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Vaiṣṇava Nāṭyalīlā: Śrī Caitanya’s Tryst with Performance, Inducing Spirituality

Introduction: The Origin of Bengali Theatre

There is a paucity of information on the ancient theatre culture of Bengal. A brief mention is found in Buddhist Caryāpada, Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra, Abhinaya Darpana of Nāndikeśvara, Sāgar Nandi’s Nāṭakalakṣanakoṣa, Locan Pandit’s Rāgatarangiṇī, etc. Bharata mentions the local usage of dress, language, manners and customs as necessary for regularising the presentation of action and the individuality of the hero in compliance with the various regions. He identified four different quarters according to the psychophysical tendencies and the ways of life of people inhabiting those quarters. This phenomenon is termed Pravritti and the four Pravrittis are Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern. Bisaakha Goswami asserts, “Bharata in his Natyashastra (approx 200 BC to 200 AD) mentioned four types of Pravritti; Dakshinatya, Avanti, Panchalamadhyama, Odromagadhi. Pravritti refers to regional style or culture. These were applicable to drama on or before his time. Among these Pravrittis Odromagadhi type was practised in Eastern India” (183). Though there is a difference of opinion between Abhinavagupta and Dhananjaya on the use of Vrittis and Pravrittis in the presentation of Rasa, Bharata himself in his course of discussion on the regional usages talks of mixed-use of Vrittis and Pravrittis (Pandey 478). Therefore, a definite style belonging to the East was difficult to be identified from the earlier references. However, later, in the medieval period, an abundance of instances defining a typical Eastern regional style and form of performance is found. Bengal known as Vabga was part of the extensive Mauryan empire, Magadha, inherited by the emperor Ashoka. Later it came under the Pal dynasty and from the 13th Century to the 18th Century was ruled by Muslim rulers. Ample literature on theatrical forms and performance styles and concurrent practice is found from this later period, like Śrī Kṛṣṇakīrtan, Gītikā, Pāncāli, Jhumur, Ankīānat, Kṛṣṇālīlā, Rāmlīlā, Śiber Gīt, Ghāṭu, Jātrā, etc. The themes predominant during this period were concerned with Śakti and Śiva and later it was Kṛṣṇa. Though long before Śrī Caitanaya (1486-1534), Kṛṣṇa’s presence in Bengali Theatre was located, it was not to the extent it had penetrated during the epic movement of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. The stories of Kṛṣṇa were spread extensively through theatre and performances by the Vaiṣṇavas in an extraordinary way. The essential element of Vaiṣṇava philosophy is ‘Kṛṣṇa Bhakti’. Bhakti or devotion was fostered by dancing, singing and playing of music by the Vaiṣṇavas; Caitanya improvised the form of Kīrtan to Nagarkīrtan, which included congregation, procession, music, dance, ecstasy and devotion. Caitanya’s Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavism also offered the conjoint involvement of the ‘Dhārmic’ practice and Theatre in the same holy space. Caitanya used to arrange for various theatrical performances on different ‘tithi’ and would act different characters himself. He understood the power of theatre and used it best to reach the common people. However, many scholars like Dr Ajit Kumar Ghosh and Dr S. K. Dey claim that the performances of the Vaiṣṇavas were inefficacious to the development of Bengali theatre (Ghosh 7). Dr S. K. De states, “The influence of Baisnabism, therefore, was hardly favourable to the development of the inherent dramatic elements of the Jatra; on the other hand, it cherished its musical peculiarities, developed its melodramatic tendency, and emphasised its religious predilections” (Bengali Literature in the 19th Century 449-450).

However, if we sketch a detailed picture of the expanse and grandeur of Vaiṣṇava Nāṭyalīlā by referring to Śrī Śrī Caitanya Bhāgavat composed by Vrindāvandās, Kṛṣṇadās Kavirāj’s Śrī Śrī Caitanyacaritāmṛta, Jayānand’s Caitanyamangal and Locandās’s Caitanymangal, we shall find a different propensity. During his stay in Nadia, Caitanya directed and acted in many plays, which later enriched and revived the folk form ‘Jātrā’ in Bengal. Śrī Caitanya’s theatrical performances were inspired by the poetic works of Canḍīdās, Jayadeva, Vidyāpati and other early poets of Eastern India. Kṛṣṇadās Kavirāj writes, “Canḍīdās Vidyāpati Rāyer Nāṭakgīti / Karṇāmṛta Śrīgītagovinda / Svarūp Rāmānanda Sane Mahāprabhu Rātri Dine / Gāy Śune Parama Ānanda” (Śrī Śrī Caitanyacaritāmṛta). The Gosvamins and other contemporary followers of Caitanya were equally adept and accomplished in the field of theatre. Śrī Caitanya encouraged his followers and associates to explore the art of performance and write and perform plays and use theatre as a medium to develop and promote Vaiṣṇavism. Life and works of Nityānanda Prabhu, Rūpa Gosvāmin, Rāi Rāmananda, Kavi Karnapura and many others reiterate the claim. The unique Rāganūraga Bhakti Sādhana of Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavism is based on rasa theory.

While many scholars consider the beginning of Bengali Theatre to be at the end of the Eighteenth Century, (1795), with the performance of plays directed by the Russian violin player, Gerasim Stephanovich Lebedef (1749-1817), others believe that it had evolved out of Sanskrit Nāṭaka (one of the ten Rūpakas of Sanskrit Theatre) (Hossain 29). However, a few exceptional theatre aficionados feel that Bengal had its own indigenous theatre practice far before the use of the term Nātaka, as Līlā, Gītikā, Kīrtan and Jātrā. In Vrindāvandās’s Śrī Śrī Caitanya Bhāgavat, we find for the first time a full chapter (Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 18th Chapter) on a theatrical performance enacted and directed according to an independent Bengali style by Śrī Caitanya influenced by Sanskrit classical theatre and the folk theatre of Bengal.

In this paper, I shall explore the phenomenal, earliest evidence of Bengali theatre from the perspective of dramaturgy, space, audience, acting and actors and also try to show how Śrī Caitanya played a pivotal role in those historical acts. While his performance was influenced by Sanskrit classical theatre and folk performances of Bengal, he assimilated a few compelling ideas, new structures and creative techniques in his theatricality. The attributes of his performance gave a fresh wholesome identity to the earliest Bengali theatre.

The Scholarly Mentions of Caitanya in the History of Bengali Theatre

Though there is a dearth of information about ancient Bengali theatre, Professor Manmathamohan Basu has provided a comprehensive idea of the early period of Bengali theatre by doing a comparative projection of Indian theatre visa-vis Greek theatre. In the introduction, he claims that the Indian theatre evolved long before Greek theatre out of “Śivotsav,” a ritual celebration of the indigenous people concerning Lord Śiva (8). While the popular origin theory of Indian theatre is the Vedic origin as mentioned in the Nāṭyaśāstra, Basu gave importance to the ritualistic roots.[1] He expounds that the rituals initially involved the celebration of the Sun god, which was later replaced by Śiva. The acceptance of the Dravidian god, Śiva, by the Aryans prompted the growth and development of ancient classical theatre, which had a rudimentary presence in Vedic rituals. The elementary theatrical ritual acts of the Aryans flourished into full-fledged theatre art with the Dravidian influence. The ritual celebration concerning Śiva gave rise to a well-structured Sanskrit theatre (Basu 5)[2]. Dr Keith too claims a religious origin of the ancient dramatic creation. He mentions the influence of the Kṛṣṇa sect on the Sanskrit drama and states that the normal prose language of the drama was Śaurasena Prakrit, which was spoken by ordinary people. He also claims that Śiva too occupied an important place in connection with ancient Drama (Tarlekar 6). Indian traders took the theatre culture to different countries and influenced the various performance art practices of Western lands. Though this elite and popular Sanskrit theatre reached foreign shores, it could not greatly influence Bengali theatre (Basu 21). The people of Bengal were Dravidians with a free independent disposition, the Aryans could not encroach on Bangadeśa. In Śatapatha Brahmana, it is mentioned that the fire of Aryan yajñas started from the banks of river Saraswati and spread to the banks of river Sadānīra (Kartoa), and thus failed to enter Bangadeśa situated on the eastern flank of the Sadānīra river. The Bengali language was incomprehensible to the Aryans and so they labelled it as ‘Bird-like’ (Pakkhijātiya) and addressed the people as Piśāca or Asuras (Basu 22). However, Bengal has been liberal enough to adopt things from others and assimilate them to give an independent identity. In the case of theatre, too it can be assumed that such assimilations took place. Theatre in Bengal also originated out of “Śivotsav” and unfortunately, the development of ancient Bengali theatre was not documented and almost nothing is found as written evidence (Basu 23). Gambhira, Carak, Gajonatsav and Pālākirtans are some living testimonies of ancient Bengali performances and the description of Caitanya’s performance along with his followers in Śrī Śrī Caitanyabhāgavat is the earliest written document of Bengali theatrical performance (Basu 24). Thereafter, Basu briefly mentions Caiatanya’s contribution to theatre in an instance of a real background set-up similar to the modern-day site-specific theatre or Schechner’s environmental theatre (62-63). He does not explore the aspect in detail considering it to be one of the valid proofs of ancient Bengali theatre.

Later scholars like Dr Ajit Kumar Ghosh, Kiranmoy Raha and Darshan Choudhury unlike Prof. Manmathamohan Basu believe Bengali theatre emerged out of the amalgamation of the folk theatre ‘Jātrā’ and the English theatre (Raha 2). Though Dr Ghosh and Prof. Choudhury devote a few paragraphs to Caitanya, they do not trace the profound involvement of theatrical art in the life of 15th Century people of Bengal contributing immensely towards the growth and development of Bengali theatre. However, Prof. Darshan Choudhury states a few significant points on the style and form of Caitanya’s theatre performance, which I feel might have influenced later Bengali theatre. He states that Caitanya performed ‘Rukmini Haran’ and ‘Vrajalīlā’ in Nadia and performed ‘Vrajalīlā’ and ‘Rāvanbadh’ in Neelachal, Orissa. He enlists the following features:

a.  The performance used to happen in an open space.

b.  The play was not written or well-rehearsed, only the theme of the play was fixed.

c.  The songs were well prepared and rehearsed.

d.  Dialogues were instantly improvised to complement the theme and include dance.

e.  The male actors played all the roles.

f.  The older characters created humour and played comic roles.

g.  Make-up and costume were important.

h.  There was entry and exit in the performance.

i.  Religious feelings and devotion were the raison d’ ětre of the performance (Choudhury 27).

All the above scholars agreed that Caitanya used theatre as a tool to propagate Vaiṣṇavism amongst common people and his involvement in theatre encouraged his devotees and followers to write plays. However, they fail to mention that these theatrical acts led him to have ecstatic spiritual experiences, served the process of social integration and provided new concepts regarding theatrical performances, which were not developed by the later practitioners.

Research scholar, Hossain Alamgir did a substantial study of the Second (Middle) Volume, Eighteenth Chapter of Śrī Śrī Caitanyabhāgavat to explore the theatre of Caitanya and his influence on Bengali theatre in his essay published in the journal Loksamaskriti Gabeshana Vol.11 No. 1. I shall expand on his work exploring the sociocultural resonances of the performance and the artistic possibilities that were seeded in the acts. I shall also investigate the aspect of promotion and propagation of Vaiṣṇava theology through performance. I shall address the issue of Bhakti as a performative Rasa. Thus, we shall find out how Caitanya’s theatrical performance proved to be mutually beneficial for both, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism and Bengali theatre art.

Caitanya’s World of Theatre: The Performative Opulence

a.  An Early Beginning

In his childhood days, Caitanya was exposed to various forms of folk performances like Mangalcandīr Gīt, Jāgaraṇ Aṣṭamangalār Pālā, Manasā Mangal, Śiva Mangal etc. Vrindāvandās critically represents the extreme passion that the people had for these performances. He states that people were immersed in the acts of Mangalcandīr Gīt and Jāgaran forgetting all about the religious duties:

Dharma-karma’ loke sabhe ei mātra jāne / Mangalcandīr Gīte kare Jāgarane / Nirabadhi nṛtya-gīt-bādya-kolāhol / Nā śune Kṛṣṇer nām parama mangal (CB Volume 1, Ādikhanḍa, 2nd Chapter).

Apart from the above-mentioned Mangal performances, there were other popular performances like Ankiya Nat, Kṛṣṇa Līlā, Rām Līlā, Dampfa Nṛtya and many others, which might have influenced Caitanya as a young boy with curiosity (Alamgir 51). The popular dance, music and theatre performances of Nabadwip (his birthplace) must have impacted his young mind and prompted him to replicate such acts along with his young friends. In Caitanyabhāgavat, there are descriptions of him playing different acts from Rāmāyana, Purāṇas, and stories from Rādhākṛṣṇa’s life. Once, during his sacred thread ceremony, Caitanya played the role of Vāmana after he received the sacred thread. He took the holy stick and a sling bag and went to various households in the neighbourhood begging as Vāmana.

Prabhu karen Śrī Vāmana-rūpa-līlā / Jīber uddhār lāgi e-sakol khelā (CB Volume 1, Ādikhanḍa, 6th Chapter).

b.  Performance After Initiation to Vaiṣṇavism

It is observed that after getting initiated into Vaiṣṇava practice, Caitanya’a desires to perform increased manifold. He would often perform and act along with his associates, he played the role of Akrur and Varāha.

Hoilen Mahāprabhu jehano Akrur / Seimoto kathā kahe, bāhya gelo dūr / ‘Mathurāy calo Nanda! Rām Kṛṣṇa loiyā / Dhanurmath Rājmahotsav dekhi giyā’ (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 3rd Chapter).

The last two lines are the improvised dialogues delivered by Caitanya. As mentioned earlier, the themes of the plays performed by Caitanya were selected, and the songs were rehearsed, but the dialogues were improvised by the actors. Improvisation makes the subject original and spontaneity delight the audience because of its truth. Keith Johnstone states, “The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears” (87). Instead of delivering structured lines Caitanya would get immersed in the flow of the performance and deliver unbidden lines that came to him directly. Apart from improvising lines, he would go into a state of trance and behave like the character and not merely act. In one such instance, while listening to the Ślokas of Varāha Avatār, he went into trance and ran into the temple room, shouting ‘the Sow, the Sow’: “Varāha ākār Prabhu hoilā seikkhone” (Caitanya took the shape of the Sow). Caitanya would often go into trance while performing various roles. Many actors from modern times also report such split states of consciousness, they claim their bodies to act automatically, or of being inhabited by the character that they were playing. Johnstone writes, “I remember Roddy Maude-Roxby in a Mask that got angry during a show at Expo 67. He, or ‘it’, started throwing chairs about, so I walked on stage to stop the scene…. Afterwards, Roddy remembered the chairs, but not that I’d entered the scene and tried to stop him. If he’d been in a deeper trance he’d have forgotten everything” (152). Theyyam dancers from the Malabar coasts of Kerala perform a ritual trance dance as a tradition passed on through generations. Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa also went into trance while playing the role of Śiva during a performance in his village. A similar incident occurred in Caitnanya’s life while attending a performance of Śiva’s songs in Nabadwip. The singer was moving around the audience space singing Lord Śiva’s praise, which affected Caitanya so much that he took the role of the divine Śiva and enacted the role by gesticulating and emoting the character.

Ek lāfe oṭhe tār kāndher upor / Hunkār koriyā bale mui se śankar (CB Volume 2, Madhyamkhanḍa, 8th Chapter) [He jumps on the singer’s shoulder / And shouts out loud, ‘I am that Śankara (Śiva).]

This holy state of possession by the divine character is a coveted spiritual experience for a devotee trying to have an encounter with the Lord. Now the question is, did Caitanya consciously use his theatrical skills to achieve the most desired goal? Did theatre become a part of the Vaiṣṇava religious practice? I shall address the question later in this paper. At the same time, his act of being Śiva was a noticeable step towards catholicism, a generous move to unite the Śaivites with the Vaiṣṇavas. Contrary to popular claims, Caitanya did not have any desire to contest the non-Vaiṣṇava religious traditions, he rather had ecumenical reverence for other Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Amiya P. Sen states, “In Nabadwip itself, while dramatically re-enacting the sports of Krishna in the company of followers, he is known to have paid respect to the Sakta-Tantrik Goddess” (131). Caitanya specifically instructs Sanatan to show respect to other divinities and religious traditions (Caitanya Caritāmṛta). The historian Jadunath Sarkar mentions the following reformations in society due to the Caitanya movement: a. Decline in Śākta-Vāmācār practices; b. Decline in alcohol consumption by common people; c. Involvement of the lower classes of people in spiritual activities; d. Popularity of Sanskrit; and e. Strengthening of the relationship between Bengal and the rest of India (Sen 131-32). The image of a crusading reformer of Caitanya is further established in his act of procession theatre which was more like a pageant with a purpose.

c.  The Religiosity of Performance & the Performativity of Religion

In the year 1509, around two years before his initiation into Sannyāsa, he performed the plays ‘Vrajalīlā’ and ‘Rukmiṇīharan’. Dr Sukumar Sen claims the performance to be something similar to the unrequited love of Rādha for Kṛṣṇa as found in Śrīkṛṣṇakīrtan. It is assumed to be a mixture of the Purānic tale of Rukmiṇī and elements of Rādhākṛṣṇalīlā (Alamgir 31). Caitanya proposed a well-designed complete performance in the courtyard of Ācārya Candraśekhar. One Buddhimanta Khān was given the responsibility of the stage manager, to look after the construction of the space, costume, make-up etc. “Sadāśib Buddhimanta Khānere ḍākiyā / Bolilen prabhu ‘Kāc sajja karo giyā” (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 18th Chapter).

The Adhikāri or the producer-director of the play was Caitanya. He did the casting of the characters: Gadādhar will play the role of Rukmiṇī, Brambhānanda will play her Barāyi (grand aunt), Suprabhāt will play the role of Rukmiṇī’s Sakhī (friend), Hardās will be Kotwāl, Śrībās will be Nārada and his disciple will be played by his brother Śrīrām, Śrīmān will hold the lamp, Advaitācarya will play the role of Vidūṣak (the comedian), Caitanya himself will play the role of Lakkhī or Rādhā and Nityānanda her Barāyi. When Advaita asked about the hero of the performance, Caitanya said: “Pātra habe singhāsane Gopīnāth” (Lord Gopīnāth or Kṛṣṇa will be the hero sitting on the throne). Later, in the performance, there was a change and Gadādhar played the role of Rādhā. The performance started with dance as it is done in Sanskrit plays. Vrindǖandās meticulously describes every performer’s costume and make-up except Caitanya’s. Caitanya played multiple roles in the play as claimed by Vrindāvandās, so it would have been difficult to change costume so many times, rather he must have worn a common costume and make-up. However, in Jayānanda’s Caitanyamangal his costume is described elaborately as a Gopikā:

Hridaye Kāñculī pore,/ Śankha kankan kore / Duti āñkhi rase dubudubu / Pattabasan pore, / Nupūr caran tale / Muthe pāi Kkhīn mājhākhāni (Caitanyamaangal Madhyakhanda, edit. Mrinal Kanti Ghosh, 2nd vol, pg 43). [Wearing a piece of cloth around his breast, having bangles on his wrists, his eyes were full of emotions. Wrapping a fine cloth, with anklets around his feet, he had a thin waistline.]

In these performances, we notice two things: one is Caitanya and his actors are doing their own make-up and costume, though, in Kavi Karnapur’s description, we find one Bāsudev Ācārya as the make-up man. The second aspect is the way Caitanya enters the character is somewhat similar to a modern theatrical concept proposed by the Russian theatre practitioner and theorist, Constantin Stanislavsky. Caitanya uses the power of ‘imagination’ and tries to envisage himself to be the character himself. Almost like using the tool of ‘magic if’ proposed by Stanislavsky. Paul Mroczka states, “Stanislavsky’s ‘Magic If’ may be one of the most useful tools available to actors today. This device is used to get actors to open up their imaginations in order to discover new and interesting things about the character they are playing”. While playing different roles, like Lakkhī, Rādhā, Rukmiṇī or Kṛṣṇa and his Avatārs he keeps repeating to himself: “Muiñ Sei, Muiñ Sei” [I am That, I am That] and gradually reaches the state of being that character in its full form.

Ananta-Bramhānḍe joto nija śakti āche / Sakal prakāśe Prabhu Rukmiṇīr kāce (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 18th Chapter) [With his infinite cosmic power, Prabhu (Caitanya) reveals his character as Rukmiṇī.]

Long before, Stanislavsky could imagine the power of the ‘magic if’, Caitanya had shown the practical use of ‘magic if’ in his performances. However, the question that haunts me is whether Caitanya adopted the Mahāvākya ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ [That you are] to fulfill the ‘religio-performative’ goal or was it a mere process that accidentally led him to a spiritual experience.

Caitanya continuously changed his characters while performing in the space itself as per the flow of energy and situation of the play. It is a very intriguing aspect of his style combining improvisation with trance effects and ritualistic possession. While playing the role of Lakkhī he transforms into Rukmiṇī and then soon becomes Ādyāśakti and again transforms into Mahālakkhī.

Tabe Ācāryer Ghare Koilo Kṛṣṇalīlā / Rukmiṇīr Svarūpā Prabhu āpone hoilā / Kabhu Dūrgā Lakkhī hoy kabhu cicchakti / Khate bosi bhaktagaṇe dilā prembhakti” (Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Ādikhanḍa, 17th Chapter). [At Ācārya’s place he performed Kṛṣṇalīlā. He played the role of Rukmiṇī, Sometime Dūrgā, Lakkhī, and at times Citśakti (Ādyāśakti). Sitting on the cot he offered Premabhakti (love & devotion) to the devotees.]

The multiplicity of roles played by Caitanya as a single actor not only proves his acumen in acting but also reveals the fundamental spiritual truth of being: the real and the temporal existing in the same body, the absolute power of Ādyāśakti or Citśakti residing in all the characters played by him, Rukmiṇī, Lakkhī, Jānaki, Radha etc. Caitanya interestingly targets the religious goal of experiencing the ‘Absolute’ through his theatrical tools.

d.  The Form and Style of Caitanya: New Vistas of Performance

There is a strong debate on the form and style of Caitanya’s performance. While Jātrā is a common feature of his performance, scholars propose three different possibilities from the statement of Caitanya: ‘Āji Nṛtya karibāñ ANKAer bidhāne’ [We shall perform according to the rules of ‘anka’]: a. ‘Anka’ as the Assamese Ankīyā Nat; b. ‘Anka’ being one of the ten Rūpakas from Nāṭyaśāstra and c. ‘Anka’ is used as a term for scene division. While Dr Sukumar Sen claims it to be as per the style of Assamese Ankīyā Nat and the form of Sanskrit play, Bhāna, Hossain asserts the claim to be flawed. Hossain points out the difference in a particular word used by Sen in Caitanya’s statement; Sen uses the word ‘Bandhane’, which means bound by rules, whereas Satyendranath Basu uses the word ‘Bidhane’ as per rules. Moreover, the description provided by Virindāvandās gives emphasis on the emotional [Bhakti Bhāva] content of the performance than the technical aspect of the play. So, Hossain is unable to decipher the style and form and suggests an influence of the Sanskrit play on Caitanya’s performance and an amalgamation of various folk forms of performances with Jātrā. Śankardeva’s Ankīyā Nat is also considered to be a form of Jātrā. The above arguments prompt us to assume that Caitanya’s performance cannot be pocketed in a single form or style, it was extremely dynamic and experimental. The Bengali theatre which had such a dynamic starting point like Caitanya’s performance rarely took the legacy forward and got potentially diluted by the influence of European theatre. However, one can notice the richness that Caitanya provided through his extraordinary form of performance that evolved out of traditional Jātrā.

Caitanya’s performance can be termed Performance Art in modern-day parlance. Performance Art is “a time-based art form that typically features a live presentation to an audience or to onlookers (as on a street) and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance, and painting. It is generally an event rather than an artefact, by nature ephemeral, though it is often recorded on video and by means of still photography” (Britannica). Performance art shifts the focus from the object to the event or act, and the artist is viewed as the creator of the act, the performance relates art with everyday life. It is daring, subversive and experimental. The above-mentioned traits are evidentially present in Caitanya’s performance. A few important features of Performance art as found in Caitanya’s performance are as the following:

a.  It focuses on live events. The act happens and affects a live audience.[3] As mentioned earlier, Caitanya is found to change his character continuously as per the situation and the situation is created by his overpowering emotions. While Gadādhar was expected to play the role of Rukmiṇī, it was Caitanya who went into Rukmiṇī’s idee fixe and starts to play her role. In another instance of the same performance, when Caitanya sits with the idol of ‘Gopīnāth’ on his lap he transforms into the character of Mahālakkhī and requests the audience to chant her name: ‘Mor stab paṙo’. The audience starts chanting and weeping being affected by the performance. Caitanya as a performer also experiences intense emotional reverberations. He danced the ‘Tānḍava’ nṛtya (dance) and went through the experiences of the Bhāvas as he performed the mudrās. “Kampa-sveda-pulaka aśrur anta nāi / Mūřtimotī bhakti hoilā Caitanyagosāin(CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 18th Chapter). [He quivers, sweats and thrills over and over again with constant rolling of tears, he becomes the embodiment of Bhakti]. The other performers too go into a state of trance while performing: “Henoi somoye Nityānanda Haladhar / Poṙilā muřchita hoi pṛthibī upor (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 18th Chapter). [Soon then Nityānanda Haladhar fainted and fell on the ground (during the performance).] The unpredictable, spontaneous live acts were the most significant acts of Caitanya’s performance. The live openness of the performance allowed the spiritual experience to dawn on both the performers and the audience.

b.  Performance art has a close relationship with empowering women.[4] Caitanya preferred to play the role of women characters and explore more from the women’s point of view. For example, Rādhā’s longing for Kṛṣṇa, Rukmiṇī’s pain and the power of Ādyāśakti or Citśakti. According to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology, Rādhā Bhāva is the most coveted emotional state of a devotee.

“Rādhikā hoyen Kṛṣṇer praṇoy bikār / Svarūpśakti hlādinī nām jāhār” (Caitanya Caritāmrita, Ādilīlā, 4th Chapter). [Rādhikā is Kṛṣṇa’s beloved, the manifested power of the Lord named Hlādinī.]

c.  Performance art breaks down the barriers of art forms.[5] Caitanya’s performance has the fluidity of exploring many forms of art. It is seen that the protagonist of the performance is the idol of ‘Gopīnāth’ which is installed at the centre on a raised decorated platform. Caitanya interacts with the installation time again during his performance. He also includes the dance of the dolls in his performance:

Prabhu kahe āmi nartak tumi sūtradhār / Joiche nācāibe toiche nācon āmār (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 7th Chapter) [Prabhu says I am the dancer and you are the puppeteer, I would dance as you would make me do.]

Caitanya introduces the act of playing with a stick known as ‘Lāṭhi Khelā’ in his performance:

Advaita kahe satya kohi nā korio kop / Laguṙ firāite pāro tobe jāni gop (Caitanya Caritāmṛta, Madhyakhanḍa, 15th Chapter). [Advaita remarks, do not get angry, I shall accept you as a ‘gop’ (belonging to the ‘gope’ clan) only if you can play with the stick]

Dance, art installation, puppet movements, drama, acrobatics and other art forms seamlessly entered Caitanya’s performance. Caitanya endeavoured into various possible artistic forms to reach the height of the Rasa experience. Rasa experience is equated with the experience of the Absolute, similar to Brahmasvāda. As it is mentioned in Taitteria Upaniśad: “Raso Vai Sah” (Pandey 31). [Rasa is That]

d.  It tests human endurance and it is site specific.[6] Caitanya challenges his body as a performer and is found taking huge risks while performing. In one such performance, he faints and falls into the water. The performance was similar to Environmental Theatre, which enhances “both the relationship between performers and audience and the performance’s engagement with its space and site of production” (Allain & Harvie 179). Such performances exploit the novelty of the site and provide multiple, simultaneous focal points, they encourage the audience to move around. In Śāntipur, Caitanya played the role of Śrīrādhikā in the play ‘Dānlīlā’. The play happened on the banks of the river Bhāgiratī, his followers were really tending to real cows. The ‘Kadamba’ tree on the banks was also used in the performance. The performers played in the water of the river as described in the play and there were real moments of stealing the milk and curd and cheese. The audiences had no permanent seats but were allowed to move to places to see the performance. The performers went into trance and fainted and fell into the water (Basu 62-63). The contemporary use of the site for performance by renowned theatre practitioners like Richard Schechner, Jerzy Grotowski and others had already been experimented with by a Bengali saint of the 16th Century.

e.  It is often a form of political protest.[7] The Vaiṣṇavas of Bengal were ill-treated by the Muslim rulers. They forced the Hindus to convert. This is elaborately described in the Mangalkāvyas (Alamgir 52). In Caitanyabhḡavat, Vrindāvandās recounts the tyranny of the Kāzi (Cānd Kāzi). There are anecdotes of torture inflicted on Haridās for being a Muslim he converted to a Vaiṣṇava. After returning from Gaya Caitanya instructed the Vaiṣṇavas to do Nāmsankirtan at night. One such day the Kāzi entered a household and disrupted the Sankirtan and broke the accompanying drum (Khol / Mṛdanga).

Jāhāre pāyilo kāzi, mārilo tāhāre / Bhāngilo mṛdanga, anācār koilo dvāre” (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 23rd Chapter). [The Kāzi hit whomsoever he got, he broke the Mṛdanga and was rougish.]

This infuriated Caitanya and he decided to do a Śobhājātrā (a procession play) to teach a lesson to the Kāzi. It was a strong political act designed; a. To protest against Muslim tyranny and b. To exhibit the power and strength of the Vaiṣṇavas in Nabadwip. Caitanya was very successful in his endeavour with the huge participation of the common people with torches in their hands.

Hoilo Deutimoy Nabadwippur / Strī bāl-bṛddharo ranga bāṙilo pracur” (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 23rd Chapter). [The whole of Nabadwip was lit by torches, ladies, children and old joined in large numbers.]

The entire performance was conceived and designed by Caitanya. The community was divided into different groups and had leaders like Advaita Ācārya, who was in the front, followed by Haridās’s group, and then Śrībās had his group so on and so forth, Nityānanda was with Caitanya. The entire town of Nabadwip was decorated in a specific way to host the event. Banana trunks, grass leaves, pots and lamps were used to decorate each of the houses.

Kāndir sahit kalā sakol duare / pūrṇa-ghat śobhe nārikel āmrasāre / Ghrṭer pradīp jvale param-sundar / Dadhi dūrbā dhānya dibya-bāṭār upar” (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 23rd Chapter). [In front of the doors the banana trunks were set, and the pots were adorned with coconuts and mango leaves, the lamps were lit beautifully, on curd-grass leaves, rice grains and other divine dust.]

Caitanya himself was dressed up for the performance with tilak (mark on the forehead), and a long mālā (garland) around his neck. Torches were aglow. The text chanted in the kīrtan was:

Hari Harāye Namah Kṛṣṇa Yādavāy Namah / Gopāl Govinda Rām Śrī Madhusudan” (CB Volume 2, Madhyakhanḍa, 23rd Chapter).

The procession performed all along the street with the audience peering out of their houses, from their balconies and rooftops, on the street. The Jātrā continued along the banks of river Bhāgirathī, from Mādhāi’s Ghāt, Bārkona, Nagariya to Simulia. From Simulia the performers reached Kāzi’s place and started to break his things. The Kāzi and his people fled from the house. Then the performers returned to their houses. From then onwards the Vaiṣṇavas began to trust the power of ‘Śobhājātrā Nātya’, the Muslims were scared and the rulers agreed to suspend their hostilities towards the Vaiṣṇavas. Sankirtan became a popular practice in Nabadwip. This is the first time in the history of Bengal when a performance was used as a political protest. Caitanya designed a performance that could protect and assist the promotion of Vaiṣṇavism. Later, he encourages his followers and associates to write plays and perform, but they wrote and performed plays more following the classical format and Sanskrit drama and not like the improvised, experimental performances that Caitanya performed. The theory of Rasa also became an integral part of later Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava theology.

Bhakti as Rasa: Theatrical Elements Contributing to Vaiṣṇava Theology

Caitanya considers a Vaiṣṇava to be superior, who has got “unflinching devotion to Sri Krishna and love for the exalted Parama Bhagavata devotees,” which is termed as Bhakti (Yati 286). Caitanya’s follower, Rūpa Gosvāmin, in his seminal book Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu, claims that Bhakti is the absolute Rasa (Haberman 31). Abhinavagupta mentions Bhakti in his discussion of Śānta Rasa as an emotion conducive to Rasa (Masson and Patwardhan 139). Vopadeva, a Marathi scholar, mentions Bhakti as a Rasa, for the first time, in his book Muktāphala (Vopadeva 5). Himadri wrote a commentary on Muktāphala, where he applied various elements of Bharata’s Rasa theory to vaiṣṇava bhakti (Vopadeva 187). Later, Rūpa provided a detailed and sophisticated elaboration of Bhakti Rasa in his book. He reinterpreted Bharata’s rasa theory to delineate the practice of popular devotion (Bhakti) in which role-playing (Anukṛti) / acting (Abhinaya) / imitation (Anukaraṇa) became the primary means of achieving salvation (Mokṣa).

Rūpa states that “that emotion called love (Rati) is the play of the great power (Mahāśakti, which is the Hlādinīśakti, the power of infinite bliss) and participates in the inconceivable essential nature of God (Acintyasvarūpa)” (BRS 2.5.74). The aim of a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava is to participate (produce Bhakti) in the aspect of God defined as love or infinite bliss (Haberman 32). Since emotion plays an important role in the participation in the aspects of Kṛṣṇa’s life, Rūpa finds rasa to be useful in explaining the process of Bhakti. The Upaniṣads had already accepted rasa to be Brahman.58 Rūpa suggests love (Rati) for Kṛṣṇa to be the dominant emotion (Sthāyibhāva) for his bhakti rasa. He accepts Bharata’s eight Rasas but considers them to be various types of secondary Rasas, and at a deeper level, claims Śṛṇgāra Rasa (amorous sentiment) to be the primary rasa. Rūpa’s claim is similar to Bhoja, who considers Śṛṇgāra to be the Ultimate Rasa. Therefore, although Rūpa discusses eight different Rasas, all of these Rasas resolve ultimately into one Śṛṇgāra Rasa: Kṛṣṇa Prema, or Love (Bhakti), which is “Rasa par excellence” (Haberman 33).

Rūpa, after outlining the aesthetic component of bhakti rasa, explains the approach of the devotee, by employing NŚ techniques. The cosmic play of Kṛṣṇa is set up against a backdrop (Vibhāvas) of complex emotions and interactions, which evoke a complete experience of Bhakti Rasa and thus the devotees use Sāttvikabhāvas (involuntary manifestations) and Vyabhicāribhāva (emotions) to cultivate bhakti. A devotee uses the art of abhinaya and anukaraṇa to develop the desired rasa. The practice is referred to as Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana (Haberman 71). Thus, Rūpa presents a scheme of religious life totally dependent upon dramatic theory. He employs Nāṭyaśāstra to define and explain bhakti.


Tridandi Sri Bhakti Prajnan Yati writes, “Sri Chaitanya introduced the religious play into the religious life of the Vaishnava society” (144). While his performance undoubtedly contributed immensely to the promotion of Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavism, it also created a huge possibility for the growth and development of Bengali theatre. Unfortunately, the post-Caitanya Bengali theatre did not make the best use of those forms and styles developed or employed by Caitanya. Rather, Bengali theatre moved away from the indigenous theatre and got allured by the European proscenium-centred performances. Even to date, the colonial hangover continues with a few random experimental works that too as a copies of the Western Avant-Garde performances. I feel a revisit to Caitanya’s performance can revamp the identity of Neo-Bengali theatre as an indigenous contemporary performance idiom.


BRS: Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu

CC: Śrī Śrī Caitanya Caritamṛta

CB: Śrī Śrī Caitanyabhāgavat

NŚ: Nāṭyaśāstra


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The Collector. What is Performance Art and Why Does It Matter?

[1] “God Brahman created the Nāṭyaveda for the benefit of all Varnas, (Sārvavarṇika) as the Śūdras could not be instructed in the Veda. The four constituents of this Veda were adopted from four earlier Vedas, namely, the Recitation from the Ṛgveda, the Song from the Sāmaveda, the Abhinayas (histrionics) from the Yajurveda and the Rasas (sentiments) from the Atharvaveda” (Tarlekar 2).

[2] The first two plays of Classical Indian theatre are “Samudramanthan” and “Tripardaha,” both these plays are based on stories taken from Śivalīla (19). The “Jarjara”, which is a bamboo staff planted in the performing space (mentioned in Nāṭyaśāstra), is assumed to be taken from the ritual of Śivotsav, especially the Bengali folk festival ‘Carak’. The May-pole event of England is considered to be a direct derivative of ‘Carak’. The ritual of planting a staff in the performing space was also found during the time of Shakespeare (Basu 13).

[3] “Performance art is undoubtedly a broad-ranging and diverse style of art that involves some kind of acted-out event. Some performance art is a live experience that can only happen in front of an active audience, such as Marina Abramovic’s hugely controversial Rhythm 0, 1974, in which she laid out a series of objects and asked audience members to inflict harm on her body. Other artists record their performances, suspending them forever in time, such as Paul McCarthy’s Painter, 1995, in which the artist acts out the exaggerated role of an expressionist painter in a mock studio while wearing prosthetic body parts. Both artists, in different ways, challenge us to think about the body’s relationship to the work of art” (The Collector).

[4] During the 1960s Performance art was a particularly popular art form amongst Feminist artists, including Carolee SchneemannYoko Ono, Hannah Wilke, Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh. For many Feminist artists, performance art was a chance to reclaim their bodies from centuries of male objectification and to express their rage and frustration at systems of oppression. For example, in Gestures, 1974, Wilke pushes, pulls and stretches the skin on her face, reclaiming her skin as her own playground (The Collector).

[5] Performance art is one of the more inclusive art forms, inviting multi-disciplinary ways of making art, and encouraging artists from different disciplines to collaborate. Acts of cross-pollination and sharing of ideas have opened up a whole new wealth of creative possibilities, as seen in Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s lavish and all-encompassing events that merge the spectacle of theatre and costume with sculpture and dance. Some artists also invite the audience to play an active role in the performance, such as Dan Graham’s Performer, Audience, Mirror, 1975, in which he recorded himself performing in front of a mirror while being watched by a captive crowd (The Collector).

[6] One of the most fascinating, yet disturbing aspects of performance art is when artists push their bodies into extreme life-or-death situations, testing the strength of human endurance. Joseph Beuys played with danger in his legendary 1974 performances I Like America and America Likes Me, by closing himself in a gallery for three days with a wild coyote. Here the coyote became a symbol for the wild, pre-colonial terrain of America, which Beuys argued is still an untamable force of nature. Beuys protected himself against the coyote by wrapping his body in a felt blanket and holding a hooked cane (The Collector).

[7] Many artists have blurred the boundaries between performance art and political protest, staging controversial events that stir up uncomfortable truths about the climate in which they are living. One of the most high-profile, politicized acts of performance art was Pussy Riot‘s Punk Prayer, 2012. Three members of the group performed a “Punk Prayer” in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, criticizing the oppressive nature of Russian authorities and their dubious links with the Catholic church while wearing their trademark brightly coloured clothes and balaclavas. Although Russian authorities arrested and imprisoned the artists, their influence on artist-activists has been profound, demonstrating how performance art can be a powerful tool of self-expression during the most challenging of times (The Collector).

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