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The tsam mask-making tradition in post-socialist Mongolia.

This paper examines the tsam mask-making as it is performed in present-day Mongolia taking into consideration the role played by the ritual dances as a part of the recuperation programme of the national identity.

In Mongolia, as in Tibet, most Buddhist activities take place inside monasteries, the internal halls and courts of which are usually restricted to the monastic communities. Special events in human lifetimes--such as birth, marriage or death--or public rituals, provide a unique opportunity for both monks and people to interact, creating new bonds and consolidating a common religious identity.

The re-introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the XVI century brought Mongolian ritual life to a brand new level of sophistication. In the attempt to purge shamans and motivate religious conversion, the Mongol bla ma rewrote the shamanic prayers and invocations and incorporated local spirits into the Buddhist pantheon. These interconnections play a notable role in the ritual dance performance known as 'chams (Mong. tsam, a mystery play traditionally performed at set dates which however may be tailored in line with the different orders or monasteries).

Although asserting itself through a wide range of forms, the 'chams is essentially an exorcistic ritual staged by masked monks whose aim is to destroy the enemies of faith, symbolized by a human figure made of dough. The origin of the Buddhist dances is still uncertain: oral tradition takes it back to an Indian Vajrayna context, even though practitioners of Tibet's Bon faith have performed dances on certain occasions as a part of religious ceremonies (1).

The 'chams, introduced very early in the rituals of rNying ma pa, Tibet's oldest order, and Sa skya pa, was included in the reformed dGe lugs pa ritual calendar by the Fifth Dalai Lama in the late XVII century. Born in a rNying ma pa family in 1617, Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho was shortly after recognized as the reincarnation of the Fourth Dalai Lama, but his interests in Buddhist rituals and practices had no sectarian boundaries and in the fourth Tibetan month of 1647 he started to compile a dance manual (Tib. 'chams yig), which is a general outline of the Vajraklla 'chams (2).

Ritual dances began to be staged inside Mongolian monasteries in the late XVIII century. Although the first evidence of a tsam performance is at Erdene Zuu--a Sa skya pa stronghold in Outer Mongolia--in 1787, the tradition of the mystery play was introduced to Ikh Khuree only in 1811 (3).

From that year onwards, most Mongolian monasteries performed a sacred dance, usually based on the iconographical, choreographical, musical and ritual instructions laid out in the Great Fifth's 'chams yig.

Rich in embroidered costumes and sculptural masks, the Mongolian tsam had an underlying structure, based on the concept of Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Although most of the ritual's protagonists came directly from Tibet, a great deal of shamanistic spirits and folk deities were converted, and included in, the Mongolian cast, such as Cagan Ebuven or the bird-god Donsi (4), while some of the Tantric divinities were re-interpreted for the local context. The central figure of the dGe lugs pa 'chams, Yama, the Lord of Death, was identified in oijil, a local deity of the netherworld, also known as Erlig Khan (5). Each monastery had its own versions of the ritual dances and its own style of mask making. The refurbishment and the arrangement of masks were important steps of the general setting of the performance which could even take several weeks to be accomplished. In the XIX century, the masks and the costumes of the monasteries of Ikh Khuree underwent a complete renewal under the direction of Puntsag-Osor, a sculptor highly skilled in the staging of tsam. The Ikh Khureee masks stand out for their quadrangular shapes and huge sizes: the dancers had to look through holes in the masks placed at the level of the nostrils or mouth inorder to see outside (6).

Performed since the late XVIII century, the tsam came to a compulsory end in the mid-Thirties when the pro-Soviet Communist government launched an anti-religious campaign, which brought to confiscations of the proprieties and goods of the monasteries, including buildings, livestock and artworks (7).

In 1990, soon after the collapse of the Eastern Europe communistic regimes, Mongolia underwent a transformation leading to a democratic constitution and a sudden economical and political liberalization. The revival of Buddhism, due to the freedom of worship granted by the new government, brought about a strong interest in monastic life. The ongoing teaching activities are mostly carried out by Tibetan teachers, originating from the exile communities in India: at the beginning of the Nineties, the Dalai Lama himself showed a keen interest in the restoration of Buddhism in Mongolia. The re-opening or, more often, the rebuilding of the meeting houses created an increasing demand for artworks and ritual objects, as a replacement for those that had been lost in the period of the Communist purges (8).

At the threshold of the Eighties, the government, chaired by Tsedenbal, supported a turn of events aimed at fostering the national culture. In 1987 the production of a documentary film about the capital city Ulaanbaatar, following the opening of the Mongolian Buddhist Institute in 1970, provided the appropriate setting for the first performance of a tsam since 1937.

Deprived of their religious sense, the ritual dances turned into a show: there were professional actors and dancers who impersonated the deities. Originating from the theatrical world, they were trained by the few, mostly monks compelled to secularism, who still had memories of the tsam they had taken part in.

It was only in the late Eighties that the governmental authorities allowed a resumption of the tsam dances. Far from being considered religious rituals to be staged inside monasteries, they were reduced to mere folk and theatrical shows. Thereby the dance, the performance time off which was cut-down, became a theatrical piece. The folkloristic nature that had been tailored on tsam played an important role in the Mongol nationalization: as already stated, the documentary film sponsored by the pro-Communist government aimed to strengthen the national identity, relying on what seemed to be unifying cultural elements.

Although in post-Socialist Mongolia the symbolic purification strength of tsam endorses the political and social petitions of the Mongol clergy and its theatralization should in the future give place to true ritual dances organized inside the monasteries, the survival of the tsam theatrical versions, intended for a tourist audience, is still an undeniable fact.

In an attempt to comprehend a cultural and religious movement, the real extent of which escaped me, I addressed the artist Gankhuyag Natsag, the major representative of its most progressive and syncretic current. He and his colleagues, mainly his close relatives, accept orders both from monasteries and museums as well as from western galleries, and take their creations around the world, often staging shows in which modern dances and movements borrowed from the tsam originate a new syncretic form, the exterior theatricality of which does not conceal any religious sense.

Born into a family of artists, from his parents he inherited a strong passion for visual andplastic arts. Having successfully terminated his studies, Gankhuyag became a member of the Union of Mongolian Artists, an organization founded in 1941 to promote and preserve the traditional fine arts, and made contact with the few bla ma who had escaped the pro-Soviet purges and from whom he learnt the procedure of the mask-making used in the tsam ritual.

In 1997, whilst working on a set of puppets based on the characters of the Ikh Khuree tsam, Gankhuyag began to conceive what seemed to be in those days an almost unfeasible idea: thefull-size reconstruction of the tsam cast in its entirety, from masks to costumes.

Economic funding turned out to be the main issue of the endeavour, since due to lack of reliable credentials, the banks denied the loans Gankhuyag needed to start his project. Initially, in 1998, the creation of the masks was the result of the single effort made by the artist and his relatives.

Gankhuyag's dream was, however, far from being broken: in 1999 some monks from the Gandan khiid of Ulaanbaatar were asked to take part in the Festival of the Eastern EuropeanTheatres, a yearly cultural event staged by the Pounchkine Centre and the Theatre de la Manufacture of Nancy in the region of Lorraine, France. The need for brand new masks, due to the impossibility to send out of the country the original sets kept in the museums, was a great burden for the monastic funds: the financial aid granted by the French museum covered only a part of the costs and it was only on the eve of the departure that the accounts were settled and the masks, which had been held as monetary-caution, were released.

Even though the monastery could afford only about forty masks, these were sufficient to persuade Gankhuyag's colleagues about his project: suddenly the idea of reproducing the Ikh Khuree tsam set in its entirety gained concreteness and feasibility. As our interviews proceeded, Gankhuyag became increasingly concerned to stress how the promotion of the Mongolian image also came about through his creations, conceived as aparticular expression of the national culture. The joint-effort with the Theatre de la Manufacture of Nancy in 1999 got the artist's project off the ground, but it was only ten years later that the realization of the one hundred and eight masks, with their respective costumes and accessories,was accomplished and celebrated with a great exhibition in the Sukhbaatar square on 30th June 2007. The dances were performed by professional artists, many of them coming from the acting company Tumen Ekh and, as for the documentary of 1987, the choreography was based on the directions given by the Gandan bla ma, such as Sereeter and the Venerable Purevbat, the founder and director of the Mongolian Institute of Buddhist Art (MIBA). Endowed from his earliest years with an artistic talent, the latter fulfilled his own passion, moving to the capital and attending the Mongolian National Cultural University, where he focused his attention on the traditional painting, thus realizing its close relation with Buddhist fine arts. Graduated magna cum laude, Purevbat entered into the Gandan khiid as a novice, but his thirst for knowledge soon exceeded his teachers' erudition: they were mostly old people, forcibly secularized in their early ages and whose memories seldom went beyond basics. As narrated by Purevbat himself in Thomas Gonschior's documentary <<Buddha's painter>>, the desire of learning made him travel to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile since1960, to acquire, from Tibetan masters, those techniques largely lost in Mongolia. Firmly convinced that a re-acquisition of the Mongolian identity could not be without a recovery of the traditional Buddhism belief, a new idea started to take shape in Purevbat's mind: the foundation of an art school in Mongolia to make people aware of their cultural heritage. His vision covered every artistic and ritual aspect: painting and sculpture, music, dance, astrology, medicine, ethnology and philosophy. His ambitious dream came true in 1993 with the establishment of the Mongolian Institute of Buddhist Art, followed by that of the Mongolian Traditional Art and Cultural Centre in 1996. In 2000, at the end of the first seven-year course of study, the Institute organized an open exhibition. The event, acclaimed by the media as a great success, witnessed the presence of common people and state institutions, as proof of the interest raised by Purevbat, totally committed to the promotion of the Mongolian cultural identity. The assignment of projects and honours has made the man said to be <<the modernZanabazar>> one of the most best-known names in Mongolia. Purevbat's reticence in meeting me and answering my questions, even the most simplistic and generalized ones, makes him a spokesman of the most traditional and conservative face of the cultural and religious movement that has involved Mongolia since Eighties. According to tradition, Buddhist art has, first and foremost, a symbolic value: every object, be it a sculpture or a thangka or a mask, is a medium for the comprehension of the Buddha's teaching. Since Purevbat considers the tsam mask-making acomplex procedure, he ignored my efforts to acquire any information about it, deeming my knowledge of the Tantric Buddhism insufficient to understand its mystic sense. How the tsam is perceived by Mongolian people is still a ponder. The masks and the costumes exhibited in the museums come from a long-lost past, the attempts at any kind of reconstruction have been concentrated on their cultural and artistic value, without consideration forthe fundamental religious component. Paradoxically, the freedom of creed allowed in 1992, far from having diffused greater awareness at a common level, has reinforced the circumspection of the clergy to reveal the deep significance of the ceremony. Whilst Purevbat can be considered as the perfect representative of the traditional and conservative mainstream, on the other hand Gankhuyag's project, although having the essential merit of having made and exhibited the whole range of Ikh Khuree tsam masks in the country, has not gone beyond their aesthetic and artistic value, and this has permitted him to open up to syncretic forms with the risk that the public might be deviated from the real understanding of the dances that are, in the first place, ritual forms of an exorcistic value.

Description of a mask making proceeding

Research on the masks being the main aim of my fieldwork, Ganbold, Gankhuyag's brother, and his two assistants offered to help me, allowing me to visit their atelier. As they told me, due tolack of orders from museums or monasteries, Ganbold and his staff worked in the souvenirs market, creating little rubber masks from chalk casts.

The method of production is the papier-mache technique described by Nebesky-Wojkowitz (9),the first step of which is to create a three-dimensional clay mould (Fig.1), starting from a paper sketch (Fig.2). After having placed a block of clay on a wooden stand, made of pieces screwed together and planted on a square support, easy to spin, Ganbold went on to mould the clay by hand, softening its surface with water and using rudimental tools, such as sharp wooden sticks or metal spatulas, to remove any excess clay or to define the details (Fig. 3 a&b). Afterwards the artist let the clay matrix stand for a couple of days until it was completely dry (Fig.4 a&b).

At this stage, Ganbold and his staff were ready to undertake the cast making phase: the mould was divided into three sections, two composing the front of the face and a posterior headpiece, marked through the intersections of two axis, a vertical one, running along the nose up to the ears, and a lateral one, from the ears to the base of the model. In order to do that, they proved noteworthy ability of making do with what they had. As an embarrassed Ganbold told me they didn't have proper work tools since the mould-making was a time-consuming job, to the accomplishment of which they seldom committed themselves. Therefore some pieces of tin cans and plastic bottles, as well as plastic spatulas, were used as dividing elements (Fig. 5 a&b). After having delimited the three sections, the clay mould was laid down and kept in the correct position by a sidelong support. In the meanwhile, Ganbold's assistants halved a plastic bottle and poured some chalk dust into the make shift trough (fig. 6 a&b). Mixed with water and stirred until it assumed a semi-liquid consistence, the chalk was now ready to be applied onto the clay mould, the surface of which had been previously brushed with some sunflower oil in order to facilitate the cast removal (Fig.7). The chalk mixture, poured by hand, was made uniform by means of a spatula, whilst a piece of cardboard prevented it from draining out of the borders (Fig.8).The use of a quick-setting chalk contributed to speed up the procedure, shortening the drying time to just twenty minutes.

Every cast was thoroughly checked: the details were finished off with a penknife, while the inner parts with sand-paper. After having set the casts, Ganbold and his staff were ready to apply the layers of paper forming the mask (Fig. 9). As a first coating, coinciding with the outer surface of the mask, they used the thin newspaper, spread with a paste. The sheet was torn into pieces, each of which was made to adhere well to the internal surface of the cast (Fig. 10). Ganbold pointed out that the part of paper spread with paste should not touch the chalk mould, enabling the mask to be removed easily.

Afterward the assistants took some brown paper and, having spread both sides with paste, folded it back three/four times, rolling it into a ball. The sheet was finally unfolded, torn into pieces and glued onto the paper layer. The brown paper coating was followed by a third layer, made of pieces of thin paper, spread with glue and laid down in the cast. Ganbold and his staff continued in this way until they obtained ten layers.

The creation of the mask which I witnessed needed only paper: in the large-sized traditional masks the alternate paper layers are interlaced with cloth, usually cotton, cut into pieces and pasted. The strength of the artist's works is tested by throwing the masks to the ground: the lack of cracks or breakages ensures an excellent creation.

Once the paper-pasting procedure was completed, the casts were placed in the sun to allow the papier-mache to dry more quickly. This process could take from one to three days, depending on the number of layers and the size of the mask. In a attempt to speed up the drying time, the assistants pulled the sections out of the casts prematurely, leaving their surfaces rougher than usual. As Ganbold himself admitted later, the good outcome of a mask requires the respect of a fixed timetable, which seldom agrees with the day-to-day deadlines. The artist, who had been requested to show some of his creations during a workshop to be held in the near future, was compelled to shorten the timing of the mask making.

The sections, now dried, were ready to be sewn together, after having removed the excess borders and smoothed the roughness (Fig. 11). The frontal sections were the first ones to be assembled: the artist fitted them together, drilling tiny holes where a thin iron thread was supposed to pass through (Fig. 12 a&b). This kind of process is usually intended for the bigger-size masks, putty usually being sufficient for the smaller ones. In order to make the intersections almost invisible, the artist removed any protruding parts by the means of a knife or a cutter and went on to coat them, both inside and outside, with two pasted layers, one of newspaper and one of brown paper (Fig. 13 a&b).The mask was now ready to be covered with a thin coating of liquid chalk, mixed with glue and plaster, and then smoothed with sand-paper (fig. 14). Painting the coloured facial features, the final phase of the mask making, was carried out by using industrial watercolours and different sizes of paint brushes, according to the dimensions of the details (Fig. 15).

















(1.) Nebesky-Wojkowitz Rene, Tibetan Religious Dances: text and Translation of the'Chams Yig, [Paris, Mounton, 1976], Delhi, Pilgrims Book Pvt, 1997, p. 9.

(2.) Nebesky-Wojkowitz Rene (1997), op. cit., p. 85.

(3.) Pegg Carole, Mongolian Music, Dance and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities,Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2001, p. 156).

(4.) One of the Lords of the Four Mountains, a group of local spirits whose "conversion" toTibetan Buddhism occurred as a part of the religious policy initiated by the Third DalaiLama and continued by the Manchu. In the Mongolian tsam Donsi has the appearanceof Garua, the Hindu bird-god who plays an important role in Tibetan Buddhism as well.8

(5.) Berger Patricia & Bartholomew Tse Terese, Mongolia. The Legacy of Chinggis Khan,London, Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1995, p. 151.

(6.) Berger Patricia & Bartholomew Tse Terese (1995), op. cit., p. 152.

(7.) Bawden Charles R., The Modern History of Mongolia, New York, Praeger Publishers,1968, pp. 347-348.

(8.) Kollmar-Paulenz Karenina, <<Buddhism in Mongolia after 1990>>, Journal of GlobalBuddhism, Vol. IV, 2003, pp. 18-34.

(9.) Nebesky-Wojkowitz Rene (1997), op. cit., p. 70-71.
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Author:Galli, Lucia
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9MONG
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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