Born on 1st March, 1958, Hem Chandra Goswami passed his HSLC Examination from a local High School and then he took the bachelor degree in Arts and Crafts from Arts and Crafts Society of Guwahati, Assam.
From his childhood he was acquainted with the environment of satra, i.e., Vaishnavite monastery of Assam, where mask making is an indispensable trait. It was the great Guru Sankaradeva, who had innovated the art of mask making from bamboo splits which are invariably used in the Vaishnavite plays (bhaona) and dances (satriya nritya) performed in the satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) and namghars (village level Vaishnavite prayer house).
Goswami plays the pivotal role for the acceleration of the pristine skill from local to the national and universal context. Masks prepared by him are at present installed and displayed at reputed institutions like Dibrugarh University, Tezpur University, Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra, Guwahati; Vivekananda Institution, Guwahati; Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi; Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, etc., and in the museum of abroad like America, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, etc.
In the year 2015 the Chief Curator of the British Museum T. Richard Blurton came to Majuli to discuss about the mask depicted in the Vrindavani Vastra preserved in the British Museum. He met Goswami to know about the mask depicted in that heritage textile piece of Assam, stayed there for five days and took back with him five masks which are now preserved in the British Museum. The masks were displayed in an exhibition entitled Krishna in the Garden of Assam which was held at the British Museum from January to August, 2016.
For over 35 years, he has taught a large number of students how to make the traditional masks used in Bhaona, a folk theatre form, started by Sankardeva himself to spread his message through religious plays that he wrote for people to understand what he was preaching. Hence, the themes for these plays center around the Ramayana, Krishna Lilla and the Mahabharata.
A skilled mask maker himself, Goswami has innovated on the craft that has been passed down generations in his family. He has created a series of masks that provide mobility to the jaws of the mask and in some cases to the eyes too. This makes the mask more realistic when the actor wearing it speaks . He had a senior student of his demonstrate this by putting on various masks and doing a few of the actions that provided the best examples. It was for these innovations that his masks were exhibited at the British Museum in London in August, 2016. It was part of a bigger event that displayed fabrics woven in Assam with patterns portraying scenes from Lord Krishna’s childhood under the counsel of Sankardeva himself. He showed me a book that was published to mark this exhibition at the V& A museum. The publicity has generated an interest for this art that is part of our heritage, but it still needs a lot more patronage. He is rightfully very proud of this achievement that has added to his impressive resume. He is also a skilled make up artist and has choreographed traditional plays to appeal to more modern taste.
Given that his training has been steeped in very conventional traditions, his outlook is far-sighted and refreshing. He wants the art to move beyond the traditional theatre form and find a place in the larger more contemporary world so that his students are able to nurture and pass it on. He is open to collaborating with artists from other disciplines and giving demonstrations of the techniques he uses to create the mask. He is using the same techniques to create sculptures and believes that when you keep an open mind, new ideas and work come.
Hem Chandra Goswami has always kept the doors of his school open for anyone interested to come and learn. In the past he has had students from across the globe come and spend time at his Satra learning mask making and the theatrical movements required to perform in them. He used a term – Gurukul Vidya to describe this and explained that it meant that if a student approached him who has earnest and willing to learn, he considered it his duty to teach. An unassuming man with a deep passion for the craft, he mentioned many times in our conversation that he wants this old art form to be preserved and practiced by generations to come. He was as enthusiastic to show me the works of his ten-year old students from a nearby school who come in a few times a month, as that of his older students who have been learning and working with him for over a decade. The young ones he encourages to do any type of mask they want, play with colour and shape. He feels that the exploration is vital in creating an interest.
Goswami had delivered lectures on the heritage of split bamboo mask in different institutions of the country like Dibrugarh University, Tezpur University, Vivekananda Kendra: Guwahati; Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre for the Arts; New Delhi; Visva-Bharati: Santiniketan.
The President of India Droupadi Murmu conferred Padma Shri to Hem Chandra Goswami in field of Art from Assam in Civil Investiture Ceremony on March 22, 2023.
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