The Tears Of A Clown

(No.1, Vol.8,Feb -March Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

The burial rites of Tay Nguyen require clowns wearing handmade masks

Grave abandonment is a sacred ceremony that deeply encompasses the spiritual values of the Tay Nguyen ethnic minorities. It is a solemn rite, part of funerals which are  organized by the community to bid farewell to a deceased person. 
Each tribe may have variations of the content, stages and duration of the ceremony but in general, it always includes the three main parts: the charnel house building, the abandonment, and the soul liberation.
Among the three, the abandonment is the centerpiece which normally takes place on  a moonlit night. As the evening falls, all village activities are centered around the charnel house. The deceased person’s relatives bring wines and meat and put them on the altar. Offerings are hung in the charnel house above dead person’s head. Buffalos and oxen to be given to the ghosts are tied, one to each consecration scaffold.
When the moon is high in the sky and the crowd’s mood is enraptured, the host comes in to the charnel house to recount the past and tearfully share the feeling of loss and separation with the dead, while on the outside, young men and women begin to dance to gong music. This is when potual and meu brem (clowns) appear to boost the animation and excitement of the ceremony.
Masks are an important component that distinguish the potual and meu brem in the grave abandonment ritual of the Bana and Jrai. It is said that these impersonate the people from the village of ghosts coming to receive the new ghost to the world of ancestors. Masks are generally divided in to two groups: the wearables and the heavy makeup.
Wearable masks
These are crafted separately and have a string around the head to hold the mask on the clown’s face. These masks are usually carved out of wood and colored to resemble a face. The Bana and Jrai in Gia Lai Province use only three major colors for their masks. The natural light color of the wood is used in place of the skin and teeth; black color to paint hair, eyes, horns, eyebrows and beard; and crimson red color to paint the mouth and tongue.
Bana and Jrai masks have no prototype. They are made completely based on the maker’s imagination and sense of purpose. Being clown masks, they must be strikingly funny, grotesque or eerie. With this unclear but profound guidance, the artisans choose to make faces or entire heads of familiar animals such as buffalos or monkeys or faces of folk tale characters with monstrous ears and noses but with human eyes and mouths; or faces of extraordinary characters with ridiculously long tongue and distorted mouths.
The masks may also be made of bulging roots big enough to hide a person’s face. They select the bulbs that look like an animal or human face and then carve, cut and broach it to make the desired mask form.
Masks made from this kind of material are normally not painted. The mask makers take advantage of all the natural unevenness and even the tousled routlets to make surreal, otherworldly faces.
Clowns in wearable masks normally cover their body with dry banana leaves, reeds, bunches of roots, or tassels made from scraped bamboo. 
The make up
The clown face may also be distorted and painted to get the desired impressiveness. This technique is used for those clowns who don’t wear masquerade outfits, but cover their body with mud. These clowns need a lot more skills, and not everyone can perform their roles.
The makeup techniques include pulling the nose upward with a string to expose the nostrils, and using the same string to hold two small wooden sticks on the sides of the eyes in order to stretch the skin around them. A metalic ring is put inside the mouth in front of the incisors to keep the lips wide open. The rest of the face is painted with mud or charcoal. Sometimes these clowns even wear a tail. They have to mobilize all their body parts in addition to the face to perform.

*The article in Vietnamese version was printed on www.langvietonline.vn

By Dr. Nguyen Thi Kim Van; Photos by Ngo Huy Tinh
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