Karma Sherpa, the mask maker

Mingyur: I think you are making masks for many years. Can you tell me how old were you, when you started learning about mask making?

Karma Sherpa, mask maker: I started it, when I was around seventeen-eighteen years old.

Q: Has someone taught you making masks? Who was your teacher?

A: A teacher is necessary for everything you want to learn, it is better that way. I didn’t have to go far to find someone to teach me. I was lucky, because my neighbours are artists, one is a thangka painter, another a carpenter and there is also a wood artist. One of my neighbour artists was Meme Saila, who used to say: “stay with a smoker and you smell bad, stay with an artist and you get inspired.” I used to go often to that old man’s place to see how wood is delivered and measured, and I often went to check the measure and enjoy the experience.

Q: Old man?

A: The old man I mean was Meme Saila in Bremang, the younger brother, Nono’s father. The old man already passed away, he is no more. The old man didn’t teach me how to carve wood, for what size to cut the wood. The way he instructed me was always correcting, “it shouldn’t be like this, it should be like that.” In this sense I can call him my teacher. 

Q: What was the name of the old man?

A: Meme Saila’s name was Lama Nima Gyalbu.

Q: Is there any specific wood to be used for making masks?

A: Our Hyolmo wood can be easily damaged by insects, therefore, mostly rhamshyang is used. Because it is light, you can use it to make dramnyen (lute), mask, etc. Masks are usually not made for hanging on the wall, they are made for performers to wear. This is why usually rhamshyang is used to make a mask, because it is lighter than other woods. For its light weight rhamshyang is preferred by mask dancers, and there is a second choice, a wood called yale, which is also used. It can be found both in the north and south.

Q: There are different types of masks. How much wood do you need to make a mask?

A: An older mask maker once told me, that a log one foot in length and at least of 12 inches in width we need. So, a 24 or 30-inch round tree should be cut down and if we cut it into two, we can make two masks.

Q: You have been making masks for a long time. Is there any difference between mask making in the past and now?

A: In the past I did not have regular customers for buying masks. When the crop failed, and the harvest from our land was not enough, and I needed money, then I would make masks. I was born in the year of the Monkey, so I am about 62 years old now. I used to carry a sack full of masks all the way from Hyolmo to the Chorten (the great stupa of Bodhnath) in Kathmandu to sell. During that time I sold them for a small income, for just about 100, 150 or 200 NRs per piece maximum, that was enough then.

Q: How much does one mask cost nowadays?

A: Around eight or nine-thousand Rupees.

Q: How long does it take to complete a mask?

A: To make one mask… if there is everything at hand to make it, for one mask, when I make one after 1, 2, 5 years, then it’s going to take 5 days. But when you are continuously making masks, it can be made in 4 days. Hahaha.

Q: Is there any specific measurement for mask making?

A: According to the experts, who used to make masks before me and as per my experience as well, in Ladakh (India) they have something called a handicraft training center. The training center provides certificate to the graduates, which they can show to prove they are expert craftsmen. There might be something similar in Kathmandu, but I don’t know about it. Earlier mask makers used to say, that the height of the mask should be 12 inches, and the width should not exceed more than 11 inches. They say, that if it is bigger than 11 inches of width, it won’t look like a mask.

Q: I believe making a mask is a tough job, it’s a real profession. What do you say, who and what kind of person can become a good mask maker?

A: If you haven’t seen anyone making a mask before, than you don’t have experience, and not able to make one. Unless you learn with some experienced mask makers, it’s difficult to do it. You might have the right measurement, but you’ll mess up with the eyebrow, the beard, the teeth. You would not know how much you should keep in which direction, tongue should be turned upwards or not, it is difficult to know without help. It is always a good idea to follow the experts, listen to their advice, and learn also other designs like flowers, leaves, so if there is practice and expertise in carving, then we can learn by looking and doing.

Q: Besides performing, for what purpose are masks used for? 

A: The main purpose of making masks is to use them for performances, but these days people also keep them in their chhekhang (T. chos khang, prayer room) as a decoration. And those people, who follow the Nyingma lug (T. rNying ma lugs) and worship Chhagna Dorje (S. Vajrapani, T. Phyag na rdo rje) keep his mask in the chhekhang. When some of the masks get old, foreigners might buy them in the market, and take them abroad, but I don’t really know much about that.

Q: You have been making masks for a long time now, do you know how many masks have you made so far?

A: I have been making masks continuously from the age of seventeen-eighteen until the time I went to India. There was a gap during that time, but later I continued making masks. Then again had to go to India because of some economic problems, and since I came back home I haven’t made many. Approximately 100 to 150 pieces.

Q: You don’t just make a mask for the sake of making it, you probably get an order from people first, don’t you? Who are your main customers?

A: These days businessman and foreigners come to our villages, and they seem to be having an interest in masks, but I have never sold masks directly to them. Some of our Hyolmo people keep masks in their office, and sometimes order a couple of masks to be made. Some orders come through friends, I have sent them 4 or 5 sets.

Q: Do they come in a group or they order individually?

A: It is always individual order.

Q: Is there any particular season for making masks?

A: There might be a season for the businessmen, but for us, makers, it depends on the order.

Q: How did people trade masks in the past? Did they give you money for the masks or something else?

A: As I remember, people used pay money.

Q: How much did they pay you for one mask?

A: When I was around seventeen-eighteen years old, the maximum money that we used to get was 400 to 500 Rupees, the average price was about 300 NRs.

Q: What kind of materials and tools are used for mask making?

A: For making a mask the most important tool is a dzong (flat chisel).

Q: So you need a dzong, wood, and hammer?

A: Hammer and tebu is mandatory. Tebu to peel the wood, coal and pencil is used to draw the lines, coal is easier to rub, so it is better. Mainly coal was used to draw sketches because it can be easily erases, but nowadays, since color sketch pencils are available, coal has not much use.

Q: Where are the orders coming from? Only from your fellow villagers or also from others?

A: Most of the time other people place orders from neighbouring villages like Sermathang, sometimes from Gangyul, sometimes from other places, and also from friends. Because of the lack of mask making skills, some mask makers ask for a higher price, and the customers choose the cheaper ones.

Q: What are the difficult moments when making a mask?

A: When making a mask, especially when sharpening the eyebrow and the beard, the excess has to be peeled off slowly with a sharp tool (dzong) and I often cut my hand. When I work with wood or do carpenter work, I get many small wounds.

Mingyur: Thank you! 

Karma Sherpa: Thank you!