At the age of 29, Jayashankar Jayaraman got his first mask as a gift from his sister. 24 years later, he has an extensive and fascinating collection of masks from almost 43 countries. "A mask tells you a lot about the culture of the place. Since I travel a lot, I decided to build on this collection," he says.
"I don't accept masks as gifts, either I or my wife will buy it. Everything has a memory associated with it and if it is a gift, the memory will just be a person. I want it to be the entire experience; I remember exactly when I brought a mask, where I went to buy it, the people I met and so on," he adds.
So do all places have masks? "Most countries do. It is much more in Africa and Asia. Europe does not have many distinctive masks," he explains.
When asked about the special ones in his collection, Jayashankar shares an interesting tale. "This is not a fond memory but an unforgettable experience. Ivory Coast has some beautiful masks made by the Guro tribe. When I went out to buy a mask, I got mugged twice in the space of one hour. IC has Used to read up about masks distinctive to country.
"Some of the unique masks in my collection include ones made by the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Their masks have a very fierce face with the tongue sticking out. I found a mask where the person's tongue wasn't sticking out and I bought that just because it was distinctive. Masks made by the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria have beards and I have one of those," he says, adding that he prefers to travel to the tribal villages and buy locally for better selection.
Some masks didn't just entail travelling to remote places; a lot more effort was involved. "Once I saw a pretty 'Garuda' mask in Thailand. The shopkeeper didn't want to sell it to me because it was so unique and colourful. I said 'I will pay you what you want' to which he replied that he wouldn't sell it for money; I will have to prove that I was his friend. He asked me to spend an hour with him drinking beer, paid for by me. I did that and he sold me that mask. This was about 22 years ago and I am still in touch with that shopkeeper," recollects Jayashankar.
His collection is not just limited to the close to 50 masks displayed on his wall, there are 50 more in storage. "I end up having more masks than I really want. I read up about the masks in a region, say this is what I want to buy, buy it and then find other masks that are unique and end up buying those as well. So I may have almost six masks from the same country."
He displays around 1-2 mask per country and rotates them every 6-9 months. The large collection doesn't deter him from planning to buy more though. "Papua New Guinea, Congo, remote areas of Africa are all some places I want to go to one day. I don't have a large collection of Indian masks, just one from Kerala and one from Maharashtra. I need to figure out what's unique here."
(Jayashankar can be contacted on email@example.com)