The Miracle Plays of Mathura: Raslila Troupes of Braj, Part 4


May 4, CANADA (SUN) — In our last segment, we covered the first four of seven elements of a traditional raslila performance, including the mangalacaran, arati, gopi-prarthana, and Krsna's petition to Radha to dance the ras. Today, we continue with the remaining three elements.

5. The ras dances (which take ten forms, or more)

The dances themselves are complex activities that can be divided into about ten elements, a few of which are sometimes omitted. The rasdharis whom the author consulted were unable to supply traditional names for them. It has been necessary to invent the following English designations:

    A. The open circle
    B. The closed circle
    C. The mimicking of Krsna
    D. The three hops
    E. Krsna's solo dance on his knees
    F. The adjusting of Radha's ornaments
    G. The promenade
    H. The whirling of partners
    I. The dalliance of Radha and Krsna
    J. The clapping circle

In addition there are two or three rare dances that the swami may present if he wishes.

The rasdharis offer no developed theory to explain and justify the form of these dances, but it is clear from their appearance that they are intended to represent the romps of a group of children. The general belief is that these forms are followed because Krsna sported thus. The dances are not, however, a serious attempt to reconstruct Krsna's dance from the description given in the texts of the Bhagavata, Visnu, and Harivamsa Puranas. Now and then a phrase from these works can be connected with a particular dance, but the correspondences are neither continuous nor clear.

The dancers trip through their formations in an informal spirit of fun. They do not seem intent upon technical precision. Since the younger performers are about eight years old, the movements must be simple. The tinier dancers often merely flap their arms broadly as they move about the stage, but the older players sometimes execute the shifts of arm position with a precise co-ordination that is very pleasing. Use is made of almost none of the hand and finger symbols (mudra or cihn) belonging to the code of India's classical dance. Now and then, while singing a song, Krsna may raise the little ringer of his left hand as a reference to his lifting of Mount Govardhan; or He may assume the teaching pose, holding up His right hand with thumb and index finger pressed together.

    A. The open circle

    The line of dancers follows Krsna out into the arena, trailing after him in a file. The file bends closes, and becomes a circle. To the music of the orchestra and of their own singing, they go round and round in a clockwise direction. This dance has a distinctive arm movement. One arm, straightened, is extended sideward at full length, and the other, elbow bent, is folded over the chest or brow in the same lateral direction. As a variation, the hand of the bent arm is sometimes rested on the hip. The feet are advanced to a timing of one, two, three, four, and on the count of four the moving foot, after only half a step, is brought down beside the stationary one with a force which causes a sharp swell in the sound of the ankle bells. At a certain point in the rhythm the dancers reverse with a snap the positions of their two arms. After several circuits of the stage, the dancers whirl sharply as a unit and reverse their direction.

    B. The closed circle

    Continuing the form and direction of the open circle, the dancers now grasp each other's hands. They trip about now much like a group of Western children playing Ring-around-the-rosy.

    On the occasions when the drama of the day is the Maharas lila, the circle of dancers is augmented by several additional impersonators of Krishna, so that there may be a Krishna between each pair of gopis. At certain turns of this special variation of the closed-circle dance there is still another Krishna-svarup in the midst of this enlarged circle, now alone and again with Radha, playing His flute. In other respects the dances at the time of the Maharas show no important difference.

    The orchestra plays continuously throughout all the dances. The bell-like clashes of the small cymbals (jhanji) pace the growth of the excitement, dominating the other instruments increasingly as the participants accelerate the dance to an ecstatic climax. Steady amidst the fluctuating volume of the instrumental music is the voice of the swami singing verses in which the actors sometimes join. If the dancers have not finished their round when the swami comes to the end of his text, he continues his accompaniment as long as necessary merely by repeating the final lines over and over. In such songs as this, a bol, a combination of nonsense syllables which regulates the steps of dance, is a common element:

      The handsome King of Braj is dancing, Chanan! [1]
      The handsome King of Braj is dancing, Chanan!
      With a ta ta thei, ta ta thei, the Nimble-footed One, O girl-friend!
      The handsome King of Braj is dancing, Chanan!
      Sweetheart, it is night, Sweetheart, it is night, night!
      It is the autumn, the romantic season, the autumn tonight!
      Dance with the Son of Nand, O girl-friend!
      The Handsome King of Braj is dancing. Chanan!
      With a ta ta thei, ta ta thei, the Nimble-footed One, O girl-friend!

    C. The mimicking of Krishna

    The performers in the circle release each other's hands and spin about individually in rapid whirls. Then all sink to their knees, facing inward toward Krsna, who is kneeling at the base of the dais with His back toward it. In a sport much like the children's game of follow-the-leader, Krsna now assumes various poses which the gopis must imitate. Krsna flutters His hands win a distinctive manner; He leans forward on His knees and arches His eyebrows in a mischievous way; He oscillates His neck; and He stands and makes a strumming motion with His hands as if playing a stringed instrument. The gopis ape these actions as He does them. The circle then breaks up.

    D. The three hops

    Again the dancers draw themselves up in a line at the base of the throne. Krsna steps out, crosses the stage, turns about to face the gopis, and squats down. Now, without fully straightening His body and with His feet together, He returns across the stage in three long, froglike hops, rejoining the line of the gopis. Radha crosses the stage and returns in the same fashion. Then each of the other gopis takes a turn. The inexpert eight-year-olds may do no more than skip back across the stage. Krsna then repeats His hops. For variation He sometimes hobbles on one knee or covers the length of the stage by turning cartwheels.

    E. Krsna's solo dance on His knees

    Krsna steps forth from the base line, kneels, and gathers up in His hands the filmy skirts of His silk katakachani. Whirling round and round on His knees, He launches out on a circuit of the stage. The rousing percussion of the cymbals heightens in tempo and the spinning dancer gathers speed. At the right moment He releases the edges of the light skirt. It billows out into an undulating rainbow-colored disk on which He seems to float around the stage. He makes three circuits in a clockwise direction and rejoins the line of applauding gopis amidst shouts of Sri Bihariji ki jay jay! from the crowd. This dance is sometimes omitted; not all troupes have a chief actor who can perform it successfully.

    F. The adjusting of Radha's ornaments

    Radha retires from the floor to rest on the throne. Krsna follows, half-kneels before her on the seat, and rearranges the stray locks of her hair. He puts in order any garlands, necklaces, or other ornaments that may have become disarranged during the preceding dances.

    G. The promenade

    Radha and Krsna come down and rejoin the row of dancers. All the actors place their arms across each other's necks, forming a straight unbroken line with Radha and Krsna in the middle. As a solid rank they tour the stage, wheeling this way and that in gliding sweeps.

    H. The whirling of partners

    The rank of actors breaks up into three couples - Radha and Krsna, and two pairs of gopis. The partners stand toe to toe, cross their forearms, and grasp each other's hands. Then they swing each other about with the utmost possible speed. Out of breath, all fling themselves on the dais to rest while the swami sings a song.

    I. The dalliance of Radha and Krsna

    The actors stand and re-form their line. Radha and Krsna take a step forward, face each other, and carry on a flirtatious exchange in song. The author kept notes on one occasion, when the gist of the dialogue was as follows: Krsna singing, begs Radha to come and play with Him. Radha retorts, 'You are a naughty boy. I don't want to play with you.' Krsna stands before her and puts on a display for her benefit - a stationary dance of stamps and spins and twirling of the hands. Radha matches each of the motions with a countermotion, at first defiantly, but with increasing pleasure. Krsna pauses in the dance to sing, 'Your face is like a lily.' (He touches her chin.) 'You have eyes like a lotus. It is by your grace alone that I am called by the name of The Sporter in the Groves. I am ready to offer myself as a sacrifice for your sake.' Krsna gazes at her fondly and crosses his little fingers in token of affection. Radha is won over. She gives Him her arm and they make a promenade of the stage together. They pause back-to-back and cast tender glances over their shoulders. Both bend backward, and each touches a hand to the other's chin. On several other occasions the actors have been seen to embrace at this point by pressing shoulders together -- right shoulder to right shoulder, then left to left. This is the fullest expression of the erotic spirit which the author has seen in the raslila.

    J. The clapping circle

    This may merely be a repetition of the open-circle dance, but it usually differs from it in that the time is kept by the clapping of the actors' hands. The beating of the time is done with long sweeps of the arm which meet the opposing hand in a percussion near the thigh. This completes the series of dances almost always seen in the course of the ras. We return now to our survey of the more variegated elements.

6. Concluding hymn or hymns

The performance of the ras ends much as it began, with the actors clustered formally about the throne giving darshan to the spectators. The vocalists of the troupe now offer songs of the same general type as the mangalacaran. Thee songs often have as their theme the grace, power, and beauty of Radha and Krsna, the praise of Vrindaban, the saving powers of the dust of Braj (brajraj), or Krsna's special affection for the residents of Braj. The following song, a specimen of the kind offered at this time, was sung by a professional singer named Sant Ram, whose livelihood is to sing just such songs as this as guest vocalist for the rasdharis. The occasion was a performance of the Gocaran-lila at Bansibat:

The finest wealth is reliance on Radha's name,
Whom Syam calls with his flute, and thinks on o'er and o'er,
The quintessence of charm, spell, Veda and Tantra.
Sukadeva revealed it not, for he knew 'twas the essence of essences.
Taking the guise of a female companion, the Son of Nand did not reach the end of it even then.
Vyasdas now declares it openly, having stuffed his burden into the grain-parcher's stove.

7. Pravacan (sometimes omitted)

Sometimes, as a final feature of the part of the performance which precedes the lila, Krsna steps down from His throne at the conclusion of these songs and delivers a homily. The discourses are of three or four minutes' duration. They often describe the sanctity of Vrindaban, exhort devotees to be faithful in pious practices, and affirm Krsna's promises to His devotees. We shall give here our notes on an address of this kind which was delivered in the course of a performance by the troupe of Swami Megh Syam [circa 1949]. We shall retain the direct discourse in order to retain the flavor of the original, even though our reporting is not complete. Krsna raised the palm of his right hand, pressed thumb and index finger together, and spoke in the following vein:

    "As Supreme Lord I have incarnated Myself in twenty-four different forms, but the Krsna incarnation is superior to all the rest. Those many other forms were not complete. My full form I showed only in the Krsna avatar.

    Consider the Rama incarnation. Rama was a prince. Not everyone could have access to him. But I am no prince. I am only a cowherd boy. I dress in a simple blanket. I go to tend the cows along with the other boys of the village. I can sing with anyone, I can eat with anyone.

    I roam on foot about the paths of Braj. I don't wish to ride on a chariot, nor do I travel on the back of Garuda. Wherever I go, I trudge across the sands with shoeless feet. There is nothing so sacred as the sands of Braj on which my naked feet have trod.

    I travel through field and wood, taking milk from house to house according to what people need. I do not want to be master. I wish to be the servant of all.

    I am the servant of my devotees at every hour of day or night. When my worshippers call upon my name I come, taking guises according to their needs. I eat whatever they offer me; I live on whatever they give me. I love them so much that if they offer me love or a handful of water or any flower, I accept it with all my heart. If my devotees wish to sell me, I will even allow myself to be sold at their hands. Though I have everybody in my power, the devotees have me in their power. Whenever anyone meditates on me, I think of him and show him favor. To all people I am justice, but to my devotees I am a servant. I excuse them all their faults."

The actor resumed his seat. The curtain was then raised across the dais, concealing those upon it. There were a few low whispers and a few agitations of the face of the cloth while adjustments were being made behind it. As we will read in the next segment, when the curtain was taken away, the production moved into its second and very different phase - that of the lila.


[1] onomatopoeia. Chanan imitates the throbbing of the ankle bells when the dancers stamp their feet in doubled time.

Source: The Miracle Plays of Mathura by Norvin Hein.


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