Lettre du Toit du Monde n° 21

 

THREE MASKS - THREE STORIES
By François Pannier

 

It is a well known fact that the belated recognition of Himalayan masks is due at least in part to the absence of major figures in artistic and intellectual circles that showed interest in it or extolled and promoted its virtues and beauty.

The impact that Art Nègre had on painters of the early 20th century marked several generations of collectors, gave rise to a large number of exhibitions and publications, and the lateness of the discovery of the tribal Himalayan arts deprived them of this kind of recognition.

Painters like Antoni Tapies nonetheless did acquire some masks from the region. His modesty and discretion with regards to his collection - qualities that personalities like André Breton and Pablo Picasso did not share - prevented it from having much impact. For instance, in the December/January 1992 issue of Vogue magazine that was devoted to Tapies, not a single mask from his collection was illustrated. Moreover, at the 2003 Présencia Divina exhibition at Barcelona's Casa Asia, the Himalayan bronzes from his collection were merely identified as being from a "private collection".

Illustration caption, page 1:
Kahika festival at Mandi
© Birbal Sharma
Homage to Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller
 
Illustration caption, page2:
Mask used at the Durga ceremonies1
Desain - Teraï - Nepal - 19th century
Formerly ion the collections of Eudaldo Daltabuit and Antoni Tapies
 
Illustration caption, page3:
Monkey mask - Teraï - Nepal - 19th century2
Formerly in the Toit du Monde Gallery and Antoni Tapies collections

A person of the depth and scope of Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller could have broken the ostracism which the art objects from this region have been subjected to, and is what we, and this field, missed.

And yet...!


1 -  Illustrated in Orientations, October 1988, "Masks of the Himalayas", by Eric Chazot.
2 - Illustrated as number 42 in the "Masques de l'Himalaya, du primitif au classique" catalog, 1989, by François Pannier and Stéphane Mangin, and in Orientations, October 1988, "Masks of the Himalayas" by Eric Chazot.

He did acquire a few Himalayan masks, but they remained very marginal in his collection.

We showed a few of them at the Masques de l'Himalaya exhibition at the Watteville Foundation in Martigny in 2010, which was accompanied by the publication of a catalog.1

 Obviously the art of this area could not escape his legendary curiosity.

On August 26th 2014, Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller wrote the following to me:

 "How I regret not having given more of my attention to the art "Tribal Asia" sooner! At the time that you were beginning your prodigious work, I was, honestly and simply stated, intellectually unavailable. I would have liked for us to have been closer. Time devours its children...


Then on September 15th 2016:

 "Thank you. I've scanned it quickly and will re-read it more attentively now. The hornbill of the Ruga "façade" (the one with the open beak, on top) is wonderful. I f you should ever come across a sculpture like this, please think of me. I haven't got a really developed sensibility for Nepalese animist sculpture, but this is something else altogether!"


On December 17th 2016:

"What is sometimes crude in African sculpture speaks to me, while the same quality in Nepalese works appears clumsy to me. I am aware of the enormous risk I am taking by writing something like this to an intelligent and sensitive individual like you. If someone


1 -"Masques de l'Himalaya", 5 Continents Editions, 2010.

said something like that to me about Lobi art, I would consider him a cretin! I am ashamed of this absence of comprehension, but when I see sculptures like the bird heads on the houses that you sent me recently, I don't know what to think. They are magnificent, imperial, and there can be no discussion about that.

 It suddenly occurred to me that I should long ago have taken advantage of your extensive experience and knowledge to try to obtain two or three high quality sculptures, particularly masks, that corresponded to my taste.

Do you think it would be possible to buy one or two objects that are out of the ordinary within a couple of months? As you can see, I am putting my cards face up and open on the table, and being candid in so doing about the fact that I have been guilty of visual sloth. Nobody's perfect!"

What a shame that the circumstances of life, the confusion of my affairs, and my often late and time-constrained appointments in Saint Germain des Prés, should not have allowed me to pass by your place regularly to talk and look at objects, as I did with Pierrot Robin.

I would like to make certain that there should be no misunderstanding between us and that you won't be asking yourself why this damned old imbecile from Geneva who did actually  buy some Himalayan objects, appears to have carefully avoided the beautiful old masks you are so proud of, and of which you have just sent me a series of undoubtedly sensational photographs."

During the afternoon of the same day, Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller left us to go prospect for other kinds of art than those that made his happiness while he was on this earth, in other worlds. We shouldn't doubt, given the curiosity and resourcefulness he displayed in this life, that there will be places where he is now that will have what it takes to satisfy his interests.

I will never cease to be amazed at the fact that at his age, and in the extremely poor state of health he was in, he was awakening to a new fascination, and his desire to expand his horizons remained intact.

I thus wish to dedicate the articles which follow to his memory. I think and I hope, based on our epistolary exchanges, that he would have appreciated them.

1. The "SVEN HEDIN" Mask

Illustration caption, page 4:
Mask collected by Sven Hedin
Papier mâché; height 25 cm
Formerly in the Ian Miog collection, The Hague
François Pannier collection
©Bertrand Holsnyder

Sven Hedin passed away on November 26th 1952 at the age of 87.

He was a geographer and an explorer as well as the author of numerous works.
In his will1, he wrote:

"Because of the interest and support that I received throughout my life from both public and private institutions, I want the material I assembled in the course of my work to be available to researchers and scholars. It is with this goal in mind that I bequeath everything in my library or elsewhere, for instance in the Stockholm Museum of Ethnography, including all manuscripts, archives, correspondence, maps, and over 2200 of my drawings, to the Royal Academy of Sciences which will represent the Ethnography Museum. These collections will form the material for a foundation,


1 - George Kish; "To the Heart of Asia, the Life of Sven Hedin"; University of Michigan Press, 1984.

the Sven Hedin Foundation, which will sponsor and support research."1

This donation included ten masks.2

Sven Hedin lived with his brother, who was his secretary, and his sisters. They lived in the apartments of their family home at 66 Norr Mälarstaand in Stockholm.

Their apartments were decorated with pieces that had been collected in Asia and given to them by their brother. Over the years, some of these pieces found their way onto the art markets.

This mask is a case in point.

It was acquired by an old friend of Sven Hedin's who had been present when the mask was acquired in situ. Whether by ignorance or deceptive intent on the seller's part (I tend to think the latter), it was represented as being made of human skin.

It then entered the collection of Jan Miog, a collector in the Hague, who had an important collection of Asian art including Himachal


I acquired this mask from Jan Miog in 1988. It was only after that, that he informed me of its origins and the material it was supposed to be made of.

The nature of that material caused me to put the mask in my reserves at first. I was certainly in the habit of handling Tibetan ritual objects made of human bones, but Sven Hedin's Nazi sympathies caused me to associate this piece with the tattooed human skin lampshades, and that revolted me.


1- Translation of George Kish
2 - Letter of February 8th 1993, HWq/1993/0034 of the Folkens Museum - Etnografica of Dr. Hakan Wahlquist, Asia Curator.

Pradesh bronzes, some of which is illustrated in Antiquities of Himachal1.

It was only after I had been contacted by a curator who was working on ritual Tantric objects that I recalled the existence of this mask, and that I got it out of the purgatory I had consigned it to.

The human skin story remained to be verified, and extensive research followed.

Several attempts failed, because public institutions could not perform analyses for individuals, but we finally obtained some preliminary findings from Professor de Lumley of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle and the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine2.

The tests were negative, but still not conclusive, because although no traces of DNA had been found, it could not be ruled out that such traces might have been destroyed in the process of the tanning of the skin3.

After reading an article on research done by the Institute for Criminal Research of the Gendarmerie Nationale, I contacted them. Like other public institutions, they couldn't work for a private party, but the person I corresponded with advised me to address my questions to the department Pathological Anatomy at a hospital.

That is how I met pathographer Dr. Philippe Charlier.

Analysis of a sample taken from below the right ear of the piece revealed that it was made of papier mâché! The age ofthe mask and


1 - "Antiquities of Himachal"; M. Postel, A. Neven, K. Mankodi; Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Volume1; Bombay, 1985.
2 - His letters of 1/10/2002, 1/25/2002 and 1/30/2003.
3 - Letter of Prof. Alice Saunier-Seité of the Institute, former Minister of the Universities of July 23rd 2003.

of the patina that covers it make it look like old leather, which explains the mistaken identification.

The details of the analysis were the subject of a communication at the 1st International Colloquium of Pathography at Loches in April 2005, and were published in the colloquium's papers.1

The other scientific test, a C14 test, was much less convincing because part of the date it suggest is later than the date of collection.2 Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller had already had similar issues, and they were mentioned in Arts et Cultures magazine. We later also had exchanges about this problem.

In my correspondence with a member of the CEA 3,I received the following reply:

"Problems with the dating of objects are indeed quite complex, and one must try to put things into perspective, and especially to try to integrate the findings of the communities of the so-called exact sciences with those of the social sciences and humanities, to have the best chance of getting at the "truth". That is often very difficult, because these communities have a great deal of difficulty communicating with one another when they attempt to collaborate, which is moreover rare, as neither wishes to see its own dogmas collapse as a result of information supplied by other scientific disciplines".


1 - Pathography Collection 1 - 1st International Colloquium of Pathography; Loches, April 2005; Papers published under the direction of Philippe Carlier; Edition de Boccard, 2006. Article by P. Charlier, I. Huynh, F. Pannier, N. Bazin, “Paléopathologie au Tibet et en Asie Centrale. A propos de deux exemples", page 243 on.
2 - CIRAM certificate of analysis 1005-OA, Mrch 6th 2006.
3 - Email of September 1st 2006.

The problem had been had also been taken up at the colloquium we organized at the Cernuschi Museum in 20071.

The mask's place of origin had yet to be ascertained.


The mask's resemblance to Mahâkâsyapa, the Great Disciple (an element of a cult statue) of the late 7th or early 8th century that we have already illustrated2 and was collected by Paul Pelliot at Dunhuang, appears to make it possible to trace its origins to this region. Certain members of the Stockholm Geography Society questioned by Alice Saunier-Seité believed that it was acquired around 1905-1906 in the course of the latter's expedition to the Lop-nor region3.

2. A "Kahika" Mask

This very large mask (53 cm high) remained shrouded in mystery for quite a long time.

For one thing, since it is very flat, it was obviously not intended to be worn. Moreover, the 12-headed frieze at the base of the coiffure does not correspond to any known canons.


1 - Ms. Martine Paterne for the C14 test and Ms. Hélène Valladas fot the thermoluminescence test. The texts on their testing were not communicated to us and consequently do not appear n the international colloquium's papers on the masks and tribal art of the Himalayas; Cernuschi Museum, Paris, December 6th and 7th 2007.
2 - Toit du Monde newsletter #12 of September 2014; "Masques himalayens - localisations et origines", by François Pannier.
3 - Letter of Prof. Alice Saulnier-Seité of the Institute, former Minister of the Universities, dated My 23rd 2003.

It does have substantial age. Calibrated radiocarbon dating by AMS1 indicates "between 1492AD and 1693AD with a 46.3% probability, and between 1615AD and 1670AD with a 40.6% probability."

It can be likened to another mask of the same origin, that was however intended to be worn at the Phagli ceremonies, as could be established on an old photograph (photograph page 8).

The calibrated test for this second mask indicates an age of "between 1405AD and 1471AD with a 100% probability".

The thick crust which covers the upper part of the "Kahika" appears to be made of bird, or possibly bat, excrement. That would suggest that it might have been suspended in a sanctuary, possibly after having been taken out of service, the erosion of the face having made it unsuitable for use as the representation of a god in a ceremony.

It is thanks to a photograph taken at a Kahika ceremony at Mandi that the function of this mask was revealed (photographs pages 1 and 8).


The purpose of these ceremonies is to absolve those participating in it of their sins. They are held very irregularly, and may take place every 3, 5, 7, 9, 12 or even more years apart, as a function of the results of consultation of the Deoda oracle. They take place in valleys at the edges of the Mandi, Kulu or Malana kingdoms2.


1 - Test by Qed Laboratories QED1102/C-0101 of 2/20/2011.
2 - Denis Vidal - Etudes et Thèses, ORSTOM Editions, 1988, pagea 94-96.

These regions are essentially inhabited by the Kanet caste, members of which are small landowners who are "related" to the Rajpout, who in turn play a dominant role in these ceremonies. As a result of having neglected the performance of certain religious duties, their position in the hierarchy of castes was lowered, and that may explain this need for purification.

Daniela Berti1 observed "that the Kanet-Rajpout are the main worshippers and managers of the village cults, as well as the most assiduous participants in the possession séances that take place at the temple."

The irregularity of their ceremonies and their wide spacing may explain the dearth of information that is available on them.

There is also contradictory information on their origins. It is actually possible that the same name refers to two or even more different myths. According to one legend, Hurang ka Narayan, the main divinity of Chuhar, having committed a grave error, was punished with a deadly illness. Only one of his fingers was affected by it, and the ritual was intended to stop thedisease from spreading2. Other texts mention leprosy, which appears to have similar symptoms.

Another legend tells of a god, who having not been received at a village of Shirar with the honors he felt were due to him, caused a deluge and an ensuing flood in which his friend Nar was drowned. He created the ceremony, to be performed every three years, to commemorate the tragedy.


1 - Daniela Berti - La parole des dieux - Rituels de possession en Himalaya indien. Monde indien - Sciences sociales 15ème- 20ème siècle; CNRS Editions.
2 - Denis Vidal - idem - page 139.

The ceremony described by Denis Vidal1 takes place over a period of three days. The leading role is played by a man of lower class, Nar, of the Kanet-Rajpout group. He is accompanied by his wife.

On the first day, a ram is killed in honor of Hurang ka Narayan.

The second day is devoted to the reception of the invited divinities. Sixteen goats are sacrificed on this occasion.

At dawn on the third day, cedar branches are cut and an altar is made of them.

The Nar seats himself by the altar. The mobile image of the god is brought before him and then the gods and the worshippers come forward to declare the impurities from which they suffer in order to cleanse themselves.

This first part of the ceremony having ended, the Nar, accompanied by the medium and the priest, enters the temple where the oblations are made on the linga.

Sacred water is then poured over the Nar, and he falls down "dead".

Wrapped in a white shroud, he is then carried around the village by a cortège of worshippers, who simultaneously make obscene remarks and gestures, and exhibit symbols of the genitals of both sexes. His wife follows the cortège, weeping and lamenting. The litter is placed next to the altar, a goat is thrown on the body, and the Nar's lips are anointed with some of its blood as he regains consciousness.


1 - Denis Vidal - idem - page 135.

Another text in Shuddh Hindi1 adds complementary details. It states that the Nar drinks "an intoxicating poison (?), goes into a trance, and is believed to be dead". The body is readied "as if for cremation, and covered with a shroud onto which the head of a divinity is placed." The term "intoxicating poison" must refer to a narcotic, since the body comes back to life three hours later.

The mobile image that Denis Vidal mentions appears to be of the same nature as the head of the divinity. That can be seen on the photographs of the cortège.

Caption for the three illustrations, page 7:
Maskused in the Kahika ceremony - height: 53 cm
François Pannier collection
© Bertrand Holsnyder
Caption for upper illustration, page 8:
Mask from the Kulu Valley
Height 37 cm
Formerly in the Toit du Monde collection
Pierre-Emmanuel Bansard collection
© Bertrand Holsnyder
 
Caption for lower illustration, page 8:
Kahika ceremony at Mandi
© Birbal Sharma
 

In the text in Hindi, mention is made of a pujari who, in order to revive him, makes the Nar drink a mixture prepared (with the help) of a churn of a special metal (?) and a wooden linga (?).


1 - Text by Birbal Sharma translated by Patrick Charton whom we wish to thanks here.

In his Le culte des divinités locales dans une région de l’Himachal Pradesh1, Denis Vidal indicates that objects which concretize the presence of the murti divinities in their sanctuaries, may include masks. He does not however specify their exact nature. Does he mean mohra, intended for being worn in processions on the rath, or wooden masks such as those used for the Phagli ceremonies. He does make a distinction between the two (page 96).

He does moreover note that the term "mask" is not really fitting, and that "faces" or "faces of gods" would be more appropriate names.

He states that it is traditionally held that a god, who has manifested himself in whatever form, may have made a gift of his image to help perpetuate worship of him.

The mask which we illustrate here was thus, in our opinion, relegated to a sanctuary after its deconsecration.

But the twelve heads at the base of the coiffure remain an enigma.

Since in some cases the ceremonies are held twelve years apart, is one to believe that they symbolize that cycle?

Another mask of the same kind in a private collection, probably of essentially the same age, has seven heads. As we also know of ceremonies being spaced seven years apart, the same explanation could apply.

In the absence of additional and concrete information, this idea does however remain no more than a hypothesis.

We will continue to use the term "mask" to designate representations of faces, as the term is widely accepted an used in


1 - Denis Vidal - idem.

the West at the same time that we understand that it may often be inappropriate locally.

While metal mohra are well known and studied, this piece is actually a wooden mohra.

In the course of his stay in the Kulu Valley1, Alain Daniélou observed:

"High up in the mountains, an ancient Shaivite people inhabits the Kulu Valley (Himalayas). For them, the gods have no bodies. They only make representations of their faces in the form of wooden or leather masks. At ceremonies, admirably executed leather masks which represent gods and goddesses in their various aspects are displayed under a parasol and attached to a column covered with precious textiles, while wooden masks seen on the doors of houses remind that those houses are the abodes of the gods." The Alain Daniélou Foundation - FIND in Zagarolo has two of these masks (photographs page 9).

Caption for upper three illustrations, page 9:
Mask used in the Kahika ceremony - height: 43 cm
Jean-Claude Chevrot collection © Patrick Forcinal
 
Caption for lower two illustrations, page 9:
Formerly Alain Daniélou collection
Height: 17.5 cm and 17 cm
 
3. A Mask with a Text
 
Caption for illustrations, page 10:
Mask from the middle mountains - Nepal
Luciano Lanfranchi collection. © Marco Favalli

1 -"L'Inde traditionelle"; Alain Daniélou and Raymond Burnier - Photographs 1935-1955 - Editions Fayard 2002 - Catalog for the exhibition at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne.

The history of this third mask is much shorter, and also raises many questions. It is part of the Luciano Lanfranchi collection and is illustrated in Himalayan Masks - Lanfranchi Collection by Renzo Freschi and Luciano Lanfranchi, and published by EdiMedia, which has been available since September 2017.

It is stylistically identical to many Nepalese mountain masks.

This example's special interest lies in the fact that it has an inscription engraved around its edge.

The text was not easy for its translator Patrick Charton1 to decipher.

The writing is a mixture of Nepali and Gorkhali (related to Hindi and Hindustani), as well as of Tamang (related to Tibetan), and no unifying spelling standards are used. A transcription of the text is below.


The engraving is very clumsy, and manifestly the work of an illiterate individual who was copying designs whose significance he did not understand.

Some linguistic anachronisms in the text, including ones that haven't been in use since the 17th century, might be indicators of the object's age. On the other hand, one cannot be certain that terms and expressions that fell into disuse or changed in the important intellectual centers did not survive in certain remote Nepalese


1 - Patrick Charton studied Indology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1972 to 1983, with an emphasis on the classical Sanskrit and Prakrit languages, as well as Braj Bhasa (the Krishnaite liturgical language (archaic Hindi).
2 -Patrick Charton studied Indology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1972 to 1983, with an emphasis on the classical Sanskrit and Prakrit languages, as well as Braj Bhasa (the Krishnaite liturgical language (archaic Hindi)

areas. These kinds of local linguistic discrepancies can be observed everywhere, very much including in France. For instance, a form of "old French" that disappeared long ago in the mother country is alive and well in Canada.

The text of the inscription on the mask appears here.

For more information on the use of "Tantric mantras" of shamanic type in the mountains, consult the work of Adrien Viel and Aurore Laurent who filmed shaman Gurung Raj Bahadur with his manuscripts, the oldest parts of which he says date to 2000 years ago [sic]1.

Translation into English of the translation into French by Patrick Charton, of the hybrid Hindustani text:

Notable of the cereals, known to all [by] the name of Babu, after quarrel regains [his] dignity [thanks to] the offering of oil [illegible word]... eat, eat! [translator' note: followed by onomatopoeias like "bija mantra" men de re re te de] on earth [illegible word] there are seeds [illegible word]. Thus 1033 spirits arrive [in order to] participate in chants [and] a ceremony [illegible word].

Through the intermediary of the mask, this inscription appears to represent an attempt by the individual named Babu to redeem himself for a trespass, and as such illustrates a way in which Himalayan masks were used that little is known about.

The fact that the text is engraved here has made it possible to preserve the memory of it. Other examples might have had texts painted on them that have disappeared, while yet others could have been used without inscriptions but nonetheless in the same context.


1 - Ch. Fossey - "Notices sur les caractères étrangers anciens et modernes"; 1948, page 251. Aurore Laurent and Adrien Viel - "Trois chamanes"; Naïve, 2014, page 106.

The Musée des Confluences in Lyon has a wooden standing male figure1 that measures 52.8 cm in height.

This statue was the subject of a study by Christophe Roustan Delatour of the Musée de Castre in Cannes. An inscription in Devanagari is engraved in it.

The translation f that inscription by Dr. Nuthandar Sharma2 reads:

"[In] the year 2025 [of the Bikram era = 1968/1969] friend fell / dead (Ru)nasyi-Dhari [of the] damai [caste], [in] the forest [of] Jari [doing] penance.

This can be interpreted as:

The deceased (Ru)nasyi -Dhari of the damai caste (musicians and tailors) whose effigy was placed by someone close to him in the "Jari forest" (unless that indicates the place the death occurred).

In his introduction to the catalog on the Tibetan and Himalayan collections in the Musée des Confluences (formerly the Museum de Lyon), Christophe Roustan Delatour writes:

"[In] the year 2025 [of the Bikram era = 1968/1969] friend fell / dead (Ru)nasyi-Dhari [of the] damai [caste], [in] the forest [of] Jari [doing] penance.

This can be interpreted as:

The deceased (Ru)nasyi -Dhari of the damai caste (musicians and tailors) whose effigy was placed by someone close to him in the "Jari forest" (unless that indicates the place the death occurred).


1 - Inventory number 60005211.
2 - From the University of Heidelberg.

In his introduction to the catalog on the Tibetan and Himalayan collections in the Musée des Confluences (formerly the Museum de Lyon), Christophe Roustan Delatour writes:

"Most of the objects in the Musée des Confluences had a known use, which could moreover have varied according to the circumstances or intentions of the user [1] (cf. the liturgical instruments). Conversely, how others were used remains relatively obscure.

What we confidently identified as a "vessel for lustral water"1 (#29) was elsewhere published as a "teapot for traveling" (Dolfuss and Hemmet, 1989: 62). Similarly, a tribal Nepalese statuette cited earlier - whose inscription has not yielded up its secrets - can be interpreted as a "protective figure" for a house, a bridge, a well, a path or a field2 (Petit, 2006: 9)... unless it is actually the representation of a divinity. Prudence is thus called for, because there can be no certainty in such matters."


No one knows for the moment how the ritual for which the mask in the Lafranchi collection was used unfolded.

Since our exhibition and the publication of its accompanying catalog in 19893, much has been found out about Himalayan masks, their places of origin and their uses.

One cannot help but realize at the same time that there is a great deal left to learn and discover, and that there are many mysteries left to resolve.


1 - Michel Peissel - 1986 - "Les royaumes de l'Himalaya"; Bordas, page 192, illustrations pages 194-195.
2 - Marc Petit - "La statuaire archaique de l'ouest du Népal"; Galerie Renaud Vanuxem, Paris, 2006.
3 - François Pannier and Stéphane Mangin - "Masques de l'Himalaya - Du primitif au classique"; 1989.