A performance of the Rāmāyaṇa by Vaishnavite monks from Assam might be expected to be a fairly solemn affair. Ram Vijaya opened with a drum-beaten dance by suitably serious-looking white-cotton-clad men. The sūtradhāra followed with a ceremonial unveiling of the manuscript from which he would later read, seated at the back of the stage surrounded by the musicians.
The shock of colour that Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa brought was the first hint of things to come but it wasn’t until Viśvamitra – terrifying sage of ancient India – started to scamper about the stage, his large false top knot wobbling as a podgy rakṣasa gave chase, that the audience dared a chuckle.
It soon became clear that humour was a large part of this performance, which portrayed the first part of the epic, culminating in Sītā’s svayaṃvara. The kings competing for Sītā’s hand showed these actor-monks at their best. After bombastic, rhythmic, stomping entrances by each, the princess herself appeared (slim, fine-featured, with an appropriately bashful smile – it was only the voice that gave it away), garland at the ready for the lucky winner. Two equally feminine handmaids warded off the premature advances of the portly bulging-eyed kings with a definitive tapping stamp. Each then tried his luck with the bow, treating the audience to an elaborate show of muscle flexing and limb stretching. Rāma’s humble attempt and success at lifting and stringing the bow was almost anti-climactic by comparison.
The multicoloured costumes, with their spectacular wigs and weapons worthy of Ramanan Sagar’s battle scenes, added to the exuberance. Janaka himself, better known for his yogic skills and Upanisadic appearances, could have passed for Father Christmas in the pre-Coca Cola days. But it was the monks who made it such fun.
Sattriya is now recognised as one of the eight classical dance forms in India, dating back to the 15th century when it was invented by the Assamese Vaishnavite saint, Shrimanta Shankaradeva. Up until very recently, it was the preserve of the sattras (Assamese monasteries) enjoyed only by the monks themselves and ultimately God. Although it has now moved into mainstream theatre, it is still something of a rarity to watch a performance by monks, rather than professional dancer-actors. Just as you might be surprised to find that a rendering of Christ’s birth practised for hundreds of years by a Benedictine order was in fact not far removed from the Christmas village pantomime, so Ram Vijaya was something of a shock – although a thoroughly enjoyable one. This is religious devotion as celebration; Vishnu would surely approve.
Ram Vijaya, performed by the Sattriya Monks of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra and directed by Muhikant Barbayan was the first of a series of folk and traditional dance and theatre performances at Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore. The rich programme includes Kattaikuttu from Tamil Nadu, Gondhal from Maharasthra, Dastangoi, Pandavani, Phou-oibi from Manipur and Theyyam and Kuttiyattam from Kerala and Yakshagana. Sanskrit fans will particularly enjoy a Kuttiyattam performance of Shakuntala, in Sanskrit, by Gopal Venu of Natanakairali.
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As photography is not permitted in the theatre, the photos in this article are taken from the Ranga Shankara website. If there are any objections to their being used here, please let me know and I will take them down.