On Carnival Monday, I interviewed maskmaker Englert Antal in his Mohács workshop. Since Antal only speaks Hungarian, his lovely director/actress/storyteller wife translated into French for him. I’m not even close to fluent in French, so I was amazed that I understood as much as I did.
Antal explained how at many points in history, the buso tradition almost died out. Sometimes it was outlawed by the church; sometimes other carnival activities like balls nearly wiped it out. But the greatest change in the Mohacs carnival, Antal claims, came with the invention of photography and film. “Organizers of films” started journeying to Mohacs to record the Carnival. The buso tradition flourished in the spotlight, but also transformed. The masks became more elaborate, more exotic. The town began to organize exclusively tourist-oriented events. Antal thinks that Mohacs is at the very beginning of a buso renaissance, as busos begin to rediscover the roots of their own carnival. Here’s are some excerpts from our (translated) conversation.
“Everyone is interested in making masks. It is something mystic, something out of the everyday. The work is easy, it’s not hard to learn. The hard thing is to truly understand this festival, why we keep it, why we hold it. It is not hard to make the mask, it is hard to understand the mask, the ideas behind the mask. In Mohacs you will find 17 or 18 different mask makers. They know the mask but they don’t understand the spirituality of the mask. You see these masks, they are not pretty. The mask is not supposed to be pretty, not supposed to be well-made, well-crafted. It is made to have power for the person that wears it.” […]
“Socialism didn’t change the buso tradition because it is a primitive tradition, it has no ideology. It said that men could change their normal personalities. And men always want to change into something else, men always have something they want to escape. The roots of the carnival never changed—it’s something very primitive, very human, the idea of transforming into something else. Other carnivals are about putting on fancy clothes and having a good time. In Mohacs, Carnival is something more—something older, more important.”
"We have two words in Hungarian that illustrate the difference. There’s álarc and maszk. An álarc is a normal mask. You could wear it as a disguise, or as a costume for the theater. It could be for a party, or a decoration for your house. Like the carnival masks from Venice. They are very well-made, and pretty, and original. You put them on to amuse yourself and other people. It is not religious. A maszk is something much more. An álarc changes the outside of the person who wears it; the maszk changes the inside. The purpose of the maszk is to transform the wearer into something else."
(Antal shows me a book of photographs of “primitive” masks, animal masks, cave paintings of men disguised as animals.) “We can say that the animal mask is the origin of the buso mask—like a totem. This is a very old religious idea, taking on an animal spirit, becoming a fusion of man and animal. Of course the question for us here is, why did the form of the mask change in Mohács, why did it become human? The clothes, the instruments stayed the same, but the form of the mask changed when the Sokacs came to this area. I have my theories about this, but no one knows for sure…”
“The mask has power—it gives you power—a power that is a little more than human. If I put on the mask, I have more power, I take the power of the mask into me. By the way, here is another difference between buso masks and other carnival masks. Every man in the world is different, and every buso mask is different. And the buso mask should be connected to the man who wears it, to share his features, share something of his spirit. That’s why I sculpt each mask individually, for a specific person—except of course those masks that are for tourists or museums or something. If I make a mask for a man here, I try to capture a small part of him. “
“The mask is always made of one piece of wood. It’s always a human, always a man. Traditionally the mask is always red, a variation of red. Why? Red symbolizes life—the color of blood. What do the Busos do? They bring the resurgence of life, the rebirth of spring. Red is the color of perpetual rebirth. There aren’t other mask colors—just black and white. You never see a green mask, or an orange mask.”
“The form of the eyes and the mouth are symbolic—it’s the form of the female sex. The horns are masculine. And here you have the duality in the buso—man and woman. The buso wears women’s stockings, men’s pants. This is very old symbolism, very deep, hardly anyone knows it anymore. The gap tooth in the busos’ smile? That’s practical, for drinking or smoking or spitting. You know a buso should never take off his mask.”
“The power in the mask, the transformation of the man in the mask—this is why the buso has always been a man. He is something like a shaman, or like a religious actor in the ancient Greek theater. The shaman is something in between the men and the gods, a link between these two worlds. The buso is something similar. And this is also why children, who cannot understand this, should not be busos. In the past, putting on the buso mask was a rite of passage—there is a moment in life where men put on the mask.”
“But this is not to say that women should not participate, that women have no role. All the traditions of man speak of life, of rebirth, the changes of nature. There isn’t a difference, there’s no difference between men and women in this way. Everyone must participate in renewing the world, in bringing the world back to life. For women the easiest way to participate is to change their sex, to put on men’s clothes... During carnival everyone can do anything they want. Women also can do anything. They don’t have to be a good wife—they can amuse themselves with another man. In the past, during carnival a woman did not have to cook for her husband, she can go where she wants, meet who she wants, spend time with who she wants, do what she wants—but only in a costume. And if she has a child that is not by her husband conceived during this time, no one can question her. “
“What is this tradition really about? For the Sokacs people, you have to understand, a small group, away from their homeland. During this time, you make babies. It doesn’t matter with who. Because what is carnival about after all, what is all this renewal, this fertility, what is life about—it’s about children, not just about spring, but also about life, human life, continuing and renewing. It’s about the continuation, the survival of this tiny group of people, because it’s a such a tiny group, a little minority, separate from other people, they could disappear so easily—and they had to continue their traditions, continue their existence. For them it was a question of survival, not a question of ethics. To survive the past. To fight through the winter. And this is important for all people. “
“In the past this was the question; it’s no longer the question today. But the mask contains its history, hidden inside, it carries its history. The men of today search for this secret, but they don’t know its roots.”
“The man in the mask makes contact with the world of the spirit, and brings it into our world, to renew life, to bring the world back to life. And our rules, our laws, they are only little, human laws. The spirit is too big for them. Life is bigger. So we forget rules during this time. The busos today feel that during these three days they are something more than they are in normal life—that there are no rules for them—this is the secret of the carnival’s survival. Men always have the same wish to live. That is why the carnival can never be forbidden, because the wish exists.”
6 months ago