for ritual healing (shanthikarma.) Later on, in 1964 upon receiving a large scale order from overseas, the hitherto family-oriented business had to seek help from surrounding areas, spreading the knowledge of the craft to villages close by – Batuwita, Bandarawatte and Mawgama.
Presently, it is the fifth generation of craftsmen hailing from Nadha Gurunnanse that is carrying on the tradition in these villages. As at now there are 41 families that are registered under Raigampura Mask Craftsmen Development Society while so many more are indirectly involved through painting the cut masks, supplying the necessary wood, etc.
Learning the craft
In Batuwita, a village that blossomed from the art that was gifted by Gurunnanse, A. Siriwardhana and his wife Karunawathi Rathuge have been commercially creating traditional wooden masks since 1969.
Siriwardhana who, unlike many does not hail from generations of mask craftsmen, learnt this art from Saranadasa, a craftsman hailing from a long line of artisans. What got him interested was the smooth finish created out of a rough bark, transforming a heavy chunk of wood to a smooth canvas on which art was made.
It is not a hard craft to learn, he said; if you have the willingness and commitment. “I had both and I caught on soon. I have won Presidential awards as well.”
Explaining the process of wooden mask carving, Siriwardhana noted that first the full log is taken, cut to size and the back is hollowed out to make it lighter in weight. Next is to prepare the log according to what the mask is going to be – the height, width, shape – all change from one to another. The log is then marked and divided into three or four parts so that carvings could take place in a balanced manner. “When we see a log we know what we could cut to make maximum use of it,” he said.
A basic outline of the mask is then sketched on with a pencil. Within the next few days, the mask begins to take shape.
Showing us a large incomplete mask prepared for daha-ata-sanniya, Siriwardhana noted that it takes close to two weeks to prepare the wood itself, as there are many intricate carvings on its ears.
“He cuts, I paint,” said Karunawathi, as she joined in the conversation. Taking a brush into her hand she then proceeded to paint the whiten face with yellow. “I have been doing this for close to 50 years now,” she smiled, “It is tough as I have to wake early in the morning and prepare meals, run errands and then sit down to paint.” Mostly, the paintings happen in the evening, going on till around 11:30 p.m. “This is the time when I am mostly free.”
Using matt paint, she takes four to five days to complete a mask. For the complex ones, a week or two is needed. “Previously we used lacquer paint for masks. It added a shine to the face, giving it an extra brightness and an edge. Today however the demand is for matt finish.’
Due to her experience she can now look at a mask cut by her husband and remember the colours that go along with it. Karunawathi expressed: “Every mask has specific colours that have come down traditionally. We have not moved away from it.” The most commonly used colour is yellow.
“More than the money, I enjoy seeing the end product. I am always in awe to see a white bark ending up with so much colour.”
Glory days of the past
Siriwardhana and Karunawathi earn Rs. 20,000 on average per month. This requires the sale of two large masks or the sale of several smaller ones.
However, in the past the duo led a good life, running a large workshop that extended right to where the road is today. Siriwardhana has trained a large number of artisans who are now engaged in their own mask carving business as well. He used to run a successful workshop until the ’83 troubles, with 20-25 people working under him. He even paid EPF to 11 of his permanent staff for 11 years, he acknowledged. Supplying to Laksala then, he used to take orders for close to 200 pieces in one go. “They used to send us a list of masks, around 10 items in three sizes in large quantities,” he recalled.
Now he supplies to private shops in Colombo, Nuwara, Hikkaduwa and Ambalangoda. “I earned much more in the past. Now, in comparison to the living cost the income generated through this is far less than before. Sometimes it is a struggle,” he said.
The good times lasted from 1976 to 1983. “I had to stop the workshop during the ’83 Black July. Tourists stopped coming, business went down and we had to stop.” He stopped carving wooden masks for two years, during which he tried his hand at a number of other jobs, including farming. “But this is what was running in my blood. I had to get back to it.”
Help from National Craft Council
Now his workshop is a small shed located right next to his home – this too, thanks to the National Craft Council and its goal of preserving the ancient arts of the country. the Weekend FT learns that Rs. 1.9 million was allocated from the 2012 Budget for traditional wooden mask villages in Horana.
On 11 February, a large quantity of equipment, paints and other necessities for the craft were distributed to those registered in the Raigampura Mask Craftsmen Development Society.
Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera