Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Theatre and Performance


Peter Eckersall

Committee Members

James Wilson

Claudia Orenstein

Subject Categories

Art and Design | Art Practice | Asian History | Cultural History | Dance | Ethnic Studies | Fashion Design | Fiber, Textile, and Weaving Arts | Interdisciplinary Arts and Media | Other History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Other Languages, Societies, and Cultures | Performance Studies | Theatre History


Mask, Costume, South Asia, Materiality, Fabrication, Artists


This dissertation examines the material aspects—the masks, costumes, and fabrication process in four active masked dance genres, Purulia Chhau, Seraikella Chhau, Bhaona, and Bhairab nach, in South Asia. Each of these case studies has unique mask and costume-making practices that are passed down through traditional systems of knowledge flow. Purulia Chhau, Seraikella Chhau, and Bhaona are from eastern India, while Bhairab nach is from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The genres all are being actively practiced at this time, with significant community support and outside interest. While not interconnected in any way, other than the two genres of Chhau, the masks and costumes studied here are valuable case studies in regard to design process, engineering, structural elements, crafting methods, and the use of materials—often from naturally available resources—creating spectacular stage effects. They are housed in unique geographical locations that help the traditional systems to continue. There are specific sub-systems of Hindu-Buddhist religious practice that have helped shape these genres. Vishnu-centric practice in Bhaona, a mix of indigeneity and sociopolitical conditions in Purulia and Seraikella Chhau, and secretive and ritualized tantric practice in Nepal’s Bhairab nach have influenced, continue to inform, and support the genres. The four case studies all use masks and associated costumes that are handmade, one-of-a-kind, and based on convention. In recent decades governmental and international policies have helped these case study genres with exhibition and tourism-based support. As they continue, there are tiny material and artistic negotiations that take place, which I will delve into.

The study offered here is interdisciplinary in nature—drawing from Theatre and Performance Studies, Religious and Ritual Practice, Art History, Design Studies, and South Asian Studies. Methodologically this dissertation draws from ethnographic, material, artistic, historiographic, and sociocultural analysis. This research attempts to do multiple things. First and foremost, it attempts to chart a material journey of the mask and costume design process. Second, it shows how this process is informed by the religious faith that gave rise to the genres and through unique sociocultural systems that serve as umbrellas under which these genres operate. Third, it looks at the materials and processes and reflects on the kind of agency or micro-agency that emanates from this system. Through this, we understand how costumes don’t just have a singular meaning onstage but create ripples of meaning around them. And finally, it looks at masks and costumes in a new light, assigning deeper and more validating meaning to them and their maker-users in South Asia.

The case studies were chosen carefully by looking at a wide variety of genres from South Asia. Findings from Nepal were included to help connect findings from India into a broader conversation with other masked genres in Southeast Asia and other Buddhism-informed regions of Asia. And not present explicitly, but always informing this dissertation, is a projection into the outer edges of the traditions—how these genres inform others outside their geographical boundaries, such as in urban centers, as well as a cautious projection into the future concerning how materially, artistically, and socioculturally they will proceed.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Tuesday, September 30, 2025

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