The Miracle Plays of Mathura, Part 2


Oct 16, CANADA (SUN) — Jhanke performance of Ramlila in Mathura.

Indian literature about drama and theater contain few references to the dramatic form known as Jhanki. Sourindro Mohan Tagore described Jhanki as "tableaux vivants", wherein personalities are exhibited by a certain class of dramatic players coming chiefly from Bombay and Mathura. As a form, Jhanki falls outside of the realm of all other categories of familiar theater art.

A Jhanki performance does not include narrative, and is always fashioned in the same way: Sita and Rama sit enthroned, holding their durbar. For a whole two-hour performance the actors scarcely shift in their seats, and say nothing at all. While it may not be evident from this description, there are aspects of the Jhanki performance that keep watchers spellbound.

First, there is a very special religious mood created by the Jhanki troupe. Most of the activities that go on during a performance are the same as those conducted during puja. Many Vaisnavas consider the performance to be akin to watching puja in the temple. The actors are always young Brahman boys under the age of puberty. In the Ramlila, Rasalila and Jhanki forms, the environment created by the actors is seen as being temporarily embodied by transcendental presence. Jhanki means 'a view' or 'a glance', referring to the belief that the devotee sees in the atmosphere created by the actors the object of his worship. Like any other temple theatrical performance, the players dress up as authentically as possible to look like the transcendental personalities they portray. The idea is to create an atmosphere so identical to the sastric descriptions of the real pastimes of the Lord and His associates as to trick the minds of the devotees in the audience into thinking they are watching the real drama unfold. In this way, they have a new and personal experience of taking in the lila dramas.

In his book, The Miracle Plays of Mathura, author Norvin Hein describes a Jhanki performance he attended in the 1950's in Mathura, in the outer courtyard of the Mathuranath Temple. Describing the opulently decorated dias which is the center of the Jhanki performance, he writes:

"Ram Candra ji ki jay!. The acclamation hails the emergence from beyhind a backdrop fo the svarups of Sita and Ram, two boys of 10 or 12 years. They seat themselves on their lofty throne. The distinctive dress of the goddess Sita is worn by the younger and more delicate lad (female actors are quite unknown to any of the dramas with which this study deals.) Worshippers immediately gather about the throne and contend for the privilege of rendering to the deities various traditional services. Someone soon begins to swing the honorific yak-tail whisk (canvar) in slow measured arcs over the heads of the svarups. An attendant appears with a flaming arati tray and waves it before the deities, and then the assembly is seated.

Ram is dressed in gold-trimmed robes of rich red velvet; Sita wears the conventional sari, a dupatta or mantilla, and her special tiara. Under the powerful illumination the silver and glass of their crowns glitter like stars. A sadhu kneels before the throne and takes upon himself the task of massaging the feet of the deities. The handsom Ram and even more handsome Sita accept the attentions of their devotees with aloof grace.

New arrivals in the courtyard come at once to the front, touch the feet of both the actors with hands or forehead, then turn back and find a seat. A middle-aged sadhu arrives at the door. On catching his first glimpse of the actors he utters an affectionate cry of discovery and bears down upon the deities with the open arms and glittering eye of a father greeting a long-absent son. He falls at Ram's feet, encircling his legs with his arms. Ram rewards him by pulling upon the flowing nether garments and baring a foot for the touch of the devotee's brow.

An old woman offers Sita a nosegay. Sita favors the donor with the return of a blossom made previous by the touch of her divine hand. Others come forward and drop garlands around the necks of the pair - taking care not to make bodily contact in doing so, for only the feet of the deities may be touched. The very devout might be content to spend an entire session in such a petty services and in sitting at the feet of the svarups with fixed and happy gaze. But there are other features of the program which appeal to wider interests.

On the floor, at the base of the throne, a rectangular space has been kept free of spectators. Along three sides of this square sit musicians with their instrucments before them: sarangi, table, harmonium and jhanjh. The director of these musicians is a man who travels with the troupe. The others have come in from the neighborhood to lend their services at the invitation of the host of the evening. Now and then someone comes forward from the crowd, sits down for a time amidst this orchestra, confers with its director, and sooner or later contributes a song. Very early in the performance the singing begins."

The author goes on to describe various songs that are performed for Sri Sri Sita-Rama, and the kirtans that follow. He then describes a beautiful little girl of about nine years old, who approached the stage to offer a song. A whisper goes about the room that this is a little brahman girl named Krishnabai. She waits for the harmonium notes, then sings in a clear little voice:

O Lord, now, at last, accept me!
I am thy servant, Thou art the diadem-jewel among masters;
Shall I be helpless even today?
O Lord, now, at last, accept me!

On Thy lotus feet my heart, a black bee,
Remains fascinated day and night.
O Lord, now, at last, accept me!

I do not desire the world's wealth;
I have heard the praise of Thee, O Lord!
O Lord, now, at last, accept me!

Krishna Dasi implores this boon only:
To entwine Thy lotus feet!
O Lord, now, at last, accept me!

In our next installment, we will describe the other elements of Jhanki performance, which include a lecture given by way of a dialogue between the two enthroned personalities.


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