The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Part 3


A Janmastami Performance

Oct 28, CANADA (SUN) — As described in Part 2 of this series, the famous 'miracle play' performances of Mathura feature various types of devotional theater. One of these, known as Jhanki, is comprised of a tableaux of performers depicting some divine pastime.

The Jhanki form of drama in Mathura depicts scenes from Ramlila, in which the actors don't act our any narrative. They simply sit, quite still, like living murti forms of the real transcendental personalities.

Guests who attend Jhanki may offer puja to the divine personalities and interact with them in various ways. Songs are offered, with musical performances and given, flowers petals are thrown, etc.

Near the end of the Jhanki performance, the second primary element of the performance is enacted -- Updes, or instruction. Updestakes place in the form of a dialogue between the two enthroned actors, Sri Sri Sita and Rama, who are basically giving an instructional lecture to the audience. The Updes is the closest element in the entire Jhanki performance to being theatrical drama, as opposed to the tableaux enacted up until this time.

In the book Miracle Plays of Mathura by Norvin Hein, the author describes one of many Jhanki performances he attended in Mathura in the late 1950's. He describes the Updes in this way:

"As our evening at the Temple of Mathura-nath was beginning to grow late, the musicians were directed to put down their instruments. Word went around that the svarups were about to give their updes. The crows hushed. Ram and Sita drew themselves up with great dignity, waited for silence, looked at each other, and smiled. Then Ram began to speak with the deliberate regal diction of a most august sovereign.

In the course of the dialogue which followed, the actors used one simple gesture of the hand and showed occasional animation of the face, but exhibited no other bodily motion. The discourse which the svarups presented on that evening is of theological interest for its conception of the role of the sakti, and fir its ideas on prevenient grace and on the purpose of the incarnations. Since it illustrates trends in the thought of the Rama cult, we give here the whole of our almost complete record of the dialogue.

The scene, we may presume, is the highest heaven. Although it is Ram and Sita whom we actually see, we must understand that the Ram incarnation has not yet occurred. They speak in their capacity as Paramesvara and his sakti, sources of the universe and of all avataras, rulers even over Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.

    Ram: O Mistress bellowed as life! Cause of the genesis of the world! Uma and the wife of Brahma are quite dependant on you; it is by your grace that they destroy and protect endless kotis of universes. So what is the reason for your dejection?

    Sita: O Dear-as-Life, today my vision extended to the world of mortals. Seeing the wretched condition of the people there, I became somewhat sad. It is through you and me that man is born, and (yet) man almost always, through his deeds, incurs affliction. Why do they not live in pieace?

    Ram: Visnu and Siva remain steady in their duties for fear of us, but men turn against me and move on evil paths! I wish to sport with them, but they do not so much as look at me. Just as a poisonous insect wants only poison, just so do these worldly souls not think of me.

    Sita: Men are ensnared by maya. Parents do not dwell upon the vices of a son, but they cherish him!

    Ram: In age after age for the sake of the peace of man my essential forms (i.e. avataras] are manifested. I created through the sages the books of sacred tradition and the Puranas. And after proclaiming that this world is fleeting I advised them to meditate, therefore, upon me alone.

    Sita: O Dear-as-Life, this delusion of house, wealth, grain, and woman fascinates man. That is why they become oblivious to our service and its pleasure. What fault is it of theirs? (She goes on to urge that they now take birth on earth yet again for the salvation of men.)

    Ram: Darling, by my descending to earth in conformity with the requirements of maya, the Vedas will be falsified [i.e. the nirguna teaching of the Upanishads will be undermined]; people will not have the old respect for them. (But) I have vowed to protect those who come for shelter.

    Sita: O Dear-as-Life, what credit is it to us to protect souls if they have come to us for shelter?

    Ram: (agreeing) O darling, thank you for this compassion of yours! For all flesh the principal means of salvations is your grace. Your sweetness to all has enchanted the world and myself as well.

The actors finish. A wave of enthusias sweeps through the onlookers and breaks forth in a spontaneous shout of 'Ram Candra ji ki jay!' Grasping the moment, someone leads forth in a familiar kirtan. The whole assembly provides the thunderous chorus:

From the drum of Siv came forth-
'Lord of the Raghus, King Ram the Raghav!'
Came forth from Narada's lute -
'Sita and Ram, purifying the guilty!'
From Arjuna's bow Gandiv came forth-
'Victory to the Slayer of Madhu, to the Cloud-Dark One!'
From the drum of Siv came forth-
'Lord of the Raghus, King Ram the Raghav!'

The meeting moves to a close. The wicks of the arati lamps are lit. An attendant belonging to the troupe stands before the deities and rotates the tray of flickering lights. The entire audience rises to its feet and joins in the concluding arati song:

O let me wave the arati lamp
Of the revered Sita and Ram!
Opening the door of my heart,
Swaying with devout emotion,
Calling the sweet name o'er and o'er.
May I behold the beauty of the feet
Of the revered Sita and Ram!
O let me wave the arati lamp
Of the revered Sita and Ram!

The performer of the arati steps aside and the mass of onlookers, already standing, now presses forward for the leave-taking of their gods. Individuals strain to reach and touch the feet of the svarups. The deities stoop slightly now and then to touch a hand or a head. [ ] During the farewells a lone vocalist continues his song at the harmonium; he is the one musician of the evening who is a member of the troupe. The svarups retire behind the curtain. The last hangers-on join the retreating crowd in the general search for sandals at the gate."


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