Accepted Paper:

Faces of the Mask: Indian artisans response to the pandemic  
Nina Sabnani (IIT Bombay) Lokesh Ghai

Paper short abstract:

This paper traces the pandemic response of Indian artisan communities to the dilemma of self-employment. They have incorporated hand-made mask-making into their art, work and rituals as a 'rescue mechanism', with ingenuity and organisation in the informal economy.

Paper long abstract:

The mask is the ubiquitous visible sign of the invisible, unknown virus Covid-19 and a sign of permissible social engagement. The mask signifies either solidarity against the virus or protest for freedom. Prior mask associations seem eclipsed; ceremonial masks for religious practices, masks worn by Jain monks or face masks worn by Muslim women (Tarlo 2010). Months of pandemic lockdown have deeply impacted the self-employed livelihoods of artisans (Ghai 2020). The mask arrived as 'rescue mechanism', as they took to creating masks to support themselves. Medical masks soon gave way to the cloth mask; handmade and embellished with paintings and embroidery, giving a semblance of 'normal' clothing. Artisan communities adapted the territory of the mask in ingenious ways, with both enthusiasm and duress. This paper discusses artisanal response to the pandemic through their mask-making endeavours and dilemmas. It traces the economy of handmade masks, signifying motifs and meanings, makers' perspectives on how this activity contributes to identity, and new ritual and spiritual practices (such as the adaptation of a 'Coronamata' goddess). We have worked with artisans in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh over many years. Rooted in that ethnographic research and based on new personal interviews and visual field data, the mask throws up fresh questions on how artisans view their art, problematizes the discourse on art and craft purpose, revisits notions of the traditional and contemporary (Subramanyan 1987), and assesses artisan agency in the informal economy.

Panel P08b
Mask: the Face of Covid-19
  Session 1