We carry forward from the Cover Story last week on how theatre evolved in this country, especially Bengal, starting with Shobhayatra, or a religious procession
By Sandip Ghosh
PART – 2
As we discussed, colourful and musical processions would be brought out even during the time when Faxien visited India to indulge in Buddhism.
Raja Harshavardhan would be dressed up as Lord Indra and his friend Raja of Kamrup (now Assam) would dress up as Lord Brahma, seated in glorified chariots, followed by musicians and dancers.
Towards the end of the 12th century, Tantric Shaivism and Tantric Buddhism and also Bhatki sects infused to make this celebration even more colourful.
The Tantric Shaiva celebrations took place on Chaitra Sankranti (the last month of the Bengali lunar calendar, roughly corresponding to end-March to end-April).
As per the Bengali lunar calendar, corresponding with also the end of harvesting, this was their year-end festivity, in which various Gods were dressed up and paraded, along with myriad forms of animals as also mythological characters.
The procession would see a whole lot of musicians playing dhol, kartal, and other instruments, while singing and dancing.
The procession would start from a Shiva temple, the participants would walk around the nearby neighbourhoods and eventually return to where they had commenced from.
Various rituals and masked dances would take place in the evenings and often these lasted till late night.
Interestingly, there was a cross-denomination exchange between opposing Shakt and Vaishnavite sects, and the Shobhayatras became immensely popular amongst the latter towards the end of the 15th century. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Shakta practitioners helped greatly polish up this form or performing art
The ‘Gajan’ of Lord Shiv or Neeler Gajan (a form of worship specific to Bengal, where extreme pain is tolerated as a form of devotion), would also be observed on the same day.
These can be seen even now in Bengal villages.
It seems that towards the 14th century, even the Shakta (worshippers of Goddess Mahamaya, or Kali), also joined such festivities.
One of the sacred texts, Kalikapuran was devoted to Goddess Kali, a form of Mahishasuramardini, or Goddess Durga.
In this procession, young girls would lead the procession to the immersion ceremony on the tenth day of what most north Indians would recognise as Dusserah.
The procession would comprise expert female musicians, courtesans highly qualified in the ‘sixteen arts’, players of shankh (conch shells), dhaak (Bengal’s own drums) and mridangam.
Interestingly, there would be others who would throw around puffed rice, flowers, etc, and there were even those who would signal erotic arts as a passage to a secure place after they die and go to ‘hell’.
Recent ethnological studies show that the performing arts were also practiced in the courtyards of the temples, just after the Shobhayatra.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Shakta practitioners helped greatly polish up this form or performing arts. The ‘Bamakeshwar Tantra’ a scripture, notes that there were held sixteen such processions held each year.
Interestingly, there was a cross-denomination exchange between opposing Shakt and Vaishnavite sects, and the Shobhayatras became immensely popular amongst the latter towards the end of the 15th century.
From the end of the 15th century through much of 16th century, Pandit Ragunandan organised 12 such Shobhayatras in hour of Bhagvan Vishnu.
These became transformed into tableaux of chariots pulled by the devotees, which carried the idols of various Gods and Goddesses carried down from the Puranas.
In his own landmark religious campaign of Bhakti School, Shri Chaitanya Dev also used the Shobhayatra as a tool.
Vaishnavites, especially from the region known as Gaur (Bengal) have added much splendour to Shobhayatra.
In his lifetime, while he lived in Puri, Shri Chaitanya Dev used to organise a very curious such festival. This has been mentioned in Chapter 15 of the Part 2 of ‘Chaitanya Charitamrita’.
In this, his devotees dressed up as ‘hanumans’ and staged an act in which they attack Lanka (ruled by the so-called ‘demon king Ravana, going by mythology) and destroy it, a throw-back on Ramayana.
We do have references to similar entertainments in Chaitanya Bhagavat, where we find Swami Nityananda enacting various episodes of the Ramayana with his friends.
Most interestingly, all the scenes for these plays were created under the open sky, almost akin to the Ramlila that is performed today in North India.
The system was so organised keeping in mind the locale that the performers as well as audience could easily shift from one such ‘theatre’ to another.
Narayan Bhatta, the disciple of the 16th century Vaishnavite practitioners called the Goswamis, claims the pride of place in having given form to ‘Banyatra’ of Roop and Sanatan.
Sanatan was one of the principal disciples of Mahaprabhu Shri Chaitanya.
During Banyatra, devotees would visit such sites as they felt or believed where Lord Krishna’ ‘Leela’ had taken place.
In every such site, young people would enact those “Leelas” that were supposed to have been associated with that place.
After the demise of Shri Chaitanya, many such myth-based dramas related to Lord Krishna were performed, including those of Kaliadaman, in which Lord Krishna as a child destroys the terrible serpent sent to kill him.
So to think of it, we are getting closer to modern theatre, as it evolved from Shobhayatra and then from Jatra…
(To be continued)
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Sandip Ghosh lives in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. He stays clear of politics, sports or regular curricular studies, but loves learning varied issues. His personal romance is theatre. Now 61, he has worked in various embassies and private organisations, but ploughs himself back into acting whenever he can. His latest book is titled “Theatre in the Districts and Suburbs”