ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 39

Unmasking the man behind the demons

By Ayesha Inoon

There is an eerie sensation of being watched by several eyes as you step into the room. The grisly masks of the demons of ancient Sri Lankan legends leer down from the walls. With their dark colours, bulging eyes, hanging tongues, fangs and cobra heads, these masks are both fearsome and wonderful in their intricacy of detail.

For Mohan Daniel, his collection of over 400 authentic Sri Lankan masks at Serendib Gallery, Colombo, is a symbol of a rich culture and tradition that is fast fading in today’s society. “Currently the industry of mask-making is highly commercialised,” he says, “traditional methods of making the masks are no longer used. The ancient craft is dead.”

These masks have been an important part of Sri Lankan folk culture, and many stories and legends are attached to them. The masks are of two types – those used for folk dance drama - the Kolam and Sokari, and those used in rituals of exorcism or for invoking the aid of various deities.

Father and daughter team: Mohan and Upekha Daniel

Among the chilling masks used for exorcism are the masks of the Maha Sohona Yaka, and the Kola Sanni Yaka. The Maha Sohona Yaka is a demon with a bear’s head that is said to roam cemeteries in search of human prey. The Kola Sanni Yaka, according to legend, arrived from India with a retinue of 18 disease-causing demons.

The kattadiyas or exorcists of yore feared to sell or dispose of these masks lest the wrath of the demons befell them. Legend has it that when exorcism rituals take place in one location, the Kola Sanni Yaka masks in other places begin to vibrate. When not in use, the mask is wrapped in a red cloth and kept separately from other masks.

Some of these rituals still take place in rural parts of the country, especially in the South, says Mr. Daniel, who, along with a special crew, has captured many of these on film. These videos and photographs make up part of his archive of Sri Lanka’s mask traditions along with a vast number of books on the subject.

The collection includes several rare and unique masks. However, says Mr. Daniel, the best collections of Sri Lankan masks are - unfortunately - those found overseas, especially the collection found in the Museum of Stockholm, which has 348 masks.

The German Hagenbeck brothers who lived in Ceylon in the late 1800s collected these masks and sold them to the Umlauff Museum in Germany, which later sold them to the Museum of Stockholm.

Gini Jala Sanni Yaka Gini Jala Sanni Yaka Maha Sohona Yaka The Reeri Yaka

There are also many other collections in Europe and the USA, which have been remarkably well preserved, he says. For example, many of these museums have fine specimens of the extraordinary Maha Kola Sanni Yaka mask, of which only one exists in Sri Lanka in the Colombo Museum, with rumours of another in the Uva province.

The assortment of genuine artefacts, books and paintings at the Serendib Gallery are testimony of Mr. Daniel’s mission to preserve ancient cultural traditions for posterity, and to create awareness among the public about their value. The Gallery benefits from an eminent board of advisors who are specialists in their respective fields of art, culture, anthropology and history.

A Centre for the Preservation of Endangered National Art Forms is also among the Gallery’s projects, which is to be dedicated to the safeguarding of valuable representations of our cultural heritage such as masks, archives of films and books, puppets and other artefacts.

The Gallery’s innovative, non-profit website, is a virtual representation of Sri Lankan art history, dance, theatre, music, cinema and contemporary art. The website now covers over 2000 pages and is still growing, to be possibly the best source of information on Sri Lankan culture and tradition.

“Change is inevitable, but I don’t like change. I want to preserve the traditional ways,” reflects Mr. Daniel, whose passion for protecting and cherishing our national heritage is shared by his young daughter, Upekha who assists him in his endeavours while reading for a degree in Sociology. Together, they are working towards enlightening the public on the value of disappearing art forms in Sri Lanka, and preserving them for future generations.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.