Rasa Lila at Jai Singh Ghera

I have to make a confession. In all these years, I have never yet sat through a Rasa-lila performance from beginning to end. This, for someone who pretends to love Vrindavan, is tantamount to criminal. At least misdemeanor! So today, I decided that I would correct this flaw in my experience as soon as I heard from Visakha Devi that Swami Fateh Krishna's Rasa Mandal, one of the best, would be performing at Jai Singh Ghera until the 13th. But be forewarned, the following comments are from someone who knows little of the art.

It is Jhulan in Vrindavan, or as some call it, "Shravan Mela." It is one of the biggest pilgrimage events in Vrindavan, ending on Jhulan Purnima. I made my way downtown, dodging cars, tongas, rickshaws and throngs of pedestrians, through Loi Bazaar, past Shahji temple and in the narrow alley leading to Jai Singh Ghera and Cheer Ghat, being careful to keep my glasses in my bag. Better to be blind and have an accident than have my glasses stolen yet again by those perfidious monkeys.

I was early, but the hall at Jai Singh Ghera was already full. I went past the dressing room and met with some of the actors, though I did not want to talk to them too much before their performance, though they seemed quite relaxed and happy to have their photos taken. I went and got myself a seat on the floor right near the stage and waited until Fateh Krishna came on stage.

The program began with the Divine Couple and the sakhis assembled on the stage. Fateh Krishnaji came and offered his reverent obeisances and then seemed to give the players a short pep talk. Then they proceeded to have a nitya-rasa and dancing the danda rasaka, a circle dance with sticks that originated in Gujarat and is now associated with the Rasa dance all across north India. This was followed by a kirtan, Govinda jaya jaya, while the players went and changed into other costumes or took a breather or both.

Shrivatsa Goswami gave a short talk, a lot about Tulasi Das, since his appearance day was yesterday, I suppose. But saying that Rama and Sita's pastimes in Chitrakut, during their exile in the forest, was the happiest time of their lives, so that they forgot everything about Ayodhya. It was to augment this experience that they came again in the form of Radha and Krishna.

Then started the performance proper. The theme was was the arrangement of Radha and Krishna's marriage. It begins at Sanket. While Fateh Krishnaji sings, Krishna is playing alone with a ball, throwing it back and forth to the audience, creating waves of pleasure. Shrivatsa Goswami fanned throughout the entire play, and Krishna even came and threw the ball to him a few times. Then in comes Radha, also alone, they meet... He likes her, they walk around a bit, talk; they fall in love.

Krishna tells her to come and see him in Nandagram. In the next scene she sets out accompanied by her sakhis, but it is a long way and one by one the other girls drop out. She arrives alone. Krishna greets her at the gate, but she is shy and Mother Yashoda has to finally go herself to invite her in. Yashoda makes all kinds of inquiries, gives her gifts, and makes it clear she likes her and wants her to marry Krishna.

Word comes to Kirti Devi and the big anxiety starts on that side. Isn't Krishna a thief? Is he worthy of Radha? So they call Protani, an old woman character who is [in this version of the lila] Madhumangal's mother. They have a vichara, and everyone discusses the good and bad of Radha marrying Krishna. Protani argues in favor of Krishna and everyone is convinced.

They decide to send a delegation led by Protani to Nandagram to say they are good with it. This is followed by the return trip to Barsana for the betrothal cermony (sagai) which is conducted with a great deal of fun and dancing.

It all ends with Radha and Krishna sitting on the throne. Shrivatsa Goswami performed arti. Then people from the audience come up to give their pranams and pranami to the swaroops.

Throughout it all, the singing of Fateh Krishna and the playing of the musicians was impeccable, completely professional and full of rasa. There was a lot of humor, indeed jokes related to Krishna and glorifications of his true nature were the main substance of the play. There was a lot of laughter and, though it is a cliche, it is clear that a good time was had by all.

I was amazed at how many people knew the songs. When the mike was on you could barely hear how they were responding, but sometimes the power would go off, and you would hear that half the audience was singing along. Sometimes Fateh Krishna (one or two occasions) would stop and let the audience fill in the last line of a verse, or word of a line.

It was a big audience. One thing I liked is they did not blast the sound out into the streets. And inside also it was not too loud. But the audience was so well behaved that even when the mikes went off you could hear the voices clearly, at least I could in the front.

He himself said that most of the songs were by Surdas or Chacha Vrindavan Das (a Radhavallabhi). From the tilak, I think that he also is a Radhavallabhi. The language of the songs and the dialogue of the actors was all in Braj, often spoken in verse or sung. This was admittedly a little hard for me to follow. Shrivatsa Goswami always speaks in a pure Brajbhasha, which is very nice and mostly comprehensible to a Hindi speaker. Fateh Krishna gave his explanations in Hindi, though.

I had some thoughts thinking that it would be better if they had girls. At first, the older boys seemed indifferent. Later, in some of the dancing scenes they were more animated. But Krishna himself was great. The boy was very beautiful to begin with and he had a truly magnetic smile. He was literally enchanting, Madan Mohan. Simple and innocent. He was really enjoying himself. He was younger than most of the other boys and I could see that made a difference. But the older boys were obviously experienced and knew their lines.

I wondered whether the tradition of only having boys playing the roles of girls will be maintained. The tradition no doubt grew out of a feeling that it was improper for girls to go on stage publicly and also to keep the lila pristine and free from any hint of mundane sexuality. But I couldn't help thinking that girls might just be better at it than boys. They would be more into it and would probably convey better the mood of other girls, i.e., gopis. If the taboo goes away, we might see someone trying it.

It is quite possible that as boys watch more and more of the popular media, they will feel more self conscious and begin to think its "lame" to play the part of a girl when girls themselves could do it. They will want to play heroes, demons or villains, etc., in the Bollywood or Hollywood mood. The question is one of preserving the innocent mood, which could be done by using younger girls, I think.

At any rate, this article is already longer than expected. It is only meant to be a description. I may say that I found it interesting to see how the Radha-Krishna lila has somehow morphed from the parakiya lila of the Bengalis into something totally different, where Radha and Krishna are married almost immediately and there is not the slightest hint of any other marriage or relationship. Especially since I have recently been exploring the songs of Chandi Das, and more recently looking at Tristan and Iseult, a medieval legend of illicit love from Europe.

Unfortunately, I was only able to take a few pictures before the battery went dead. I will try to give more in the next couple of days.


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