A 17th century illustration of the plague doctor (Photo: Getty Images)
Take a look around you at the masks next time you are in public and a sly element of class becomes noticeable. There will be the bare bones plain piece of cotton mask. This is for ordinary folks, the middle class, the poor, the ones worried about value. There will be slightly thicker lush-looking ones. Some will sport an N95. There will be a few so loud that these are people for whom presentation is important. In the spectrum of masks, you can see a spectrum of society. Like when Priyanka Chopra stepped out of isolation after two months in May and put up an image of herself in a mask, with a note of thanks to a fashion designer who crafted it for her. For someone
whose career relies on finetuning her appearance, this is no more surprising than her wearing a dress by the same designer at a red-carpet event. Even though the fundamental reason to wear a mask is protection, once that is performed, the human mind wants more. It wants identity. It wants to tickle vanity. It wants beauty. Aesthetics comes into the picture. In the evolution of the mask over the span of this year, you can also see echoes of the evolution of art.
Take the earliest masks that we know of. They are from 9,000 years ago and come from Israel, in an area known as the Judaean Hills. These are of stone and one can only guess at the purposes they might have been used for. It could be for ritual or ceremonial ends because who, even in his right primordial mind, would walk around with a heavy stone mask on a daily basis. But what you can see from the masks even then is that the idea of form had taken precedence. There are a number of these masks and they all look like human faces. But different human faces. Some have round holes for eyes, some the shape of the eye itself. One is laughing. They have teeth-like striations etched on them. The mask could function without those teeth but they decided to have it anyway because the look had become important. Nine thousand years ago would place it right in the beginning of civilisation itself for humankind. The mask has been with us all through its journey since then, right up to the latest avatars that can block the smallest of microbes or are finessed by designers at the demand of the present elite.
In times of disease, it is clear what the fundamental role of a mask is. But why would human beings want to wear them when no such exigency exists? It can denote the desire to conceal one’s face and identity. It is why so many superheroes, from Batman to Ironman, are depicted masked. It also opens an extra dimension to their character that makes for fertile storytelling. Or, to take another example of concealment, robbers wear masks. The other reason to wear masks is to take on the face of another. In ancient times, for the primitive mind, it was an instrument to negotiate the world outside and beyond by taking on a better identity. Underpinning it is the awareness of an individual’s powerlessness and the mask, a device to overcome it. As a 1907 paper on the anthropology of mask wearing among native American Indians noted: ‘Throughout North America masks were worn in ceremonies, usually religious or quasi-religious, but sometimes purely social in character. Sometimes the priests alone were masked, sometimes only those who took part, and again the entire company. In all cases the mask served to intensify the idea of the actual presence of the mythical animal or supernatural person. The simplest form of mask was one prepared from the head of an animal, as the buffalo, deer, or elk. These realistic masks did not stand for the actual buffalo, deer, or elk, but for the generic type, and the man within it was for the time endowed with or possessed of its essence or distinctive quality where the belief obtained that the mask enabled the wearer to identify himself for the time being with the supernatural being represented.’ Only the supernatural could meet the world on its terms and, even though the human could not be god, he could, through propitiation, get his abilities for a while and the mask was the medium, a rubbing off of that strength.
Using masks to mediate with the supernatural can be seen in the performance of Indian folk dances that retell stories associated with mythology or the divine. A prominent example of this is in the faces of Kathakali performers that are layered with vivid colours making a painted mask that depicts the character. Kathakali itself draws on earlier folk arts in Kerala like Koodiyattam which too has elaborate make-up for the performer to take on a persona. In a recent Q&A titled ‘The Expressive Power of Masks’, Sara Brown, director of design for MIT Theater Arts, wrote in the institute’s website on why they are intimately related to the performing arts: ‘A performer in a mask is obscuring one identity in order to embody another one. Often, masks have meanings that can be instantly understood by an audience familiar with the specific codes embedded in a particular theater form. In Japanese Noh theater, for instance, a mask is worn by the shite, or principal character, and can indicate the character’s age, gender, and if the character is human or divine. Though the masks are static and cover the entire face, the skilled performer can invoke a range of expression through changing the mask’s orientation and relationship to light. These masks obscure the mortal dimension of the wearer in order to stir the imagination of the audience.’
The masks that we now wear and see all around us are ones forced on us, the decision made by circumstances not in our control. But even then, it opens an entire gateway of impulses. You will want to make a statement about yourself through the mask you have been forced to wear. There are masks you can buy at present which are in the design of the Indian Tricolour. Think of who would buy such a mask. Someone who wants to be identified with the love of his country. Or a mask in the logo of your favourite sports team. The mask can be all together—protection to ornament to identity marker.
The mask is going to be with us so long as the vaccine is not. After that, it will probably be a remnant. People get used to things once they have been using it daily for a while but it doesn’t mean that they will continue with it in the same measure as before
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The mask didn’t begin well this year even after it became clear that a new virus was in our midst, and the pandemic, a certainty. This was from a hotchpotch of flailing in the dark. The World Health Organization (WHO), which was the agency everyone looked to for direction, seemed in a state of inordinate confusion. There was then the introduction of the virtuous lie. As late as March 30th, three months after the virus had started travelling over borders, the WHO would still be defending its recommendation to not wear masks for everyone. Voice of America would report on that day: ‘Don’t wear face masks to fend off the coronavirus, the World Health Organization says. “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly,” WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Mike Ryan said Monday.’
Dr Anthony Fauci, who was heading the US government efforts and had decades in the field against pandemics, was telling people not to wear masks because, he argued, it could actually be bad for them. In an interview with 60 Minutes in early March, he said: “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences—people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”
All this flew in the face of the history of disease and masks. One of the most famous and evil-looking masks is of the 17th century plague doctor who wears one that looks like a bird with a sharp long beak. If a patient who had contracted the disease wanted to imagine what death would look like, that mask would have been his nightmare coming true. But it served a purpose and there was function to it. The beak was stuffed with aromatic herbs that they believed would ward off the disease and it also kept the stench of the dead putrefying body away. The 1918 Spanish Flu, the worst pandemic in history, might have led to Japanese culture itself becoming one of mask wearers. The book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World noted: ‘In some places, for example, the wearing of a layered gauze mask over the mouth was recommended—and in Japan this probably marked the beginning of the practice of mask-wearing to protect others from one’s own germs—but health officials disagreed as to whether masks actually reduced transmission.’ In another part of the book, it speaks of studies that showed how masks reduced deaths then in the US saying: ‘One 2007 study showed that public health measures such as banning mass gatherings and imposing the wearing of masks collectively cut the death toll in some American cities by up to 50 per cent [the US was much better at imposing such measures than Europe].’
As a prevention against respiratory diseases, which Covid is, there is near consensus on the imperative of masks. Why did WHO and experts like Fauci sound like they were trying hard to make people not wear masks in the initial days of the pandemic? They thought the larger interest was served in keeping the scarce supply of available masks to healthcare workers. But consider what it looks like from the point of view of the person who believed in them, didn’t wear a mask and contracted the disease? Now the agreement is near total about masks. On its website, WHO says: ‘Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people.’ Dr Fauci advocates making masks compulsory by the government. He told CNN in October: “Well, if people are not wearing masks, then maybe we should be mandating it…I think that would be a great idea to have everybody do it uniformly.” The ethical grounds for the virtuous lie had fallen apart. In the damage that WHO finds its reputation in at present, its recommendation against masks has had a big contribution. It also had unintended political consequences with US President Donald Trump making the non-wearing of masks a form of communication to his constituency to not take the pandemic seriously enough. To get re-elected, he had to downplay the pandemic and the mask, or the non-wearing of it, was his instrument. But it only lasted till he himself contracted the disease. The mask won.
The mask is going to be with us so long as the vaccine is not. After that, it will probably be a remnant. People get used to things once they have been using it daily for a while but it doesn’t mean that they will continue with it in the same measure as before. Possibly, it might metamorphose into a fashion accessory. As a choice to wear it, the mask might slip into one of the nooks of popular culture. Most of us will, however, be relieved to be rid of masks. They are just very uncomfortable.