The Krishna Cult
Salman Haidar
THE MIRACLE PLAYS OF MATHURA by Norvin Hein Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, 313 pp., 40.00
Jan-Feb 1977, volume 2, No 1/2

Mathura is a miracle in itself. In its imperial past, it was a scene of high civili­zation, a centre of attraction for far-flung peoples. It remains a magnet; scores of visitors continue to flock there, drawn now not by temporal glory but by the magic of the Krishna legend. Kushan and Gupta splendour may have crumbled but the allure of Vrindaban does not fade. The milling crowds of pilgrims bear witness to the extraordinary hold of the Krishna cult on popular imagination, especially in north India. This pheno­menon goes back to medieval times and beyond. Though Krishna is a much older deity, it was during the Bhakti movement that he seems to have become definiti­vely established along the banks of the Jamuna, in the forest of Vrindaban, there to play those pranks and perform those feats that have forever enthralled his admirers. Devotion to Krishna invites direct response and participation. The ritual is humanized, within the reach of ordinary people. The ceremonial elements of song and dance often have a popular air. It is an ambience that attracts wandering troupes of entertainers, purveying in popular form some of the eternal truths from the sacred texts.

They are a diver­se lot, of varying skill and pedigree, but this is no primitive drama. The players are literate, drawing upon Hindu religious writings and inculcating traditional ide­als. Their skill lies in bridging the gap between the great literary figures and the mass audience.

The author’s method in recording this drama was to base himself in Mathura for about a year and keep track of as many performances as he could. Inevi­tably there is a random element. The troupes are irregular in their movements; the nautanki players, for one, did not visit Mathura during Dr. Hein’s sojourn. Another limiting factor is that the survey took place in 1949-50; not all Dr. Hein’s observations remain fully valid today. But even so, he provides a valuable and extensive survey of the popular drama of north India.

In Mathura’s eclectic atmosphere, the dominance of Krishnaism does not inhibit homage to other deities, witness the popularity of the Jhanki, devoted to Rama. This is a simple drama in modern Hindi, more of a tableau, with Rama and Sita ensconced on a stage while epi­sodes from Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas are recited and sung. For the audience, this is primarily an act of worship.

More complex is the Kathak, which has undergone a considerable revival sin­ce Dr. Hein saw it in Mathura. He focuses attention not so much on the pure dance, now so often seen on the stage, but on the mimetic and story elements. This is not strictly popular art, for it demands from the audience some famili­arity with its special vocabulary of gesture and symbol. It is dance-drama of ancient lineage, going well beyond the era of the Muslim courts whose overlay on the form is so pervasive.

If Kathak is for the connoisseur, po­pular taste may find more to attract it in the offerings of the Bhaktamal Natak Mandali. These combine religious devo­tion with plenty of rousing drama and earthy humour, the language being mo­dern Hindi rather than archaic Braj. And then there is the Ramlila itself, unique in its scale and in the grandeur of the dra­ma it presents. Dr. Hein’s account of a typical Ramlila sequence as witnessed by him recalls familiar features. Not so well-known are the origins of the great drama. Behind the popularized vernacular rendition of the epic text the author discerns elements linking it to the classical dance drama of ancient India. His thesis is that Muslim rule caused a long hiatus in the old tradition. The im­pulse remained, but conditions no longer permitted the classic combination of sacred recitation, song and dance, such as still survives in other parts of the country. When the Bhakti revival en­couraged the dance-drama to re-establish itself, it could no longer look back to the Sanskrit texts and the old forms. Fortu­nately Tulsidas’s poem provided a superb alternative, and it remains the perennial source of the drama. The essential pro­cess is one of vernacularization, which Dr. Hein notes also, to a lesser degree, in other forms such as the Yakshagana of Karnataka, made necessary by shrinking familiarity among the audience with the classical.

All these dramas are not peculiar to Mathura. But the Raslila is Mathura’s own form, till recently not widely kno­wn or valued. The Raslila is Dr. Hein’s major quarry. With the zeal of a pioneer and the patience of a scholar, he builds up a comprehensive picture of this profe­ssional theatre, partly group dance by highly trained children, partly dialogue play drawing on a wealth of literary trea­sure. We are told how a Raslila troupe comes to be established, its internal stru­cture, its wanderings across linguistic frontiers, taking the Braj drama to Guja­rat, Maharashtra, Bengal and Orissa. A special achievement is the recording of an entire play. There is also an account of the remote origins of the Raslila and its evolution in a climate often hostile. Ample evidence is provided of the refine­ment and grace of this form.

With the Raslila, Dr. Hein completes a survey of which perhaps the chief inter­est lies in what is recorded of the diffe­rent dramas, the manner of presentation, the players, the words they speak or sing. There is also historical insight into the manner in which these dramas evolved and assumed their present form. The book has evolved from a Ph. D. thesis, and shows some signs of it, for there is uncertainty as to whether it is addressed chiefly to the general reader, or to the specialist in either drama or language. But it offers much to both, and to all those who have a taste for the theatre.

Salman Haidar is a member of the Indian Foreign Service.