Gauri Gill’s best photograph: a rat nursing an elderly woman

In 2014, I was working in rural Maharashtra, in western India, when I heard about the Bahoda festival, in which papier-mache artists create masks of characters from Hindu and tribal myth. People are chosen to wear them and are consecrated by a priest, after which they “become” their characters and parade through their village over several nights.

The masks are spectacular. But I began to wonder why what is represented in rituals is often so idealised. Why are there no people with grey hair or big noses? Why is no one wearing spectacles? Why can’t routine gestures, such as sweeping the floor, be enacted too, as opposed to the drama of slaying a demon?

I heard about a famous artist, Dharma Kadu, whose children are continuing the mask-making tradition. I went to meet them, their families and other artists in Jawhar, their home. I proposed they make masks depicting familiar characters, life stages, emotions and everyday occurrences. They said: “Well, we can make anything, but could you give us a sample?” I said: “There’s no sample. It doesn’t even exist in my mind!”

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