by Marian Draganov
BATANOVTSI, Bulgaria, Feb. 6 (Xinhua) -- Masquerade games are a tradition from ancient pagan times, maintained to this day in hundreds of villages in Bulgaria.
In early January, thousands of masked men cruise the streets and houses, filling them with music and jingling of bells, chasing evil spirits and desiring fertility in the New Year. There are also dozens of festivals during that time.
In the ancient Balkan country, these masked men are called "kukeri" or "survakari", and the masks, of course, are the most attractive part of their clothing.
Scary or funny, beautiful or ugly, these masks carry participants and spectators in a world that is different from the present, and is certainly more fun.
The village of Batanovtsi, located only 35 km west of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, is one of the strongholds of this custom, and Plamen Ananiev is the local master of mummer masks.
In fact, his profession is an electrician, but as he said recently in an interview with Xinhua, making masks is his hobby and "an incurable disease."
Ananiev, 54, says he started making masks when he was 14-year-old, and has so far made more than 50 masks.
"It doesn't seem much," the Xinhua correspondent tells him.
"It doesn't seem, but it's a lot of work if you sit next to me to see how I make them," Ananiev says.
He says he makes one mask for about two months, but if he has to use a chisel, it can last longer. It depends on when he has free time, and most importantly -- when the muse comes to him, Ananiev says.
He says that almost every village in Bulgaria has a master of mummer masks, and each master has a style. In addition, each mask has a different expression.
It depends on the master, Ananiev says. He is one of the ones who love the mask to be more beautiful than fearful, he says. "But in some cases, for example, I want to make it exactly more beautiful, but it becomes more terrible, which in turn is even better. Both scary and beautiful!" he says.
According to him, the masks are made from wood, but other natural materials are incorporated too, such as goatskin, cow tails, pig teeth, horns of goat, cow, buffalo, ram.
Anyone who wants can buy a mask made by Ananiev, with prices ranging from 350 U.S. dollars to 700 U.S. dollars.
However, the whole suit, from the shoes and clothes, to the mask, the bells and accessories, costs at least 3,500 dollars, Ananiev says.
He says he does not believe that one can make a living by this craft. Most people come just to see, watch, take pictures, and go, he says.
Well, there is one exception. In the early 1990s, he participated in the International Festival of Masquerade Games in the nearby town of Pernik, and representatives from the Historical Museum of Hungary liked his outfit.
Then they contacted him, and he sold them all the equipment, starting from the mask, bells, belts, sandals, clothing, club, including socks. It was interesting that they did not want new socks, Ananiev says. "We got back from the festival; they came, and tried to give them other socks, the same as the ones I wore during the festival, but clean ones. They said 'no, no' and took the dirty socks," he says.
The Hungarians paid a good amount, and Ananiev bought an apartment with the money.
Then, Ananiev's brother was little, and wept over the bells. The child was sad because those bells were like a part of the family, Ananiev says.
Afterwards, Ananiev gradually gathered two sets of bells. Each of these sets has 18 bells. They are made of cast brass. The sound of each is different, and it changes according to the size of the bell.
"They sound like a piano," he says while gently touching each of them.
He learned this craft on his own, and his inheritors did not show a lot of interest, because, as he says, this thing requires work while the computer does not require work.
However, participation in the masquerade games appears to be inherited, Ananiev says.
"For example, tomorrow I will participate in a festival. And we will go five people from our family: me, my son in law, my daughter and two small grandchildren, and when we get older, they will take our place."