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Sacred to Profane (Writings on Worship and Performance)

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About the Book   A nineteenth-century mystic in rural Bengal brings a flourish of theatricality to his method for curing the sick in a gruesome cremation ground strewn with bones and half-burnt corpses. An entire town in north India transforms itself into a sacred geography as the divine saga of Rama is performed in its streets, with everyone from the maharaja to the common man and woman turning into both spectactor and participant during the month of th...

About the Book

 

A nineteenth-century mystic in rural Bengal brings a flourish of theatricality to his method for curing the sick in a gruesome cremation ground strewn with bones and half-burnt corpses. An entire town in north India transforms itself into a sacred geography as the divine saga of Rama is performed in its streets, with everyone from the maharaja to the common man and woman turning into both spectactor and participant during the month of the Ramlila at Ramnagar. A qawwali performance in a Sufi shrine both skilfully manipulates and gives fervent expression to intense spiritual devotion. An actor takes on the persona of the goddess Sitala in a Calcutta street performance that moves between melodrama and worship. In Tamilnadu in south India, a traditional sacred performance form learns to adapt to contemporary circumstances.

 

These essays explore the intricate connections between worship and performance, between the 'sacred' and the 'profane', between the world of the 'spirit' and the world of the audience. In the process they show up the multifaceted, complex layering and overlapping that make any public act of worship simultaneously an act of socio-historical practice.

 

The introductory essay by cultural studies scholar Sibaji Bandyopadhyay takes us on a roller-coaster ride through historical ideas of the performer and the concept of the profane, stitching together the key themes of the volume. Substantial appendices add valuable primary source material to the essays, and photographs in each chapter contribute a useful visual context.

 

Introduction

 

The Arthashastra-the ancient treatise on statecraft ascribed to Kautilya-has a verse which speaks of the essential commonness that exists between all those who look to humble but honest, hard-working people for their livelihood. Matching pungency with pithiness, the astute 'author' of The Arthashastra tells his readers in verse number 4.1.65: 'Merchants, artisans, craftsmen, nomadic mendicants, entertainers and similar persons are all thieves, in effect, if not in name'.

 

The middle-man who engineers the exchange of goods through the use of the coin of the realm, the journeyman who is also the salesman of his own produce, the roaming unattached beggar who stands in sharp contrast to the householder, the person who regales the audience by putting up shows, each is branded by The Arthashastra as being artful. It is as if, irrespective of his declared trade, each of the persons listed in verse number 4.1.65 is also involved in a clandestine trade; and, what is worse, functioning like an elusive supplement, that nefarious activity is intrinsic to the official one. Dyeing merchandise in the 'universal solvent' called 'money' (and pana is the most often mentioned coin in the Arthashastra), the merchant compels the buyer to transcend the limits set by concrete forms and enter a domain of abstraction; giving distinct shapes to shapeless raw material, the artisan-craftsman demonstrates the potential of the latent, and by the same token reminds one that impermanence and metamorphosis are linked in a chain; asking for alms with his head held high, the nomadic mendicant unsettles the householder and forces him to ponder over the business merits of renunciation; switching from one role to another with enviable dexterity, the entertainer instils in the consumer the anxiety that perhaps there is no notion of 'personality' which is not also about 'impersonation'. They all have, therefore, the power to dupe people. The state has to be put on alert. The full text of verse number 4.1.65 runs thus: 'Merchants, artisans, craftsmen, nomadic mendicants, entertainers and similar persons are all thieves, in effect, if not in name; they shall be prevented from harassing the people.

 

The word for the entertainer in general in The Arthashastra is kusilava. And, related to the specific billet or berth, the kusilava has a specific title. amely: the nata (actor); the nartaka (dancer); the gayana (singer); the sutamagadha (praise singer); the vadaka (musician); the turyakara (trumpeter); the vagjivanalkathavaka (storyteller); the plavaka (acrobat); the saubhika (conjurer); the charana (wandering minstrel); the kuhaka (juggler/clown)." As is to be expected from a work that goes into minute details of the management of affairs relating to both work and leisure, a book that offers a luxurious spread of motifs in connection with almost every kind of human desire, sacred, profane or otherwise, The Arthashastra is scrupulous in the matter of regulations applicable to the kusilava. But, in doing so, The Arthashastra takes for its point of reference the set of laws which apply to an order of entertainers different from that of the kusilava. And the other entertainer is the ganika or the prostitute/courtesan, the public-woman who lets men have 'free' and 'private' access to her body for a fee or a favour. In verse number 2.27.25 of The Arthashastra, the Ganikadhyaksha or 'the Head of the Department of Courtesans/Prostitutes' enjoins upon all 'Leisure Control Officials' to ensure that 'the regulations regarding courtesans and prostitutes also apply to nata-nartaka-gayana-vadaka-vagjivana-plavaka-saubhika-charana [and such other kusilavas].' In addition to entertainers, pimps ('people who deal in women') as well as female spies ('women who follow a secret profession'") are brought into the ambit of laws meant to 'regulate' the ganika.

 

Given this nexus, it does not at all sound surprising that The Arthashastra devotes one entire verse to the subject of women who are more like passive passengers than full-time activists in the business of entertainment, the wives of the kusilavas, that is. Not losing the opportunity to exploit the fact that persons who merely accompany entertainers are also likely to possess a rudimentary knowledge of the semiology of gestures, The Arthashastra proposes, as regards the kusilava's wife, that a kind of liaison be established between officials dealing in 'Leisure Control' and officials dealing in Defence/Offence manoeuvres. And this is explicitly stated in verse number 2.27.30. It reads as: The wives of actors and similar entertainers shall be taught languages and the science of signs and signals. They shall be employed, using the profession of their relatives [as a cover], to detect, delude or murder the wicked.

 

All in all, The Arthashastra depicts the kusilava as being a composite of the thief and the whore, of the chor and the ganika. There is this suspicion that, although the art of entertainment is legally sanctioned, it has a criminal edge to it-it is as though the kusilava's body emits such strong surges of emotive currents that they may even seduce the level headed; and if the seductive spell gets to be lasting, it may even turn the toiling man into a pauper. But then, it is equally true that the most dutiful and docile of all citizens too has, at odd moments, the fleeting urge to give up on the world; made physically tired by the task of ceaseless reproduction of the conditions of production, he cannot but pass through bouts of depression. So, how should the overseers of state-'state' being the structure emblematic of the dominant conditions of production-manage the mental health of the common man?

 

Those who wish to pay a visit to any entertaining show must also pay for it-The Arthashastra makes it mandatory for the consumers of art to bear the financial burden of the enjoyment they receive in consuming art. The Book of Statutes is forbiddingly unambiguous on this score. It says in verse numbers 3.10.35-38: 'All the people in a village shall contribute their share of the ... costs of festivals and entertainments? ... Anyone who does not contribute his share of a performance shall not be allowed to see it; his family shall also be banned. Watching or listening to it secretly is a punishable offence. Having ensured that organizing entertainments does not drain the Royal Exchequer, The Arthashastra introduces other provisos which aim at minimizing the financial stress the common man is likely to suffer on account of the kusilava. Verse number 2.1.33 of The Arthashastra makes it impossible for villagers to establish any permanent neighbourly contact with entertainers. It says: 'There shall be no grounds or buildings intended for recreation.' II And the clause preventing the villagers from meeting kusilavas in The Arthashastra in verse number 4.1.58 is too extreme for words. Imposing a severe restriction on the mobility of performers, it reads: 'Entertainers shall not move from place to place during the rainy season. All the earthly gains that are to be achieved by disallowing the villagers from having halls or parks for recreation or by disallowing the nata-nartaka-gayana-vadaka-kathavakacharana and others from bringing colour to monotonous monsoon days, is brilliantly summed up in The Arthashastra's verse numbers 2.1.34 and 2.1.35: 'Actors, dancers, singers, musicians, professional storytellers and minstrels shall not obstruct the work [of the people], because in villages which provide no shelter [to outsiders], the people will be [fully] involved in the work of the fields.

 

So in the larger interest of keeping farmers firmly rooted in their fields in order to 'increase ... the supply of labour, money, commodities, grains and liquid products',14 (2.1.35) the kusilava will have to be cast in the mould of the mendicant. It follows logically from the tenets of Kautilyan Political Science that the kusilava too is destined to be a perpetual nomad and a perennial outsider just like the mendicant, a peripatetic figure who also makes occasional forays into civilized enclosures; while the man who has of his own volition abandoned home and hearth mumbles a blessing to the householder in exchange for alms, the man rich in artistic talents displays his skills and dazzles the public for material returns.

 

The parallels between the entertainer and the mendicant-the two 'crooks' who have the capacity to both fool and unhinge the householder-get further elaborated once we concentrate on verse number 4.1.59 or juxtapose 4.1.58 with 4.1.62,63.

 

Surely, fawning is not something one expects from a mendicant-kowtowing to the householder at his doorsteps for alms is too demeaning for holy beggars. And 4.1.59 of The Arthashastra calls upon the entertainer to maintain dignity in his dealings with his patrons. It says: '[Entertainers] shall neither praise anyone excessively nor receive excessive presents' .

 

4.1.58 of The Arthashastra forbids the entertainer from travelling during the monsoon months; and, the two consecutive verses, 4.1.62 and 63, similarly discommode the itinerant mendicant, but do so with greater harshness. They say: 'Like entertainers, [beggars and nomadic mendicants] shall also not move about during the rainy season. The punishment for transgression shall be whipping with an iron rod.

 

That The Arthashastra is not particularly fond of the parivrajaka or the wandering monk is quite transparent. There is the strong suspicion that the so-called ascetic is either an irresponsible fellow or a man who is not man enough in bed. Hence, in three consecutive verses, from 2.1.29 through 2.1.31, The Arthashastra stipulates: 'No one shall renounce the life of a householder in order to become an ascetic without providing for the maintenance of his wife and children. No one shall induce a woman [still capable of bearing children] into becoming an ascetic. A man who has passed the age of sexual activity can renounce family life, with the approval of the judges . . . but if the judges do not approve, he shall be prevented from doing so.' 17 The striking, rather eerie analogy between the entertainer and the mendicant gets to be more pronounced once we notice that the verse that bans the establishment of parks or halls for the purpose of recreation in settlements of 'virgin land'tf (2.1.33) is immediately preceded by a verse that asks of the sovereign to bar the entry into a newly developing estate of any person who has taken to the fourth stage or ashram and become an ascetic or sannyasin. Verse 2.1.32 reads: 'Ascetics belonging to heretical sects (i.e., other than brahmin vanaprasthas) shall not enter the country for purposes of settlement.'

 

In the Kautilyan world-stage the family-man doing time in field or office is the key figure. It is he who occupies the still centre; everything else revolves round him; and it is at his threshold that the want-less beggar or the enticing thespian decked in some peculiar but distinctive costume stands. This being the scene that needs to be eternally replayed, what requires maintaining i the sanctity of the threshold. And that can only be done if the thin divided line of the threshold itself is made to serve as the organizing principle for the preferred mise-en-scene. But, isn't that, especially in the sphere of dramatic representation , deeply problematic?

 

Contents

 

 

INTRODUCTION: THE LAUGHING PERFORMER

1

 

A DRAMATIST OF POPULAR ANGST: THE MYSTIC BAMAKSHYAPA OF TARAPEETH

39

 

PERFORMED IMAGINARIES: RAMLILA IN THE CITY OF VARANASI

88

 

MAKING MUSIC IN THE SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY

135

 

QAWWALI AND THE SUFI TRADITION

 

 

PERFORMING THE GODDESS: SACRED RITUAL INTO PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE

164

 

BOTH SACRED AND PROFANE: THE KATTAIKUTTU THEATRE IN TAMILNADU

188

 

Appendices

224

A.

Performative Acts of Healing: Legends of Bamakshyapa

229

B.

A Sacred Geography: Watching the Ramlila of Ramnagar

248

C.

The Dynamics of Actual Performance

266

D.

Interview with Chapal Bhaduri

274

E.

A Kattaikkuttu Playscript

285

 

Notes on Contributors

 

 

Sample Page

Item Code: NAJ668 Author: Anjum Katyal Cover: Paperback Publisher: Seagull Books Pvt. Ltd. ISBN: 9781905422166 Language: English Size: 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch Pages: 288 (32 B/W Illustrations) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 400 gms
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