Theater in Bengal, Part 3


Caitanya's Procession

Feb 2, CANADA (SUN) — The last of a three-part study of the history of Sanskrit theater in Bengal.

Krishna lila, Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Vaisnava Influence on theatrical performance

Song-and-dance forms: In traditional Bengali theater, a song-and-dance performance (nata-gita) is characterised by dances rendered by performers enacting characters while singing their lines or dancing silently to songs sung by a group of choral singers and musicians.

The Charyagiti clearly reveal that song-and-dance performances were very well known among the Tantric Buddhists of the Pala society. Examples can be seen in the song composed by Kahnapa (text no 10), which contains the words 'dancing' and 'the profession of acting' as well as in the concluding two lines of another song composed by Vinapa (text no 17) which contains the words 'dancing', 'singing' and 'Buddhist drama'. Sketches of Siddhacharyas in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have shown Vinapa and Sarahapa with musical instruments, while Minapa, Dombipa and Jalandharipa are shown in dancing postures.

These and other references to performances made in Tantric esoteric texts such as Guhyasamajatantra suggest that highly esoteric song-and-dance type of performances aiming at spiritual liberation were held in secluded spots at night or in temples. These song-and-dance performances were usually given by a male ascetic with a female partner and were accompanied by song (dohas and charyas sung by fellow ascetics) and dance.

The Tantric Buddhist tradition of song-and-dance performances continued among the followers of the Natha cult in performances such as Yogir Gan and Yugi Parva, still seen in Bangladesh today. A glimpse of ancient song-and-dance performances of the cult can be seen in Goraksanath's performance in the presence of Minanatha as recounted in three narrative texts composed in the 16th century: Goraksavijay by Sheikh Faizullah, Gorkha-vijay by Bhimsen Ray and Minachetan by Shyamadas Sen, and a play-text, Goraksa-vijay, by Vidyapati c. 1403. Gopichandra Nataka (17th c.), another play-text from the Nepalese royal court, further substantiates the contention made above.

Krttivas, in his preface to the Ramayana (1415-1433), records the popularity of song-and-dance performance in the royal court of the Muslim rulers of Gauda. The so-called account of Ma Huan recorded in Ying Yai Sheng Lan (1408-1411) also confirms song-and-dance performance in the Muslim royal court. According to the Chinese text, song-and-dance type of performance were given by 'good singers and dancers' in gorgeous costume.

Krishna Lila Compositions

The composition of Sri Krishna Kirtan by c. 1400 indicates that, by the 13th century, there existed among the people a type of song-and-dance performance based on oral compositions featuring three characters: Radha, Krishna, and Badai. During performance, the characters danced as they sang their lines. Like the Gita-govindam, these performances could be given by a single performer who would enact all three characters or by three performers who would enact the characters separately. They were performed in rural festivals or during ritualised worship of deities in temples.

The existence of song-and-dance performances in the early 16th century is substantiated by Chaitanya Bhagavata (II, 18) which elaborately describes Lord Chaitanya and his disciples enacting such a performance. Characters portrayed were Rukmini, Radha, her companion Suprabha, Badai, Kotala, Narada and his follower. One part of the performance featured Rukmini while the other, Radha. The spectators, all Chaitanya's followers, sat on all four sides of the performance space; the green room was situated at a little distance. At least one source of lighting was a torch held by a stagehand who moved with the performers.

There exist only two more references to early song-and-dance performances within the fold of Vaisnavism. One is from Sylhet, in the first half of the 16th century, which may have given rise to Ghatu Gan of Mymensingh. The other, from the second half of the same century, to a form referred to as Shekhari Jatra featuring Radha, soon became extinct. By the late 17th century, these early attempts matured into what is known as Pala Kirtana in Bangladesh today.

Performance with scroll painting

The existence of Patuya Sangit (performances with scroll paintings) in ancient Bengal is confirmed by two sources: Yama-pattika as referred to in Harsa-charita (7th c. AD) and scroll painting of the Santals. Banabhatta (the court-poet of Harsavardhan) in his Harsa-charita briefly describes a popular performance of Yama-pattaka witnessed by Harsavardhan on his way back to the capital after he learnt of the death of his brother. It was given by a performer with the help of a scroll-painting showing Yama, the King of the Underworld. On the other hand, recent ethnographic studies have shown that the Santal people have among them a type of scroll painting representing the origin of life (Ko Reyak Katha) and the passage of the dead from the mortal world to the life beyond (Chaksudan Pat). These too point to the ancient origin of Patuya Gan performances in Bengal. In the medieval period, scroll painting performances eulogising Ramachandra, Krishna, Manasa, and Chandi were extremely popular. By the 18th century, scroll-painting performances gained popularity even among the Muslims, as evinced by Gazir Pat (scroll-painting performances eulogising Pir Gazi), which can still be seen in Bangladesh today.

Puppet theatre

It is not known when puppet theatre was introduced in Bengal. The earliest extant literary evidence of the existence of the form in Bengal is a couplet in Yusuf-Zulekha (1391-1410). As signified there, these performances were given with the help of string puppets. It is possible that orally composed tales of gods and goddesses, such as those of Krishna, Rama, Manasa, etc, were produced in these performances. Mukunda Chakravarti's Chandimangala (1555-56) and Krishnadas Kaviraj's Chaitanya Charitamrita (c. 1560-80) definitely point to the existence of puppet theatre during this period. Judging by the popularity of cults and the existing tradition among current performers, it could be safely assumed that these were related to Krishna, Rama, Manasa, Chandi and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Interestingly, no Islamic narrative ever seems to have been performed by puppets in Bengal. String puppets still exist in Bangladesh today.

Processional Forms

Processional performances are characterised by the use of tableaux, music, song and dance, all of which form a part of large processions (jatra) attended by adherents of a particular religious faith. In many ways, these performances hold the key to the history of indigenous theatre because they brought together all the three types discussed above, to give birth to jatra, the most popular form of the indigenous theatre which can claim to be indeed the national theatre idiom.

From the description provided by Fa-hien during his visit to India (399 to 414 AD), it is known that on the 8th day of the second month (roughly the last week of May), a highly popular Buddhist religious festival used to be held in Pataliputra. In it, a number of well-decorated chariots (ratha) with the image of the Buddha and other deities installed within, were drawn through the streets and were accompanied by 'singers and skilful musicians'. Hiuen Tsiang witnessed similar festivals at Kanauj and Allahabad. Harsavardhan himself accompanied the procession dressed as Indra, and his friend, Bhaskaravarman, the king of Kamarupa (Assam), appeared disguised as brahma. Each day of the festival opened with lavish performances of dance and music, vocal and instrumental.

I-Tsing also reports about similar processions in Samatata (eastern Bangladesh) in the second half of the 7th century. These evidences clearly point to the existence of Buddhist processional performances in the 7th century Bengal, which featured chariots with images of deities, song, music, dance and character impersonation (such as Indra and Brahma). At the end of these processions, masked dance and narrative performances were given in the monasteries. The existence of Matsendranatha Jatra in Nepal makes it possible to believe that the followers of the Natha cult in Bengal may also have developed their own procession in 10th or 11th century.

By the early 12th century, processional performances had spread among the followers of the Dharma cult. Extant literary and liturgical texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that in the 12th century, its followers participated in religious celebrations, which included processional performance. The processions would be led by 'the sandal of Dharma (placed) on a golden palanquin', followed by music (played on various instruments), song and dance of the devotees. The processions also included a sang, i.e, a clown with a painted face (or wearing a mask) and dressed as a mythical character. The clown may also be seen today in Dharmer Gajan processions. The clown of ancient Dharmer Gajan processions possibly performed brief mimetic dance pieces which depicted legends related to the cult. In all probability, these performances would begin from the temples of Dharma Thakur, circumambulate neighbouring habitations and end at the temple again. There, narrative performances and masked dances were held in honour of Deities of the cult.

By the end of the 12th century, Tantric Saivism had assimilated the Tantric Buddhist and the Dharma cult processions. Tantric Saivite processions, given as a year-ending celebration of Chaitra Samkranti, included impersonation of various deities, heroes, animals and supernatural beings singing and dancing to music played on drums and cymbals. The processions began from Saivite temples, circumambulated neighbouring habitations and ended at the point of origin. Ritualistic and masked dances would be given at temple precincts in the evening and would continue through the night. Remnants of these ancient performances, known as Shiver Gajan, Niler Gajan, and processions of Sang Jatra and Astak Jatra, can still be seen in Bangladesh.

Possibly around the 14th century, the Shakta cult was beginning to incorporate processional performances into its fold. Kalika-purana specifies that the celebration in honour of Kali (in her manifestation as Durga, the slayer of Mahisasura) is to culminate on the 10th day with a procession for immersion of the idol (visarjana). The procession is to be comprised of virgins and courtesans well-versed in music, performers (nata) and musicians who are to play sangkha, turi, mrdanga and dhak. Others are to carry colourful flags, scatter fluffed rice (khai), flower, dust and mud. It is also prescribed that erotic conduct is to prevail in absolute carnivalesque abandon in order to please the goddess. It is possible, as recent ethnological studies reveal, that some form of performance would also be given in temple precincts after the procession. By the late medieval period, the Sakta cult had developed a large number of processional performances. Bamakesvar-tantra (a Tantric text) specifies sixteen processions to be taken out annually in honour of the goddess Bhagavati.

Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Vaisnava Influence

By the 16th century, processional performances were immensely popular among the Vaisnavites as well. Raghunandan, a famous smrti scholar from 15th-16th century, ruled twelve processions in honour of Vishnu. The Vaisnavite processional performances gradually incorporated tableaux of Vaisnavite lila pastimes placed on chariots drawn by devotees and characters representing major transcendental characters accompanying the procession on foot. During his lifetime, Lord Chaitanya brought out processions accompanied by singing and dancing of his followers, all glorifying the Lord. Vaisnavite processional performances still exist in Bangladesh today in the form of Janmastami Michhil in Dhaka (initiated in 1555) and Nauka-vilas Michhil in Tangail.

The Vaisnavites, particularly the Gaudiya Vaisnavites, are to be credited with further development of the processional performance. During his residence at Puri, Chaitanya and his followers enacted a curious form of performance, best described as 'environmental', which has been recounted in Chaitanya Charitamrta (Part II, Chapter 15). In one of these, they appeared in a procession at a festival site, dressed as Hanumana and his army of monkeys. There they enacted an excerpt from the Ramayana (the attack on and the destruction of the castle of Lanka), on a locale that was created in advance at the festival site. References to similar performances have also been given in the Chaitanya Bhagavata, where it is described that in their childhood, Nityananda and his friends play-acted various tales of Rama and Krishna. In these, the locale of each scene was created in advance in natural environs in a manner similar to Rama Lila of North India.

At some time during the lifetime of Chaitanya, the processional performances got linked with the environmental so that the performers and the spectators moved bodily in procession from one locale to another. Narayan Bhatta, a disciple of the 16th century Goswamins or ascetics, Sri Rupa and Sanatana, is credited with having established Bana Jatra in the countryside of Braja. In Bana Jatra, devotees moved in procession to spots where Krishna lilas are believed to have occurred; in each spot, young boys enacted a particular lila associated with the spot. After Chaitanya's death, processional-environmental performances based on various legends associated with Krishna (such as the slaying of the Kaliya serpent) appear to have continued and can still be seen today in Nauka-vilas Michhil of Tangail. Some scholars believe that similar performances existed in the Shakta fold as well, in the form of Chandi Jatra, the content of which was based on Chandimangala.

The basic characteristics of these processional-environmental performances were (i) the enactment of each scene in separate out-door environs specially created or adapted from natural sites and (ii) processions of spectators who accompanied the performers from one environment to another. Generally, these performances were given during religious festivities and celebrations as a part of processions in honour of the cult deity. By the end of the medieval period, the Buddhist-Dharma-Natha processional performances of the ancient period (which entailed narrative performances and masked dances at the end of the procession in temples/monasteries) had evolved into Vaisnavite processional-environmental performances (which incorporated performances in specific natural environs).

By the second half of the 18th century, professional performance troupes began to produce various lilas of Krishna not in actual environs, but in nat-mandapas or courtyards of rural homesteads and public grounds -- that is, any 'non-environmental' space. More importantly, these began to be given not only on religious festivals but also on other days as desired by sponsors. Generally known as Kaliya-daman Jatra, these performances may have had some interaction with the court-sponsored Sanskrit theatre of Nabadwip. The Kaliya-daman texts were based on Krishna legends, drawn from the Puranas and popular sources.

Kaliya-daman Jatra was predominantly lyrical. The adhikari (regisseur or proprietor of the troupe) played the role of Vrinda (a companion of Radha) or Muni Gonsai (Narada) and guided the entire action like a Sutradhara by narrating parts of the action in improvised prose and pre-composed verse and lyric. The other parts were rendered as dialogue between him/her and various characters. Shishuram Adhikari (c. mid-18th century) was possibly the earliest exponent of the form. Concurrently with Kaliya-daman Jatra, a few more forms were also popular in Bengal, all of which were similar in form but varied in content. These were Chaitanya Jatra (based on the life of Chaitanya), Chandi Jatra (with content drawn from Chandimangala) and Rama Jatra (with content drawn from the Ramayana). By the early 19th century there evolved the Bhasan Jatra, the content of which was drawn from Manasamangala. However, vestiges of medieval processional-environmental performances continued with Rasa Jatra, in which the rasa dance of Krishna and the milkmaids was enacted.

Kaliya-daman Jatra lost its popularity after 1840s, to be replaced by Krishna Jatra, which can still be seen in Bangladesh. Although both the forms were based on Krishna lila, the texts of Krishna Jatra were entirely dialogic, with a greater portion being in prose. Its popularity faded after the early 20th century. Similar structural changes affected Chandi Jatra and Bhasan Jatra as well. The latter still exists in Bangladesh.

While the tradition of theater continues in Bengal to this day, the authentic forms above, particularly those associated with Lord Krsna, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and other Vaisnava subject matters represent the epoch of glorious Bengali drama, music and performance art.

Source: Banglapedia and "History of Bengal"


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