Bronze Bhūta Masks
An Analysis of the Collection of the DakshinaChitra Museum
The term bhūta (also spelled as būta or anglicised “bhuta”) refers, among others, to a multi-layered phenomenon including a complex belief system, elaborate rituals, animal sacrifice, state of trance, and oracles. These aspects find their expression in various visual and performing arts such as music, dance, dialogue, masks, facial make-up, and decorations made of natural materials. This article analyses the so far unpublished collection of contemporary bhūta masks as well as one bhūta figurine displayed at the DakshinaChitra heritage museum at Muttukadu near Chennai in South India. The museum exhibits 18 heritage houses from the four southernmost states of India. Inside the Ilkal House at the Karnataka section, ritual objects of the bhūta worship from Tulunadu are displayed. This collection of bhūta artefacts is typical for numerous collections of bhūta masks and objects, recently manufactured for international museums. They cater to the increased demand for those items based on their appreciation as folk art or fine art. The brief introduction to the bhūta cult will be followed by a description of the eminent features of bhūta masks in general. The main part of this article is an art historical description of the collection of bhūta masks and other related metal objects at the DakshinaChitra museum. The collection consists of a Jumādi/Dhūmāvatī mask, along with a breastplate and a backdrop, called aṇi. In addition, there are masks of Pilichāmuṇḍi, Viṣṇumūrti and Pañjurli as well as a Pañjurli figurine. The collection is completed by another unidentified bhūta mask. The investigation of these masks leads, among others, to the question whether there exists a specific style for bhūta masks and figurines. Another crucial question is how such ritual objects get into museum collections. Furthermore, we need to consider how these exhibitions contribute to the public perception of bhūta cult objects. These questions are discussed at the end of this article.
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