The evolution of theatre in Bengal and modern Bangladesh, which follows more or less the South Asian tradition with a later European mix, may be narrated in terms of three distinct streams: (i) Sanskrit theatre and derivatives, (ii) indigenous theatre and (iii) European theatre. In the South Asian tradition dramatic conflict is not an indispensable structural element.
Sanskrit Theatre and Derivatives
Ancient period: With the Gupta annexation of the greater portion of Bengal by the 4th century AD, the Aryan culture of the upper Gangetic plain penetrated into the region. The flourishing trade of Bengal led to the rise of urban centres patronising art and culture. In such urban centres, performances of classical Sanskrit theatre would naturally be a part of cultural life, at least among the urbane classes of the society. A few literary evidences strongly support this assumption. The most important of these is a Sanskrit play titled Lokananda by Chandragomi (6th c.), a reputed Buddhist grammarian from Bengal. Lokananda is structured in four acts with a prologue. The play must have been popular, for I-Tsing states, ‘people all sing and dance to it throughout the five countries of India’.
The intimate political connection of Bengal (or parts of it) with the Aryan culture continued till the mid-8th century, during which period Harsavardhan of Northern India, Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa, Yashovarman of Kanyakubja and Lalitaditya of Kashmir exerted great influence. Sanskrit theatre got a great patron in Harsavardhan, who was himself a renowned Sanskrit playwright (with plays such as Nagananda to his credit). Bhavabhuti, the author of Malatimadhava, was the court-poet of Yasovarman. However, the most interesting account of a performance is recorded by the Kashmiri poet Kalhan in his Rajatarangini. According to him, Jayapida, the grandson of Lalitaditya, witnessed a performance given by a highly skilled dancer named Kamala in the temple of Kartikeya in the city of Pundravardhana. The performance was given in accordance with Bharat’s Natyashastra (a Sanskrit treatise on theatre ascribed to Bharat).
Nothing much is known about Sanskrit theatre during the Pala Rule in Bengal (mid-8th to mid-12th c.). The sole evidence is the Tibetan historian Taranath’s comments about ‘a grand dramatic performance that formed part of seasonal festival in the city of Vikramapura, which clearly indicates the existence of a flourishing tradition of theatre.
The Senas, with their strong Brahmanical bias and distinct South Indian background, extended widespread patronage to performances derived from Sanskrit tradition. King Vijayasena (c. 1096-1159) and Bhavadev Bhatta (minister of King Hari Varman and a noted scholar) both claim to have provided for a great number of deva-dasis in the temples established by them. Highly skilled in song, dance and music in the classical tradition as formulated in the Natyashastra, the deva-dasis gave public performances in the temples and also private performances at royal courts.
There also exist a substantial number of references from various religious tracts of the period in which nata (actor) has been cited as a separate class. Halayudh Mishra’s Sekhshubhodaya, a historical kavya or poem written in Sanskrit, confirms the existence of nata (actors) and nartaki (danseuse) in the Sena court. Vidyapati’s Purus Pariksa also refers to a performance by an actor named Gandharva, in the court of King laksmanasena. Prevalence of classical Sanskrit theatre in the Sena court can also be inferred from Govardhan acharya’s poetic work titled Aryasaptashati. Shlokas 174 and 538 of Aryasaptashati clearly refer to acting, curtain, and actress, which obviously imply the existence of Sanskrit theatre in the court of the Sena rulers.
Ragatarangini, a critical work on music composed in 1160 by Lochan Pandit, refers to an earlier text titled Tambaru-nataka. It is possible that Tambaru-nataka was a critical work on dramaturgy. However, the most important material for the study of theatre during this period is a Sanskrit performance-text titled Gita-govindam (c. 1200 AD) by Jaydev, the court-poet of Laksmanasena. In the Gita-govindam, Jaydev blended the existing popular tale of Radha and Krishna with one of the Uparupakas (minor type of plays) of the classical Sanskrit tradition and set a new trend, which was to be echoed in the centuries that followed. If oral traditions have any historical validity, then Jaydev performed the Gita-govindam as a singer with his wife Padmavati as a dancer.
The Gita-govindam is composed in twelve parts and features three characters: Krishna, Radha, and Sakhi. The characters may be performed by three dancers (as in the case of Manipuri Rasa Nrtya still performed in Bangladesh) or by a single dancer (as was possibly the case with Jaydev and Padmavati). The dancers are required to sing their lines simultaneously as they dance with mimetic gestures (angika abhinaya). In between the songs, the sutradhar (narrator) is required to render narration in verse, in which he describes part of the action, comments on the same and sometimes also introduces the characters and describes their mental states.
The structure of performance follows the general pattern of Sanskrit theatre. Clearly, the text bears remarkable similarity with sangit-natakas (verse-plays) of the Nepalese court. The Gita-govindam and the Aryasaptashati bear evidence that in the court of Laksmanasena, the love theme of Radha and Krishna, performed by courtesans, was indeed a regular feature. Jaydev’s text stood out as the model to be emulated by the later poets in vernacular during the course of the following centuries.
Medieval period Sanskrit theatre received a serious setback towards the beginning of the13th century, when the Turkish invasion wrested north-western Bengal from the Senas. However, Sagaranandi composed a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, titled Natakalaksanaratnakosa in the same century. The work cites quite a few play-texts which were also composed. Nothing more can be deduced with certainty, but the very existence of a critical work on drama presupposes the continuance of the tradition of Sanskrit theatre in Bengal, possibly under the patronage of Hindu feudal lords and in Hindu kingdoms.
From the 16th century onwards, literary evidence appears in greater number. Towards the end of the same century, King Laksmana Manikya of Bhulua composed two plays, Vikhyata-vijaya and Kuvalayashva-charita, his son, Amara Manikya composed one (Vaikuntha-vijaya) and a court poet, Kavitarkik, composed another, Kautuka-ratnakara. This evidence proves unequivocally the existence of Sanskrit court theatre in Bengal.
It continued in the 18th century because of Krishnachandra Roy, tributary king of Nabadwip. Chandi (1760), the unfinished play of his court poet Bharatachandra, which is based on the tale of Mahisasura Vadha (the slaying of the buffalo shaped asura), displays remarkable influence of Sanskrit dramaturgy, although the play is not composed entirely in Sanskrit. While the play was never performed, the court of Krishnanagara is known to have produced another play of similar characteristics named Chitra-yajna by Vidyanath Vachaspati, in 1777-78.
Away from the court, Rupa Goswami, one of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s close associates based at Vrindavan, composed three Sanskrit plays, Bidagdha Madhava (1524), Lalita Madhava (1529), and Dankeli-kaumudi (1549), as well as a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, Nataka Chandrika. At least three more plays were written outside Vrindavan: Jagannathavallabha by Ramananda Ray, Chaitanyachandrodaya by Kavikarnapur, and Sangit Madhava by Govinda das. The plays by Rupa Goswami and Ramananda Ray’s are all based on tales of Krishna. Kavi Karnapur’s play is based on the life of Chaitanya. Of these plays, only Jagannathavallabha is known to have been performed. All save Govinda das’s play were translated into Bangla in the 17th century. It is not known if any of these translations were performed.
Translations of Sanskrit play-texts in Bengal continued into the 19th century. A few of these are Krishna Mishra’s Prabodhachandrodaya, Kalidasa’s Abhijnana-shakuntala (1848) and Ratnavali (1849). Scholars in Bengal composed quite a few Sanskrit texts in the modern period as well. A few examples of these are Amara-mangala by Panchanan Tarkaratna (published c. 1913), Nala-damayantiya and Syamantakoddhar by Kalipada Tarkacharya, etc.
The tradition of Sanskrit theatre significantly influenced the initial phase of Bangla plays. Jogendranath Gupta’s Kirtibilas, credited as the first original Bangla play and the first tragedy, makes use of the Nandi, the Sutradhara and Nati. The first Bangla play to be performed on stage, Ramnarayan Tarkaratna’s Kulinkulasarvasva (composed in 1854, performed in 1857), also borrows from the Sanskrit tradition in its use of the Nandi, the Sutradhara and the Nati.
With rising interest in social affairs and the effects of western education, the conventions of Sanskrit theatre were seen to be less effective in portraying the social ethos of the period than other forms of drama. Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873), a well known literary personality of the period, encouraged urban theatre independent of Sanskrit influence by introducing techniques of European dramaturgy. From the mid-19th century onwards, Sanskrit theatre and its derivatives were no longer emphasized in the theatre of Bengal.
The term ‘indigenous theatre’ (generally known as ‘folk’ theatre) encompasses all forms of theatre which originated in the region of Bengal. Unlike the Sanskrit theatre, the indigenous theatre was always in direct contact with the grassroots people and was often created and supported by them. However, it was not closed to the refined techniques of the Sanskrit theatre. In the indigenous theatre, the performers include actors, dancers, singers, musicians, and puppeteers (both male and female). Their performance is not restricted to dialogue in prose but is comprehensive and wide-ranging. It includes any one or more of the following elements: (i) dance, (ii) instrumental music and (iii) speech rendered in prose, verse or lyric, either in the form of narration or that of dialogue. The indigenous theatre of Bangla has developed in distinct forms, which can be loosely categorised into (i) the Narrative, (ii) the Song-and-Dance, (iii) the Processional, and (iv) the Supra-personae.
In the narrative forms of theatre, the lead-narrator (gayen) describes an event, portrays various characters related to the event and enacts the action, all in the third person. While engaged as described above, s/he partly speaks his/her lines in prose, partly recites in verse, and partly sings his/her story. S/he is assisted by the choral singers-cum-musicians (dohars), who employ musical instruments (Mridanga and Mandira) and sing choral passages. The gayen carries a chamar (whisk) in religious performances and occasionally dances while singing. Usually, the performer makes effective use of vocal inflections and physical gestures in his/her portrayal of the characters. Sometimes s/he also readjusts his/her basic costume, and uses a few props to make the portrayal more effective.
The earliest evidence of narrative theatre in Bengal can be traced to the charyapada or charyagiti, a form of songs popular in Bengal from the 9th to the 12th century AD. These songs were composed by Tantric Buddhist mendicants to expound their religious doctrine. They were presented to the lay populace with the help of dance, in a manner similar to the charya dance still seen in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
Ethnological studies indicate a long tradition of narrative theatre in the Natha cult. These performances were based on oral compositions of two distinct groups: (i) those dealing with the origin of the Natha siddhas and the subsequent rescue of Minanatha by his disciple Goraksanatha from the enticement of worldly pleasure and (ii) those dealing with the exploits of Queen Maynamati and her son King Govindachandra (or Gopichandra), the disciple of Hadipa. Narrative performances based on the Maynamati-Gopichandra legend were possibly created sometime immediately after the 11th century and gained wide currency all over northern India. On the other hand, the performances based on the Goraksanatha-Minanatha legend are more difficult to date. On the assumption that the Natha cult evolved sometime in the 9th century, it is possible to place the earliest performances of the Goraksanatha-Minanatha legend in the 10th century.
None of the extant literary and liturgical texts of the Dharma cult can be dated beyond the 17th century. However, it is very much possible that in the 12th century, when the cult was definitely in existence, there did exist a body of oral narratives on which the later texts were built. Extant texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that celebrations of the ancient period included narrative performances of oral compositions.
A large number of orally composed folk tales still prevailing at the popular level, such as Madhumalar Kechchha, Sakhisona, Malanchakanyar Kechchha, Shit-Basanta, Kanchanamala and Malatikusumamala, indicate that their original nuclei were created in the 12th century or even earlier. All the tales are secular in content, and some of them are still performed in Bangladesh. It has been only since the first half of the 20th century that they have been scribed and published in editions such as Thakurmar Jhuli. It is reasonable to believe that, for a predominantly non-literate audience, stories would be told rather than read, and the most expedient way to commit a story to memory is to have it composed in verse. Furthermore, terra-cotta plaques depicting secular (Sanskrit Panchatantra) stories have also been discovered in the temple of Somapura Monastery. Therefore, it can be reasonably argued that the secular tales of the ancient period were orally composed in rhymed metrical verse and rendered as narrative performance.
Various political and social factors, including state-patronised Brahmanical hegemony in the 12th century and the advent of the Muslims in the early13th century, caused a qualitative change in the culture of Bengal. Consequently, there was a gradual acculturation, decay and transformation in Buddhist, Dharma and Natha cult performances. On the other hand, an entirely new set of narrative performances appeared in the indigenous theatre of Bengal. Distinguishing between their subject matter, these can be divided into three categories: (1) performances glorifying the Aryan pantheon and heroes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, (2) performances glorifying the indigenous pantheon as recounted in the Mangalkavya and (3) performances glorifying Muslim legendary heroes. Besides, the tradition of secular narratives continued as before, invigorated by interaction with the above. In this context, it is important to remember that early Bangla literature was dependent on lyric. Therefore, literary compositions of the period under study should be held as performance-texts, not merely pages of reading material valid only for literary analysis.
Largely based on the Bhagavata, Srikrishnavijay was composed in 1473-80. Therefore, it is very much possible that narrative performance based on oral compositions of Krishna lila existed from earlier times, probably from the beginning of the 13th century. The translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana in the first half of the 15th century also presupposes the existence in the 13th and 14th centuries of narrative performances drawing from oral texts based on the exploits of Lord Ramachandra.
Lord Caitanya and Vaisnava Contributions
Initiated in the early 16th century by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533), Gaudiya Vaisnavism made a significant and popular contribution to the theatre of Bengal by giving rise to the narrative form known as Lila Kirtan, which had its formal inception at the famous festival of Kheur in 1576 or slightly after. Narottama Das, who is credited with having given structure to Lila Kirtan, arrived at its structure by stringing together brief Vaisnavite devotional songs known as Padavalis, to produce a coherent narrative based on a particular lila of Radha and Krishna. He synthesised the indigenous musical tradition of Bengal with the north Indian classical tradition and arrived at its unique blend.
From the 16th century onwards, there appear a sizeable number of Mangalakavyas on Manasa, the most important of which was Narayan Dev’s Padmapurana (first half of 16th c.) and Ketakadas Ksemananda’s Manasamangala (mid-17th c.). Besides existing written texts, quite a few popular versions based on oral compositions also came up during this period. Vijay Gupta’s Padmapurana is still performed in south-western Bangladesh as Rayani Gan, while an adaptation of Narayan Dev’s text is performed in north Bengal as Padmapurana Gan.
The 16th century is also well known as the era of Mangalakavyas on Chandi, for it was in this period that these gained widest currency. The most renowned Mangalakavya on the goddess is the one composed by Kavikankana Mukundaran Chakravarti (c. 1555-56). The signature-piece (bhanita) indicates that the poet himself performed Chandimangala and parts of it were rendered in lyric. On a few occasions his signature pieces suggest that the poet was in the company of skilled musicians (kalanta, lit. well versed in classical music) and actors (natuya). Another section indicates that the performance was composed of git (song), badya (music), natya (acting) and dance, executed by actors and skilled musicians. This textual evidence proves that Chandimangala was given in the narrative form in the 16th century.
References in Chaitanya Bhagavata (Part I, Chapters 2 & 13; 1535-36) indicate the existence of Mangal Chandir Git (narrative performance based on eulogies of Mangal Chandi), in the first half of the 16th century. The same text also testifies that narrative performances of Shiver Git, based on oral compositions in praise of Shiva, existed in the first half of the 16th century and possibly earlier. A lone performer, who danced and played the damaru (drum) as he sang, would perform in a courtyard.
The appearance of Yusuf-zulekha (c. 1390-1410) marked the entry of an entirely new element, the Perso-Arabic influence, in the history of performance in Bengal. Rasulbijay (1474), which recounts the life of the Prophet, emphasised the keen interest of the Muslims in exerting their distinct identity by attempting to create a tradition parallel to the Hindu Puranas. Both texts were composed under court patronage of the Muslim rulers and point to the beginning of narrative performances based on Islamic root-paradigms. By the 16th century, a large number of texts dealing with Islamic cosmology and legends began to appear in Bengal, and an associated increase in Muslim influenced architecture was also seen throughout the region. While beautiful in their own right, the dramatic, musical, literary and architectural Muslim expressions could not compare, let alone dwarf, the super-excellence of Bengal’s own Hindu legacy.
Song-and-dance forms: In traditional Bengali theater, a song-and-dance performance (nata-gita) is characterised by dances rendered by performers enacting characters while singing their lines or dancing silently to songs sung by a group of choral singers and musicians.
The Charyagiti clearly reveal that song-and-dance performances were very well known among the Tantric Buddhists of the Pala society. Examples can be seen in the song composed by Kahnapa (text no 10), which contains the words ‘dancing’ and ‘the profession of acting’ as well as in the concluding two lines of another song composed by Vinapa (text no 17) which contains the words ‘dancing’, ‘singing’ and ‘Buddhist drama’. Sketches of Siddhacharyas in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have shown Vinapa and Sarahapa with musical instruments, while Minapa, Dombipa and Jalandharipa are shown in dancing postures.
These and other references to performances made in Tantric esoteric texts such as Guhyasamajatantra suggest that highly esoteric song-and-dance type of performances aiming at spiritual liberation were held in secluded spots at night or in temples. These song-and-dance performances were usually given by a male ascetic with a female partner and were accompanied by song (dohas and charyas sung by fellow ascetics) and dance.
The Tantric Buddhist tradition of song-and-dance performances continued among the followers of the Natha cult in performances such as Yogir Gan and Yugi Parva, still seen in Bangladesh today. A glimpse of ancient song-and-dance performances of the cult can be seen in Goraksanath’s performance in the presence of Minanatha as recounted in three narrative texts composed in the 16th century: Goraksavijay by Sheikh Faizullah, Gorkha-vijay by Bhimsen Ray and Minachetan by Shyamadas Sen, and a play-text, Goraksa-vijay, by Vidyapati c. 1403. Gopichandra Nataka (17th c.), another play-text from the Nepalese royal court, further substantiates the contention made above.
Krttivas, in his preface to the Ramayana (1415-1433), records the popularity of song-and-dance performance in the royal court of the Muslim rulers of Gauda. The so-called account of Ma Huan recorded in Ying Yai Sheng Lan (1408-1411) also confirms song-and-dance performance in the Muslim royal court. According to the Chinese text, song-and-dance type of performance were given by ‘good singers and dancers’ in gorgeous costume.
Krishna Lila Compositions
The composition of Sri Krishna Kirtan by c. 1400 indicates that, by the 13th century, there existed among the people a type of song-and-dance performance based on oral compositions featuring three characters: Radha, Krishna, and Badai. During performance, the characters danced as they sang their lines. Like the Gita-govindam, these performances could be given by a single performer who would enact all three characters or by three performers who would enact the characters separately. They were performed in rural festivals or during ritualised worship of deities in temples.
The existence of song-and-dance performances in the early 16th century is substantiated by Chaitanya Bhagavata (II, 18) which elaborately describes Lord Chaitanya and his disciples enacting such a performance. Characters portrayed were Rukmini, Radha, her companion Suprabha, Badai, Kotala, Narada and his follower. One part of the performance featured Rukmini while the other, Radha. The spectators, all Chaitanya’s followers, sat on all four sides of the performance space; the green room was situated at a little distance. At least one source of lighting was a torch held by a stagehand who moved with the performers.
There exist only two more references to early song-and-dance performances within the fold of Vaisnavism. One is from Sylhet, in the first half of the 16th century, which may have given rise to Ghatu Gan of Mymensingh. The other, from the second half of the same century, to a form referred to as Shekhari Jatra featuring Radha, soon became extinct. By the late 17th century, these early attempts matured into what is known as Pala Kirtana in Bangladesh today.
Performance with scroll painting
The existence of Patuya Sangit (performances with scroll paintings) in ancient Bengal is confirmed by two sources: Yama-pattika as referred to in Harsa-charita (7th c. AD) and scroll painting of the Santals. Banabhatta (the court-poet of Harsavardhan) in his Harsa-charita briefly describes a popular performance of Yama-pattaka witnessed by Harsavardhan on his way back to the capital after he learnt of the death of his brother. It was given by a performer with the help of a scroll-painting showing Yama, the King of the Underworld. On the other hand, recent ethnographic studies have shown that the Santal people have among them a type of scroll painting representing the origin of life (Ko Reyak Katha) and the passage of the dead from the mortal world to the life beyond (Chaksudan Pat). These too point to the ancient origin of Patuya Gan performances in Bengal. In the medieval period, scroll painting performances eulogising Ramachandra, Krishna, Manasa, and Chandi were extremely popular. By the 18th century, scroll-painting performances gained popularity even among the Muslims, as evinced by Gazir Pat (scroll-painting performances eulogising Pir Gazi), which can still be seen in Bangladesh today.
It is not known when puppet theatre was introduced in Bengal. The earliest extant literary evidence of the existence of the form in Bengal is a couplet in Yusuf-Zulekha (1391-1410). As signified there, these performances were given with the help of string puppets. It is possible that orally composed tales of gods and goddesses, such as those of Krishna, Rama, Manasa, etc, were produced in these performances. Mukunda Chakravarti’s Chandimangala (1555-56) and Krishnadas Kaviraj’s Chaitanya Charitamrita (c. 1560-80) definitely point to the existence of puppet theatre during this period. Judging by the popularity of cults and the existing tradition among current performers, it could be safely assumed that these were related to Krishna, Rama, Manasa, Chandi and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Interestingly, no Islamic narrative ever seems to have been performed by puppets in Bengal. String puppets still exist in Bangladesh today.
Processional performances are characterised by the use of tableaux, music, song and dance, all of which form a part of large processions (jatra) attended by adherents of a particular religious faith. In many ways, these performances hold the key to the history of indigenous theatre because they brought together all the three types discussed above, to give birth to jatra, the most popular form of the indigenous theatre which can claim to be indeed the national theatre idiom.
From the description provided by Fa-hien during his visit to India (399 to 414 AD), it is known that on the 8th day of the second month (roughly the last week of May), a highly popular Buddhist religious festival used to be held in Pataliputra. In it, a number of well-decorated chariots (ratha) with the image of the Buddha and other deities installed within, were drawn through the streets and were accompanied by ‘singers and skilful musicians’. Hiuen Tsiang witnessed similar festivals at Kanauj and Allahabad. Harsavardhan himself accompanied the procession dressed as Indra, and his friend, Bhaskaravarman, the king of Kamarupa (Assam), appeared disguised as brahma. Each day of the festival opened with lavish performances of dance and music, vocal and instrumental.
I-Tsing also reports about similar processions in Samatata (eastern Bangladesh) in the second half of the 7th century. These evidences clearly point to the existence of Buddhist processional performances in the 7th century Bengal, which featured chariots with images of deities, song, music, dance and character impersonation (such as Indra and Brahma). At the end of these processions, masked dance and narrative performances were given in the monasteries. The existence of Matsendranatha Jatra in Nepal makes it possible to believe that the followers of the Natha cult in Bengal may also have developed their own procession in 10th or 11th century.
By the early 12th century, processional performances had spread among the followers of the Dharma cult. Extant literary and liturgical texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that in the 12th century, its followers participated in religious celebrations, which included processional performance. The processions would be led by ‘the sandal of Dharma (placed) on a golden palanquin’, followed by music (played on various instruments), song and dance of the devotees. The processions also included a sang, i.e, a clown with a painted face (or wearing a mask) and dressed as a mythical character. The clown may also be seen today in Dharmer Gajan processions. The clown of ancient Dharmer Gajan processions possibly performed brief mimetic dance pieces which depicted legends related to the cult. In all probability, these performances would begin from the temples of Dharma Thakur, circumambulate neighbouring habitations and end at the temple again. There, narrative performances and masked dances were held in honour of Deities of the cult.
By the end of the 12th century, Tantric Saivism had assimilated the Tantric Buddhist and the Dharma cult processions. Tantric Saivite processions, given as a year-ending celebration of Chaitra Samkranti, included impersonation of various deities, heroes, animals and supernatural beings singing and dancing to music played on drums and cymbals. The processions began from Saivite temples, circumambulated neighbouring habitations and ended at the point of origin. Ritualistic and masked dances would be given at temple precincts in the evening and would continue through the night. Remnants of these ancient performances, known as Shiver Gajan, Niler Gajan, and processions of Sang Jatra and Astak Jatra, can still be seen in Bangladesh.
Possibly around the 14th century, the Shakta cult was beginning to incorporate processional performances into its fold. Kalika-purana specifies that the celebration in honour of Kali (in her manifestation as Durga, the slayer of Mahisasura) is to culminate on the 10th day with a procession for immersion of the idol (visarjana). The procession is to be comprised of virgins and courtesans well-versed in music, performers (nata) and musicians who are to play sangkha, turi, mrdanga and dhak. Others are to carry colourful flags, scatter fluffed rice (khai), flower, dust and mud. It is also prescribed that erotic conduct is to prevail in absolute carnivalesque abandon in order to please the goddess. It is possible, as recent ethnological studies reveal, that some form of performance would also be given in temple precincts after the procession. By the late medieval period, the Sakta cult had developed a large number of processional performances. Bamakesvar-tantra (a Tantric text) specifies sixteen processions to be taken out annually in honour of the goddess Bhagavati.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Vaisnava Influence
By the 16th century, processional performances were immensely popular among the Vaisnavites as well. Raghunandan, a famous smrti scholar from 15th-16th century, ruled twelve processions in honour of Vishnu. The Vaisnavite processional performances gradually incorporated tableaux of Vaisnavite lila pastimes placed on chariots drawn by devotees and characters representing major transcendental characters accompanying the procession on foot. During his lifetime, Lord Chaitanya brought out processions accompanied by singing and dancing of his followers, all glorifying the Lord. Vaisnavite processional performances still exist in Bangladesh today in the form of Janmastami Michhil in Dhaka (initiated in 1555) and Nauka-vilas Michhil in Tangail.
The Vaisnavites, particularly the Gaudiya Vaisnavites, are to be credited with further development of the processional performance. During his residence at Puri, Chaitanya and his followers enacted a curious form of performance, best described as ‘environmental’, which has been recounted in Chaitanya Charitamrta (Part II, Chapter 15). In one of these, they appeared in a procession at a festival site, dressed as Hanumana and his army of monkeys. There they enacted an excerpt from the Ramayana (the attack on and the destruction of the castle of Lanka), on a locale that was created in advance at the festival site. References to similar performances have also been given in the Chaitanya Bhagavata, where it is described that in their childhood, Nityananda and his friends play-acted various tales of Rama and Krishna. In these, the locale of each scene was created in advance in natural environs in a manner similar to Rama Lila of North India.
At some time during the lifetime of Chaitanya, the processional performances got linked with the environmental so that the performers and the spectators moved bodily in procession from one locale to another. Narayan Bhatta, a disciple of the 16th century Goswamins or ascetics, Sri Rupa and Sanatana, is credited with having established Bana Jatra in the countryside of Braja. In Bana Jatra, devotees moved in procession to spots where Krishna lilas are believed to have occurred; in each spot, young boys enacted a particular lila associated with the spot. After Chaitanya’s death, processional-environmental performances based on various legends associated with Krishna (such as the slaying of the Kaliya serpent) appear to have continued and can still be seen today in Nauka-vilas Michhil of Tangail. Some scholars believe that similar performances existed in the Shakta fold as well, in the form of Chandi Jatra, the content of which was based on Chandimangala.
The basic characteristics of these processional-environmental performances were (i) the enactment of each scene in separate out-door environs specially created or adapted from natural sites and (ii) processions of spectators who accompanied the performers from one environment to another. Generally, these performances were given during religious festivities and celebrations as a part of processions in honour of the cult deity. By the end of the medieval period, the Buddhist-Dharma-Natha processional performances of the ancient period (which entailed narrative performances and masked dances at the end of the procession in temples/monasteries) had evolved into Vaisnavite processional-environmental performances (which incorporated performances in specific natural environs).
By the second half of the 18th century, professional performance troupes began to produce various lilas of Krishna not in actual environs, but in nat-mandapas or courtyards of rural homesteads and public grounds — that is, any ‘non-environmental’ space. More importantly, these began to be given not only on religious festivals but also on other days as desired by sponsors. Generally known as Kaliya-daman Jatra, these performances may have had some interaction with the court-sponsored Sanskrit theatre of Nabadwip. The Kaliya-daman texts were based on Krishna legends, drawn from the Puranas and popular sources.
Kaliya-daman Jatra was predominantly lyrical. The adhikari (regisseur or proprietor of the troupe) played the role of Vrinda (a companion of Radha) or Muni Gonsai (Narada) and guided the entire action like a Sutradhara by narrating parts of the action in improvised prose and pre-composed verse and lyric. The other parts were rendered as dialogue between him/her and various characters. Shishuram Adhikari (c. mid-18th century) was possibly the earliest exponent of the form. Concurrently with Kaliya-daman Jatra, a few more forms were also popular in Bengal, all of which were similar in form but varied in content. These were Chaitanya Jatra (based on the life of Chaitanya), Chandi Jatra (with content drawn from Chandimangala) and Rama Jatra (with content drawn from the Ramayana). By the early 19th century there evolved the Bhasan Jatra, the content of which was drawn from Manasamangala. However, vestiges of medieval processional-environmental performances continued with Rasa Jatra, in which the rasa dance of Krishna and the milkmaids was enacted.
Kaliya-daman Jatra lost its popularity after 1840s, to be replaced by Krishna Jatra, which can still be seen in Bangladesh. Although both the forms were based on Krishna lila, the texts of Krishna Jatra were entirely dialogic, with a greater portion being in prose. Its popularity faded after the early 20th century. Similar structural changes affected Chandi Jatra and Bhasan Jatra as well. The latter still exists in Bangladesh.
While the tradition of theater continues in Bengal to this day, the authentic forms above, particularly those associated with Lord Krsna, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, and other Vaisnava subject matters represent the epoch of glorious Bengali drama, music and performance art.