The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Bhaktimal Natak Mandali


The mystic poet-saint Kabir weaving khadi cloth

Apr 16, CANADA (SUN) — Dramas depicting the pastimes of the Vaisnava saints.

In his book, The Miracles Plays of Mathura, author Norvin Hein describes the theatrical religious performances found on his travels to the Mathura area:

"At the edge of Vrindaban lies a remarkable institution called, after its founder and first abbot, Uriya Baba's Asrama. A number of sadhus reside there under the spiritual direction of Hari Baba, the present leader. The abbot is relieved of concern for the finances of the institution and for the food and lodging of the inmates by one of the monks who serves as administrative superintendent. The asrama is supported by the contributions of the wealthy merchants and government officials who have accepted its religious guidance.

The founder laid down a policy, which is still followed, of not aligning the asrama strictly with any one of the four established sects, and a cordial welcome is extended to all visitors who may come to the asrama gate.

The abbot's interest in people of the non-monastic world is evident in his generous patronage of all available arts for the religious edification of laymen. On the footpaths of southwestern Vrindaban at eight o'clock in the morning one always meets files of people of all ranks of secular life who are making their way toward Uriya Baba's Asrama, because it is well known that anyone may go there on any day with the certainty of hearing some sort of entertaining religious instruction or instructive religious entertainment.

The public meetings take place within the asrama compound in the central room of an airy hall. The stage for the programs is nothing more than a rectangle of white cloth spread upon the center of the floor in the front of this room. The audience seats itself to the left, right, and rear of this reserved space. By unwritten law the mat-covered floor to the right of this stage is the preserve of women and children.

Only two pieces of stage furniture are used: a movable plank bed and a wicker sofa which can be mounted upon it. The plank bed is sometimes used as a lecturer's or reader's platform. Appearing in a drama in its function as a simple bed, it lets the audience know that the scene is an ordinary domestic room. When the sofa is placed upon it and both are draped with bright cloths, it is a high throne and the scene is to be recognized as the court of a king or a Deity. These pieces of furniture are always placed at the extreme rear of the playing-space. In front of them runs a high wire on which a light hand-pulled curtain is strung. With no more physical equipment than the bed, sofa, and curtain, the actors who appear at Uriya Baba's Asrama are ready to represent any scene in heaven or on earth and to shift dexterously from one to the other. Neither actors nor audiences require any other aids than these, save imagination.

Sometimes the fare offered in this hall was plain and substantial - such as a thirty-day reading (parayana) of the Bhagavata Purana. Certain weeks were filled by programs of kirtana and bhajans or by the lectures of a visiting kathavacak. But, during at least three months of the six in which the author was a frequent visitor, the guests of the asrama were entertained by programs of drama. The performers were usually drawn from among Vrindaban's own troupes of rasdharis, but traveling actors from outside communities were sometimes engaged. A single troupe usually gave performances daily for a continuous period of two or three weeks and was paid about Rs. 15 per day for its services. In addition, the actors were allowed to keep whatever offerings their audiences might drop into the arati tray at the close of each day's presentation.

During the latter half of August 1949, the asrama offered its public a twelve-day series of performances by a group of players who called themselves the Bhaktamal Natak Mandali, 'The Troupe for Plays from the Bhaktimal'. The author saw six of their productions. Their language and their techniques were geared to the common man's tastes and span of attention. The dialogue was in the standard national Hindi, the Khari Boli. The plays were therefore free from the difficulties of archaic and dialectical language that are found in most of the dramas of Braj. Absent also were the poetic intricacies of the raslila, which perplex those who have not grown up in the Krishna cult. The speech was entirely in prose - an unrefined prose which sometimes offended the literary sensitivities of the author's highly educated companions.

Music was not an organic part of the dramas, but the performers often introduced into them songs of a general devotional nature. Whenever one of the actor-devotees in the course of the play fell to singing a bhajans or a kirtan, some member of the troupe always rose at the forward edge of the crowd and stirred congregational singing to a high pitch of enthusiasm.

All the dramas dealt with the lives of Vaisnava saints who are at least mentioned in Nabhaji's Bhaktimal. All were filled with the twentieth century's renewed appreciation of the progressive element in the Hindu revival of the sixteenth century. The hero of the play was often the outcaste and the non-conformist. The brahman often appeared in a bad light as the defender of privilege and stupidity. Then, as now, after a period of mere defense, the Hindu was ready to champion his religion openly in the face of the Muslim.

The first drama which the author attended told the story of Kale Khan, a Muslim convert to Krishnaism who countered the harassments of his Muslim neighbors with the supernatural power of devotional songs. When Kale Khan's persecutors saw the efficacy of his prayer in restoring his dead son to life they threw down their fezzes, tied up their hair into the sacred knot of the Hindus (coti), and joined in the worship of a Lord who does such wonders for his devotees.

The next morning's play enacted the life of Namdev, the saint of Maharashtra. The opening scene is the throne room of a nawab. The nawab is being told about the fame of Namdev as a doer of miracles. The ruler calls Namdev in and demands a demonstration of his miraculous powers: 'Bring this dead cow back to life, or I shall kill you!' Namdev's bhajans is effective, the 'cow' (a child huddled under a sheet) rises, and the astonished ruler rewards Namdev with a golden tray. On the way home, Namdev publicly throws the nawab's gift into the river. The ruler hears of it and angrily calls him back to explain the whereabouts of his gift. From underneath his clothes Namdev pulls forth tray after tray, each the exact duplicate of the one given. Other episodes follow the Bhaktamal story closely. [1]

On the third day, the troupe presented the uproarious drama of Gatham Daku, a robber of distinguished criminal lineage. Not heeding his mother's warnings, he listened in on a few words of a sadhu's narration of the tale of Truthful Hariscandra and thereby ruined his professional career. For a time his moral reformation went only so far as to make him a scrupulously truthful robber, but in the end, a broader light dawned upon him and he became a full Vaishnava.

The next day, the story enacted was that of Sadan Kasai, a butcher. Converted to Vishnuism, he set out in his enthusiasm to make a pilgrimage to Puri. In one of the houses where he received shelter for the night he was subjected to the same treachery which the Biblical Joseph also suffered from the wife of Potiphar. Sadan was falsely convicted before a judge, and in punishment his arms were cut off. But when the armless pilgrim arrived in Puri and went to worship in the temple of Jagannatha, his limbs were miraculously restored so that he might salute the Deity with folded hands. [2]

In most of these dramas, farcical interludes were inserted between the loosely connected episodes of the main plot.

Dressing-room talks with members of the troupe revealed that they were prepared to perform a new play each day for three weeks. In addition to the dramas already mentioned, their repertoire included plays based on the lives of the following devotees: Karmeti Bai, Madhav Das, Mira Bai, Ram Das, Sudama, Jaydev, Caitanya, Prahlad, Vibhishan, Kabir, Sabari, Tilocan, Kevat, Gorai Kumhar, Dama Panth, Nishkincan, and Sakshi Gopal. [3] The plays exist in writing only in the manuscripts of the troupe. They have been written specifically for these players by Baba Dinabandhu Das.

The tone, technique, and subject matter of these plays will be illustrated by reproducing here the major scenes of the troupe's Kabir Natak, performed at Uriya Baba's Asrama on August 26, 1949. The scenes, given in full with stage notes, are the author's shorthand record of a simultaneous oral translation by Mr. Kanhaiya Lal Gupta, M.Sc., M.L.A. of Vrindaban. Since such hasty translation necessarily involved some condensation and omission, the notes have been edited to the extent of occasional restoration of connective words and phrases.

In tomorrow's Sun we will present the second and final segment on the Bhaktamal Natak Mandali, one of the many forms of 'miracle plays' of Mathura being explored in this series, concluding with a drama taking place between Kabir and a wrathful brahman of Banares."


[1] For the basis in the Bhaktimal of this and all other plays of this series, see Sitaram Saran Bhagavan Prasad, Sri Bhaktamal, index of persons, pp. 1332 ff.

[2] The story of Sadan Kasai is told also in Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion (6 vols. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1909), 6, 84-88; Horact Hyman Wilson, Essays and Lectures, chiefly on the Religion of the Hindus, ed. Reinhold Rost (2 vols. London, Trubner & Co., 1961-62), I, 1281 f.; Rev. M.A. Sherring, Hindu Tribes and Castes as Represented at Benares, pp. 266 f.; Balesvar Prasad, Santbani-sangraha (2 vols. Allahabad, Belvedere Press, 1922), 2, 26; Parasuram Caturvedi, Uttari Bharat ki Sant-parampara (Prayag, Bharati Bhandar, 1951), pp. 99-101.

[3] The tales of some of the obscurer persons in this list are told outside the Bhaktimal in the following: Tilocan: Macauliffe, 6, 50. Kevat: Tulsidas, Ramcaritmanas, ed. Poddar pp. 385 ff. Gorat Kumhar: C.A. Kincaid, Tales of the Saints of Pandharpur (2nd ed. London, Oxford University Press, 1927), pp. 92-96; Kalyan 12 (samvat 1994 [A.D. 1937], sant ank, p. 492. Sakshi Gopal: Bhakti Pradip Tirtha, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Calcutta, Gaudiya Mission, 1947), p. 164 ff.; Krishnadasa Kaviraja, Caitanya-caritamrta, trans. Sanjib Kumar Chaudhuri (Calcutta, Nagendra Kumar Roy, 1956), pp. 82-93.


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