The evolution of theatre as we know it today in India had its roots in a Buddhist ceremony of a procession marked by players of musical instruments, singers and dancers… from ancient times
By Sandip Ghosh
PART – 1
Ramkrishna Paramhans Dev was in the audience.
Girish Ghosh was then manager of Star Theatre, which till a few years ago staged famous plays by some of the top actors of Bengali theatre.
Much later, of course, there was the theatre groups like Nandikar and Bohurupi, with fables such as Shambhu Mitra, Utpal Dutta, Keya Chakraborty, Rudraprasad Sengupta, Ajitesh Bandopaddhyay and many others.
For most educated Bengali families of Calcutta (now Kolkata), going to watch these fantastic plays like ‘Raja’, ‘’RaktaKarabi’, ‘Pagla Ghora’, ‘Tiner Talwar’, ‘Manjari Amer Manjari’ etc, was a cultural compulsion.
This was the proscenium, play enacted in a closed theatre hall.
Side by side there exists the Jatra, a typically rural phenomenon in its origin, as well as Angan Manch or Third Theatre kick-started by another theatre giant, Badal Sircar.
But few would recall that while Jatra and proscenium theatre today exist side by side, proscenium in Bengal came from Jatra, and Jatra came from the concept of ‘Shobhajatra’, or basically a highly colourful and musical procession.
So how did it all begin?
The basic beauty of the ‘Shobhayatra’ of yore was a mesmerising combination of songs, dances and tableaux.
As it passed by, people of a particular community would throng the road to witness it.
This was the sum and substance of ancient Indian theatre, and this was what came to be termed Jatra, a voyage, and can claim to be the foundation of theatre in this country.
Few know that the fabled Raja Harshavardhan himself used to participate in the ‘Shobhayatra’ dressed as king of the Gods, Lord Indra, and his friend and ally from Kamrup (now Assam), Raja Bhaskarvarman would also take part in this, dressed as Lord Brahma
Descriptions from FaHien (Faxien), visit of India (399 to 422 CE), narrate that on the eighth day of the second month (Indian lunar calendar), roughly end of May by Gregorian calendar, there used to be held a highly popular Buddhist festival in the ancient capital, Pataliputra (now Patna, Bihar).
(Faxien was a Chinese Buddhist traveller who came to India in ancient times to study Buddhism at Nalanda University.)
During that festival, highly decorated chariots with idols of Gautam Buddha, and some other deities, were pulled by devotees along the streets, accompanied by accomplished singers, dancers and musicians.
In fact, Faxien wrote that he had seen similar tableaux in Kannauj and also Prayag (now Allahabad).
Few know that the fabled Raja Harshavardhan himself used to participate in the ‘Shobhayatra’ dressed as king of the Gods, Lord Indra, and his friend and ally from Kamrup (now Assam), Raja Bhaskarvarman would also take part in this, dressed as Lord Brahma.
Another scholar also wrote about similar ‘Shobhayatra’ in coastal Bengal in the second half of the seventh century.
Such narratives clearly indicate the celebrations organised as a clear mark of the influence of Buddhism, but interestingly, these celebrations also marked the personalisation of Hindu religious concepts of Lord Indra and Lord Brahma.
The concluding ceremonies would include masked dances and recitations in the various Buddhist monasteries.
The Mastendranath Shobhayatra then existing in Nepal also prove that the Nath denomination in Bengal were also at that time undertaking their Shobhayatra with music, dance and singing in the 12th century.
Around the time, Shobhayatra turned into a mass entertainment among followers of the religion.
The Shobhayatra would see in its lead a highly decorated chariot carrying the golden footwear of the God, followed by an ensemble of players of musical instruments, singers and dancers.
Remarkably, in the procession would be “shong” or clowns, with their faces painted variously or wearing masks. Their attire were designed to represent various characters of the Puranas (Indian scriptures).
Even more interesting is that such “shong” or clowns are still seen in the Gajon festivals held in honour of Lord Shiv.
It is possible that these ‘clowns’ were the primary masters of ceremony in such religious Shobhayatras, which would typically start from a temple compound.
The procession would move around the entire neighborhoods and finally return to that same temple from where it had commenced the journey. There, masked dances and recitations would be held in honour of the Gods.
(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”