The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Part 4


Ramlila Performance

Nov 7, CANADA (CNN) — Excerpted from "The Miracle Plays of Mathura" by Norvin Hein.

History of Jhanki

"Almost nothing can be offered on the history of Jhanki theater. The earliest reference found is S.M. Tagore's publication of 1879. The players of our acquaintance believe that their profession came into existence about 300 years ago, soon after the death of Tulsidas. However, they have no developed tradition to this effect, written or oral.

One Jhanki professional reports from his personal experience that Jhanki was greatly stimulated in living memory by the long and generous patronage of Mahant Ram Vallabh Saran of Golaghat in Ayodhya. Available biographical material tells us that this mahant's career in Ayodhya extended from 1880 to about 1930 and confirms that he was indeed a patron of mystery players of all sorts.

A small suggestion of a longer history is found in Sylvain Levi's account of certain spectacles which he saw 60 years ago in Nepal. The tableaux vivants of Rama and other deities displayed there on floats in the maghayatra and other processions are similar to Jhanki and may be remotely related historically.

Jhanki Repertoire

Troupes like the ones described in previous segments of this series generally have at their command a repertoire of about six discourses (updes'), most of which are taken from the Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas. Among the passages used are Ram's discourse on characteristics of good and wicked people, and his speech at the time of Vibhishan's surrender. A few are monologues delivered by Ram alone; the majority are dialogues.

The master of the Ayodhya troupe says that he takes discourses from other books as well, including the Bhagavad-gita and Nabhaji's Bhaktimal.

Ramlila Costumes

The costumes worn by Ram and Sita are generally similar to those used in the Ramlila. Friendly onlookers at the performance in Mathura previously described by the author helped him to identify the principal articles of dress and ornament, which are as follows.

Rama always wears a distinctive high cylindrical crown (mukut) of silver, topped with a white peacock feather (turra). To the back of the crown is attached an aura or halo (kirit) composed of a sunburst of silver rays fixed in the vertical plane of the shoulders. Locks of false hair (lat) fall to the lower neck. The upper garment is the distinctly royal coga, of knee length, fastened in front only by a sash. The nether garment is a dhoti of yellowish color called a pitambar.

Personal ornaments include a pearl nose pendant (bulak), golden earrings kundal, close-fitting golden necklaces (kantha), heavy silver anklets (karula), and golden bracelets (kara). A circular spot of metal or pearl is applied to the chin with sandalwood paste.

Like Krishna, Ram may wear around his neck the (banmala), a very long garland of five sorts of flowers, properly plucked in the forest. From the back of Ram's head (as from Krishna's), there hangs down a long pennant-shaped streamer of dark cloth dotted with silver spangles. This is said to represent the deity's citi, or queue.

Sita wears above her sari the shawl-like dupatta or orhni. Her crown is simpler than Ram's, having no cylinder to give it height. A radiant crest is fixed transversely across the head. On a gold band which crosses her brown a half-moon (candrika) is fixed in mid-forehead. Sita, like her husband, wears the turra, bulak, kantha and banmala. Her own special articles of jewelry are a pearl necklace (motimala), loose-fitting anklets of silver link (pajeb), and a mirror-ring (arasi) worn on the thumb.

While the costumery of various Miracle Play actors tend to be very standardized, that's were the similarity ends between Jhanki and the other forms of dramatic arts to be covered in this series. In our next segment we'll look at the Kathak, a sophisticated dance form that sets impersonations and gestures to narrative and song.

Excerpted from "The Miracle Plays of Mathura" by Norvin Hein.


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