Charida is not the most popular tourist spot in West Bengal. But its obscurity is one of the reasons that made our contributor choose to discover the undiscovered ‘mask village’ of India. By Upasya B
As our car pulled into the dusty parking lot, a little boy, dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts and a grin that flashed all of his immaculate white teeth, came running towards us. Upon his insistence, we let him lead us to what he claimed was the “best shop” in this area. As we squeezed in through a narrow door, we were greeted by a wall of faces.
While some looked amicable, a few were outright angry, and still, others looked on with an expression I can only describe as disapproving. The colours they donned were dazzling: mellow yellow, forest green, neon pink, dark blue, and many shades in between. As I looked around the room in awe, I noticed a lady seated in one corner of the shop. Sprawled in front of her was the biggest Kathakali mask I had ever laid my eyes on. The little boy who had led us there was now waiting by the door, eager to show us around the rest of his village.
I had managed to whisk my family away to Purulia for a quick vacation earlier this year, and we were on the last leg of that trip when an argument broke out on what our final stop should be. While my father insisted on an obscure “mask village” he had read about on the Internet, mother was keen on visiting the village of Baranti, famous for a beautiful lake nestled among hills. Unable to settle the dispute, they turned to me for the deciding vote. I picked the mask village with a mixture of apprehension and intrigue. Never before had I heard of this place, the Internet had few reliable descriptions, and even our driver was unsure of the directions. The only argument that outweighed all of this? It was a place largely hidden from the mainstream tourist influx (a boon, given the pandemic at hand), and if everything worked out, it would be a memorable experience.
And so, with a sketchy Internet connection, some guidance from Google Maps, and vague directions from passers-by, we set off on our quest for the mask village. Two hours later, when we finally stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a road flanked on either side with a seemingly endless display of masks. We had arrived at the village of Charida.
Located in the larger Baghmundi CD Block of the Purulia district, Charida is home to artisan families who have been in the mask-making business for over four generations. It is not merely a profession here, but a way of life—an integral part of their families’ heritage. The tradition started over 150 years ago under the reign of King Madan Mohan Singh Deo. Since then, the art form has been passed down generations like a precious family heirloom. Children rush back home after school to watch their parents and grandparents make these masks. At some point, they start trying their hand at the craft, until one day they are skilled enough to shoulder the family business—and a grand regional legacy.
While most of the masks are used for Kathakali and Chhau dance performances, some are made solely for the purpose of decoration. At first glance, it may look like they are crafted with clay, but closer inspection and eager inputs from shop owners reveal that the technique employs an elaborate form of paper mache, involving a combination of different kinds of mud and clay in order to make the material sturdy and smooth enough for the colours to stick. Such is the skill of the craftsmen of this village that masks for many renowned national and global events are made in their humble homes.
With the tourist numbers picking up in recent years, Charida now hosts an annual Chhau dance festival during the winter months. The festival not only boosts tourism but also leads to an increase in the artisans’ profits. Apart from the quintessential dance masks, the artists of Charida have adapted their craft to make pendants, key rings, and palm-sized masks for tourists to take home as souvenirs. The prices for these begin at INR 250 and go up to INR 5,000, depending on the intricacy of the work involved.
Despite the village’s growing popularity, there is no provision for tourists to stay at Charida yet. Most of them drive down from Purulia city, and some choose to stay in the few hotels scattered across Baghmundi. Around three hours of wandering later, we returned to the parking lot, our little guide skipping alongside us, inquiring where we had come from and where we were going next. When we offered him a tip for his unsolicited guide services, he refused, stating that this was simply a game he played to pass his time until he was old enough to make masks himself. When I crouched down to click a picture of him, he scampered away insisting that we come back next year and take the picture when he is painting masks. He waved until our car disappeared around the bend. Right before his tiny form melted into the background, I think I heard him shout, “Asche bochor abar esho!” Return again next year!
The easiest way to reach Charida is a two-hour drive from Purulia, which is around 125 km from Birsa Munda Airport, Ranchi, and 300 km from Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, Kolkata.
Most tourists stay in one of the numerous budget hotels across Purulia. The popular ones among them are Hotel Sagar Raj Resort (from INR 2,621) and Hotel Akash Sarovar (from INR 2,007). If you are looking for a comfortable stay complete with a range of cuisines and spa, gym and pool facilities, PearlTree Hotels & Resorts (from INR 4,289) emerges as a clear winner.