You see many souvenir shops in Thamel and Basantapur. An interesting item they sell is masks. In Thamel, you can find Bhimeswor Mask Shop. Paul Wilkinson, a man in his 50s, is a regular customer here. He inspects the various masks on display and buys the ones he likes.
Wilkinson, who is from the UK, has been dealing with masks for the past 20 years. He is a collector as well as a trader of masks, which he says has two main markets—tribal art and practitioner. He sells masks that he buys, mostly from Nepal and Indonesia, to Western shamans. Wilkinson says the masks, which are usually passed down generations, have a certain kind of energy.
“If you can read the energy, you get information from it, just like reading a book,” he says. Wilkinson has been practicing meditation for the past 30 years and says he has learnt to be sensitive to energy. He says 99 percent of the masks on the market are not as old as the shop owners claim them to be. “You also need to see if they ‘feel’ right,” he says.
Most shop owners that APEX talked to said customers generally want masks that look old. They further said there are certain techniques to give new masks an antique look.
Most masks in Prakash Ratna Shakya’s Tibetan Mask Store in Basantapur look antique. “Customers mostly like buying antique-looking masks so even when new masks arrive, I apply a liquid which, when it dries, makes the masks look old in two or three days,” says Shakya. He says he makes the liquid himself using some chemicals. Maybe people think the masks that do not look antique are ‘artificial’, says Shakya, who has experienced a lower sale of masks that do not have an antique look.
Hari Bista, the owner of Bhimeswor Mask Shop, agrees. “People generally like buying antique masks, so the makers give them an old look by applying some black powder or by exposing them to smoke,” says Bista.
Binod Khanal, the owner of Antique Gallery in Thamel, says the government rule prohibiting the sale of masks older than 100 years has adversely affected the industry. The shop, which opened 45 years ago, sells antique jewelry, masks and utensils. Khanal says masks were the highest selling item 20 years ago, but tourists no longer buy many of them from his shop.
Currently, Antique Gallery has masks that are around 40 years old and these cost between Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000. Earlier, it had antique masks that cost as much as Rs 200,000. Bista says his store has witnessed a 75 percent decline in the mask business over the last 15 years.
Wilkinson says his customers generally use masks as a decorative or contemplative object or to ‘embody a particular spirit’. There are masks of certain Hindu gods and demons that dancers wear during the celebration of some festivals. “Sometimes, the wearers get possessed by the character and go into a trance,” says Wilkinson.
Bimala Deuja, who has been running Prativa Wooden Handicrafts in Thamel for the past 12 years, says customers mostly buy masks because they consider them ‘good luck’. But some people also buy them for decorative purposes. Masks at Prativa Wooden Handicrafts cost anywhere from Rs 800 to Rs 50,000.
Shakya of Tibetan Mask Store says mostly it is the restaurateurs who want to showcase masks in their restaurants or people looking for gifts who visit his shop in Basantapur. His store sells masks of Kali, Ganesh, Bhairab, Shiva, Garud, Tara and Lakhe, among others. “As far as I understand, my customers see masks just as decorative pieces,” says Shakya.