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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

When the mask becomes the message...

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

For The Hindu Business Line

as an accessory, a banner, even an easel

At first, it felt odd. A few people were wearing it, mostly at airports. But as the novel coronavirus turned into a pandemic, wearing a mask in public places became mandatory.

This ‘protective gear’ has since moved on — from becoming scarce on the shelves of medical stores to being a DIY subject for online videos. However, its role has not been limited to safety and protection. Conservationists, artists, designers have found the mask a new medium to showcase their art and spread their messages.

In Assam, for example, village women working towards conservation of the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork (locally called hargila), have been making masks of the traditional Assamese gamosa — a decorative cotton towel — with motifs of the bird woven on them.

“When they first came to know of the lockdown in March, the women of the Hargila army were upset,” says Purnima Devi Barman, wildlife biologist who initiated the Hargila army in her efforts to save the bird from disappearing. Assam has 800 of around 1,200 Greater Adjutant Storks found in South and South-East Asia. “The women had woven gamosas with motifs of the hargila and other wild animals like the one-horned rhino and elephant, to be sold during the Bihu fete in April. They had made 12,000 gamosas. The lockdown dashed their hopes.”

However, out of adversity however, rose an opportunity. When wearing of masks became compulsory, Barman realised that these gamosas could, after all, be used for a different purpose. “I watched some online videos on how to make cloth masks at home and floated the idea to the women. First, they hesitated, but on motivating them to try it out, they agreed,” she recalls.

There has been no looking back since. More than 400 women of three villages — where the storks are found and the Hargila army is active — started making masks of the gamosas they wove. One gamosa would make 4-5 masks. “First they started distributing these masks to the community itself. Then, as word spread, people started enquiring about these masks. So, they started selling them at ₹50 each,” she says.

People were now wearing their message of conservation on their faces — quite literally. Not just that. With the lockdown, most of these women’s husbands had suddenly become jobless. The economic opportunity of making masks, therefore, was a shot in the arm.

The mask has also become an easel for artists. In Bihar, artistes Remant Mishra and his wife, Usha, of Jitwarpur village, have been doing Madhubani art on masks and distributing them to villagers, essential service providers and other artistes. A folk art form that uses natural pigments as colours, Madhubani (or Mithila painting) depicts mythology, nature, and scenes inspired by real life, like weddings. The couple, while staying true to the essence of Madhubani, have gone one step further to depict slogans and motivational messages against the pandemic on the masks. Usha says they have painted over 250 masks till now.

In the Niligiris, women of the pastoral Toda community have been making masks with a strip of exquisite Toda embroidery. Every strip gives the masks a unique look, offering not just protection but also introducing this art form to users. Toda embroidery typically uses red and black thread over a white background — such is the fineness of this work that it often looks like woven cloth and can be used on both sides.

Last Forest, which helps connect indigenous communities and their products with the market, has tied up with a producer unit in the Nilgiris to make these masks accessible to a larger section of people. They have branded it People’s Mask.

Indian designers too have begun production of reusable cloth masks. Designer Anita Dongre has initiated the production of 3-ply cloth masks that were originally raw material for clothes. Masaba Gupta announced on social media her initiative with a clever play of letters, Maskaba. Among other designers who have identical initiatives are Ritu Kumar and Neeta Lulla.

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