Miracle Plays of Mathura - Raslila Troupes of Braj, Part 2


Aug 11, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — Reprise of a 2007 series on the Miracle Plays of Mathura.

The Braj raslila troupes, while highly trained, typically worked with very minimalist stage equipment. As described in our last segment, the stage environment was created from the most basic of environments. In The Miracle Plays of Mathura, author Norvin Hein further describes the stage props, costumery and protocol evident in the Mathura area in the late 1940's.

"The curtain is used only to provide occasional privacy for the actors when sitting on the dais. It is seldom strung on a cord or wire. When the costume or ornaments of an actor must be changed or restored to order or when a tableau must be prepared, two attendants hold the cloth across the front of the platform long enough to conceal the operation. The curtain is never used to separate the playing-space from the audience. Since the spectators surround the arena of action on three sides, such shielding would be practically impossible.

Stage settings are provided almost entirely by the imagination of the spectators. The white ground-sheet becomes now the floor of a cottage or palace, now the surface of a highway or a grassy pasture, without interruption or commotion. When Krsna leaves the family kitchen to go out with the herds, He simply walks out into the forestage while Mother Yasoda at rear quietly slips away with her cooking utensils in her hands. The sinhasan is used when a raja is to be shown in his throne room. When a holy man is to be visited in the middle of the forest, he is shown sitting on the plain dais from which the royal seats have been removed. When such temporal or spiritual dignitaries are scheduled to appear, attendants a few moments in advance hold the curtain over the dais, and in its privacy the king or ascetic takes the appropriate kinds of seat, on which he is then revealed.

Long journeys can be made entirely within the limits of the arena. Uddhav may say farewells to the people of Vrindaban at rear left and complete a trip to Mathura by making a slow circuit of the stage. While the round is being made, Krsna mounts the sinhasan with the help of the curtain and is ready to greet Uddhav, when he comes around, in the throne room in Mathura. A branchy is set upright on the stage when a tree is needed.

In the Cirharan lila, Krsna hangs the clothes of the bathing gopis on it, and in the Kalinag lila it is from a stool concealed in such a tree that Krsna jumps down into the imaginary waters of the poisonous pool below. Exits are made by stepping into an adjoining room, where on eis available. Where there is none, the actor merely takes a step into the audience and sits down.

Personal properties are not left to the imagination. Krsna carries His flute, or a walking-cane. Herdsmen lean upon their staves. Rajas display their glittering weapons. The gopis carry real milk-pots on their heads. The costuming is complete and elaborate.

Raslila Costumery

The costume of Krsna sets Him off sharply from mortals of all kinds. His ankle-bells (napur or ghungaru), which give jingling notice of his presence or approach, are of the type worn by mortal dancers, and the curidar pajama which protect His legs are a familiar human garment, but the full high-waisted silken shirt called katakachani, which Krsna always wears in the ras dances and often in the subsequent part of the drama as well, is unique and peculiar to Himself. This has been Krsna's dress for at least two centuries. [1]

His skirt is secured just under the armpits by a sash (pataka). It falls almost to the ankles in four or five wide bands divided by ruffles. The rainbow colours of these horizontal bands are dominated by blue and purple. In the songs of the drama the prevailing bluish tone of this skirt is often compared to the blue of the peacock plumes which Krsna wears on His crown.

In a peacock-dance which Krsna sometimes performs on the stage, He holds the rear of this skirt aloft to represent the peacock's fan-shaped tail. Images of Krsna in temples are said to be dressed in this katakachani particularly on the raspurnima, the anniversary of His dance with the gopis. On the stage, Krsna usually exchanges this skirt, in the latter part of the performance, for a full-cut yellow dhoti called a pitambar. Krsna's upper garment is always a tight-fitting long-sleeved shirt of a special design. Several strings of small white beads are always seen around his neck as well as one or more garlands of flowers. Sometimes the garland is His own long banmala, made of large varicolored flowers which Krsna is supposed to have plucked in the forest.

Krsna's special headdress, the mormukut, is a complex and interesting structure. Its foundation is a small turban (pag), to which the other elements are attached. From each side, several locks of false hair (lat) fall down below the shoulder. A cockade of peacock feathers is thrust into the folds of the turban on the right side. A gilded tiara sits on the brow and above the ears; strings of pearl beads or of tiny flowers hang in loops along its lower edge. The dominant feature of the entire headdress is a large spade-shaped crest which extends upward and forward from the head. The stem of this crest is attached to the side of a cone, the base of which sits upon the turban and is lashed to it. Actors adhering to the Vallabha Sampradaya wear this crest sloped towards the left, whereas those belonging to the Nirbarka and Gaudiya sects slant it toward the right.

The face of the crest is perforated in patterns and studded with gems. [2] A puzzling strip of black cloth is attached to the crown of the turban and hangs down the actor's back to the hips. It is a triangular pennant, about six inches wide where it is joined to the turban. Silver threads cross it transversely in the form of chevrons or zigzag lines, and the whole is spangled with lozenges, cubes, or floral medallions of silver. The shape and ornamentation of this appendage suggest rather obviously the body and markings of a snake. Although it is called a coti and is said to represent Krsna's queue, it seems likely to have originated either as a token of Krsna's triumph over the serpent Kaliya or as a token of some obscure rapproachment with the naga cult which was once prominent in Braj. [Alternatively, it might represent the universal protection of Sesanaga.]

Half an hour is needed before each performance for the applying of ornaments and facial decorations. The impersonators of the gopis wear simple tiaras, modest necklaces and garlands, and a pearl nose pendant (bulak). A thin solution of sandalwood paste is applied in various patterns to the faces of all the children, leaving bright yellow lines on the skin. The tracery is sometimes stuccoed while damp with glittering flakes of glass. There is no great uniformity or continuity in the pattern of these decorations, nor can the rasdharis explain them in terms of any symbolism.

One who arrives early at the scene of a raslila performance finds servants spreading out the floor-coverings and draping the seats that are to become the throne of the Deities. The musicians file in and deposit their instruments in a line at the forward edge of the gathering audience. The player of the sarangi takes a seat facing the throne, leans his instrument against his shoulder and tunes the strings with a wooden key. The drummer keeps tapping the blocks on the side of his mridanga until its leather membranes give out sounds which match certain notes of the harmonium.

The actors enter in a body. If the performance is being held out-of-doors, they are always carried in on the shoulders of the devotees who constantly hover about the svarups seeking opportunities to do them personal service. When the spectators see the first glimmer of the shining crowns of the entering deities, they rise and greet them with a shout of 'Sri larlilal ki jay!' Radha and Krsna mount the high throne. The gopis take lower positions at their side and around their feet. The svarups having seated themselves, the audience may now do likewise.

Raslila Protocol

Strict rules of decorum govern the behavior of the audience at the raslila. As at other Vaishnava theatricals, only women, girls, and little boys may sit in the space at the front of the theater to the right of the stage. Of course, no one brings shoes or sandals into the meeting-place. Onlookers should sit with their feet folded respectfully beneath them, not exposing the soles of their feet to the view of the svarups. Anyone who must leave the theater during the performance Must back or sidle out in such a way as to avoid turning his back on the actor-deities. A Hindi leaflet distributed by Swami Muralidhar Bohre during a stay in Calcutta in 1946 instructs prospective patrons thus:

    "Rules of the ras: smoking bidis or cigarettes, sitting on chairs, using cushions and pillows, departing by way of the playing space, making commotion and noise and so forth - all these things are politely but firmly prohibited. If any other gentlemen wish the ras to be enacted at their homes, it can be done, but the rules written above will have to be observed."

Vaishnava opinion takes these rules seriously. Once at a performance held alongside a country lane, the author saw a passing cowherd edge up to the outer circle of the crown, still puffing on a cigarette. The swami stopped the performance instantly and rebuked the offender in a way which sent him off covered with shame. The people who attend the raslila are one of the most silent, attentive, and disciplined audiences to be found anywhere in India.

In our next segment, we will look at the unique program elements which comprise a raslila performance.


[1] O.C. Gangoly, 'A Group of Vallavacharya or Nath-dwara Paintings and their Relatives', Bulletin of the Baroda State Museum and Picture Gallery, 1, pt. II (1944), pp. 31-46, pl. III, dated c. A.D. 1750. For earlier evidences, see C.L. Fabri, 'Ballet Costume in Akbar's Time,' Marg, 7 (December 1953), pp. 17-22.

[2] The crest appears on Visnu images of the Kushan period in Mathura Museum exhibits 953, 1010, 2487, and 2520. The modern headdress and other items of costume may also be seen in William Ridgeway, The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races, pp. 173-75, 180, 201 f.


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