Performances in the Social Sciences | India

After reading this article you will learn about performances in the social science.

Introduction to Performances in the Social Sciences:

The term ‘performance’ encompasses a wide range of cultural events, from various theatrical performances, performing arts, or the performance of an oral text, to a number of rituals and, eventually, to any speech event.

The inclusion of plural events under a single concept of ‘performance’ is the result of a changing methodological approach in the social sciences. Emphasis has shifted from studying social institutions or texts, to actors and their creative potentiality.

Since Milton Singer’s, often-quoted statement that religious and cultural performances should be viewed as ‘the elementary constituents of the culture and the ultimate units of observation’ the ‘performance approach’ has been further developed by various social scientists.


Whereas some performance theorists such as Victor Turner (1982) and Richard Schechner (1985) take theatrical performances on stage and the theatrical potential of social life as their starting point, others, such as Baumann and Briggs (1990), apply the term ‘performance’ in a linguistic sense to any speech event, whether artful and elaborated or just everyday verbal interaction.

According to the latter approach, language (or rather speech) is not only seen in its referential or indexical function, but any use of language is interpreted as ‘social action’ in which ‘things are done with words’.

For speech act theorists, such as Austin, the elocutionary force of an utterance is not simply a product of its referential content, but depends on various conditions of the whole performance of the utterance, such as the setting, the intentionality of the speaker, his status and authority, and the conventions that are followed by the participants.

Both the theatrical and the linguistic approaches open up new perspectives in the interpre­tation of culture. Cultural performances, such as rituals, ceremonies, carnival and theatre, but also performances in the linguistic sense, so-called speech events, can be seen as interpretations of social life by the actors themselves.


In a sense, culture is encapsulated within these discrete performances and is then exhibited to the participants as well as to outsiders. Each performance is a highly structured event which enables the observer to get an encompassing view of it. A cultural performance is a ‘stage’, meaning that space and time are specified, the sequence of events fixed, participants, performers and audi­ence and specific roles assigned to.

Similar characteristics apply to speech events. The use of language is seen as a communicative process in which it is not just the ‘text’ with its poetic or aesthetic qualities, that is of importance—the ethnography of speaking has now established several other important criteria for analyzing speech events.

For the interpretation of the meaning of a linguistic performance, it is important to consider, in addition to the content of the speech event, the sender as well as the receiver of linguistic utterances, the mode of transmission, and the scenario of the communication.

However, it is not as easy for the outsider to read a public performance just like a text, as, for instance, Geertz (1972) and Singer propose. The most crucial aspect in the performance approach, the shift from the study of texts to the analysis of texts in contexts, leads to another problem.


Who is going to define ‘context’? What should be included? What can be excluded? To avoid reifying ‘context’ by describing everything that surrounds a set of utterances and seems adequate for selection by the analyst, Baumann, and Briggs demand that one should ‘study the textual details that illuminate the manner in which participants are collectively constructing the world around them’.

The shift should not only be towards studying texts in context, but ‘Towards achieving an agent-centered view of performance’ to show how performers and audiences contextualize their text.

Baumann and Briggs’s demand for contextualization in the sense of an agent- centered view of performance leads to a number of aspects which have to be included in the study of a performance. Despite the risk of reifying, they shall be summarized here.

a. The Setting:

The setting of a performance includes time and space as well as the course of events and the persons involved. Each cultural performance is set apart from day-to-day social life by time and space. Many rituals and theatre performances are on the occasion of seasonal festivals which are celebrated according to a fixed calendar.

But even in occasional rituals, certain preconditions regarding time have to be followed. Moreover, time is defined as extraordinary by the very fact that a ritual or theatre performance takes place in it. The possibilities for defining space as extraordinary are manifold.

The stage in a theatrical performance, or the temple in the case of a ritual, is easily recognized as distinct or demarcated space. However for social dramas in Turner’s (1982) sense or in less elaborated ritual events such as possession medium ship or spirit possession, for instance, space has to be created—be it the open space for the negotiation of a conflict before an audience of neighbours and relatives, or the sacred space which can be created by purification in any house before inviting the deity to enter the body of the medium for a possession séance.

The course of events of a performance is supposed to be fixed, despite the variations caused by an individual performer. It can be remembered and at the same time anticipated by the participants and audience. This applies to ritual, theatre and the performance of oral texts.

To be efficacious, certain parts of a ritual may not be omitted, whereas others are more open to individual changes by the performer. Albert Lord has already emphasized the interaction between performers and audience in oral composition.

Not only do the length and complexity of an oral composition depend on the reaction and feedback of the audience, so do the composition’s poetic and artistic qualities. But even if the performance is shortened and some parts are omitted, its overall character must be recognized as the same.

The evaluation of the artistic and communicative competence of performers by the audience is crucial for the estimation and impact of a performance. The persuasiveness and effectiveness of ritual performances depend especially on the evaluation by an audience.

Several persons—organizers, participants, performers, and audience—are involved in each performance. The success of a performance depends on their adherence to the rules. After deciding to hold a performance, the organizers have to proceed according to conventions.

Kapferer (1983) has shown that in Sri Lanka, the decision to hold the ceremony of the great demon of the cemetery, Mahasona, is postponed by the relatives as long as possible (mostly due to financial and organizational problems).

But when finally organized, a fixed procedure has to be followed. Certain persons have to be invited, specific food has to be cooked, the space for the ritual has to be prepared, and ritual specialists (exorcists) have to be invited to perform the ritual.

b. The Textual Dimension:

Until recently, Indology was preoccupied with the study of written texts, and textual criticism, distinguishing layers of texts, etc., with a priority placed on questions of chronology, the oldest parts or versions of a text being considered the most important ones.

Less attention was paid to the per-formative uses to which texts are put. Indian texts themselves seem to presuppose, from the earliest times, an awareness of context including the dimension of performance. These two central concepts, context and performance have also begun to attract attention in text- oriented South Asian studies.

As long as texts such as the Vedas plural existed only through their oral performance they were not permitted an isolated existence—except in the form of ‘mental texts’ in the minds of those who memorized them.

Living people and social rules of authorization of transmission were essential for the continued ‘life of a text’. Only when texts started being ‘reduced’ to writing could they begin to exist on their own—although manuscripts were the property of an owner—for longer than the life-span of a human being ‘entitled’ to know them.

Their transmission began to depend on scribes and their patrons and on the text being considered important enough to be copied.

Contemporary Indian culture is probably unique in its variety of coexistent types of transmission ranging from exclusively oral to exclusively written/printed with a wide spectrum of the most fascinating combinations.

These include parallel transmission—orally, as manuscript and in print with ritual priority on orality (Veda); or conversely, oral tradition assigning a quasi-iconic value to the written text, the physical presence of the manuscript or printed book playing an important role in the oral performance.

The study of the interaction of various oral and written traditions that have also been labelled ‘folk’, ‘popular’ or ‘classical’ was initiated by Stuart Blackburn and A.K. Ramanujan in their study of folklore in 1986. Other more recent approaches with special reference to theatre will be discussed below.

A Phenomenology of Cultural Performances:

We have divided our exposition into two major sections, one on ritual performances, another on the range of performances based on epic and puranic texts and culminating in theatrical performances.

In many instances, no sharp borderline can be drawn between ritual and theatrical performances—theatre often being placed in a ritualized setting and religious ritual often displaying theatrical features of dramatization. Moreover, in western avant-garde theatre of the early decades of the twentieth century there have been attempts to ‘ritualize’ theatre in order to explore new dimensions of meaning.

Fresh efforts at ‘re-ritualization’ have been made in the ‘performance-art’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1980s the intercultural dimension has gained increasing importance in theatre and performance studies.

As in the social sciences, in theatre studies too, the concept of ‘performance’ has helped widen the field. Scholars like E. Fischer- Lichte extend the notion of theatricality to include all types of ‘staging’ of reality. She speaks of a theatricalization of everyday life brought about by the new media and by a ‘new orality’.

Against this background, the distinctions made in the following sections are to be understood as attempts to organize the material rather than as classificatory categories in their own right.

a. Ritual Performances:

Vedic Ritual:

Indian culture has preserved detailed accounts and prescriptions for the performance of texts from the earliest times. Vedic sacrificial ritual of the first millennium BC is perhaps the best documented ancient ritual performance.

Various genres of meticulously transmitted Vedic literature contain liturgical texts, performance manuals and interpretations of ritual acts. The major form to which they refer are the large public srauta rites. There are strict rules concerning the consecration of a certain space, the fixing of a particular time, the appointment of proper ritual specialists and the duties of the patron.

They are performed in a temporarily sanctified and purified open space, the sacrificial ground, to be abandoned after the performance of the rituals. They take place at fixed times of the year such as certain new- and full-moon days, or in larger time-cycles or at special occasions such as the consecration of a king or his becoming a universal ruler (cakravartin) by successfully conducting the horse-sacrifice (asvamedha).

The Vedic texts relate to the performances from several complementary angles and jointly provide a comprehensive picture of a sacrificial performance.

The oldest groups of texts, collected in the Rig-Veda, consist of hymns to the deities to be used as invocations during the rituals; the Yajurveda contains sacrificial formulas (yajus) to be pronounced in the course of the sacrificial rites; the Samaveda preserves the melodies in which the texts of the Rig-Veda are to be chanted. In the performance, each of the three Vedas is taken charge of by a priestly specialist.

The hotar (Rig-Veda) recites verses from the Rig-Veda to praise the gods and to invite them to descend invisibly onto their seats of honour on the sacrificial ground.

The udgatar, the ‘singer’ (Samaveda) accompanies the preparation and offering of the sacrificial items with his chants. The Adhvaryu-priest (Yajurveda) actually performs the sacrificial acts, murmuring prayers and sacrificial formulas from the Yajurveda.

The most basic of these formulas consist of statements such as ‘this for Agni’, ‘this for Indra’ which accompany the act of throwing or pouring offerings such as grain or clarified butter into the sacrificial fire; that is, the performative act is provided meaning by the accompanying speech act.

The latter can also be a more elaborate or explicit statement of the purpose of the act. The fourth major officiate, the Brahman priest, has to know all the Vedas and supervises the entire performance. If the slightest mistake is committed, he has to set it right by reciting special formulas.

He later came to be associated with the fourth Veda, the Atharvan, a collection of magical texts. Both, the sama- and the yajurvedic text collections are arranged liturgically, that is, in the sequence in which they are to be used during the major sacrificial rites.

There are several more genres of Vedic texts focusing on the same performances, such as the ancient prose texts called the Brahmanas that provide explanations and interpretations of the meaning, reason, and purpose of ritual acts or of implements and materials used in them.

Chronologically, these texts were followed by the composition of performance manuals, the Srauta-Siitras, which—in aphoristic brevity—sketch the sequence of the sacrificial performance. Providing further differentiation for this elaborately documented ‘science of sacrifice’, most of the textual genres referred to were transmitted in various ‘recensions’ of different ‘schools’.

We can even study variations in the performance of the major sacrificial rituals of Vedic times.

The texts also refer to patronage because the patron is central to the performance. There are hardly any references, though, to the eventual presence and function of a wider audience and response to the rituals. We know that according to later prescriptions, women and Sudras were prohibited from even merely hearing the Vedas.

Most information about the social setting can be gleaned from the descriptions of royal rituals such as the royal consecration, the rajasuya, studied by Jan Heesterman (1957), which continued to be performed by Hindu kings.

There is also evidence for the legitimating social and political function of the horse-sacrifice in Vedic as well as later times. In spite of the existence of printed editions and manuscripts, for the practitioners of Vedic religion, oral transmission in a teacher-student setting is still the valid mode of continuing the tradition.

Access to training in Vedic texts and practices is strictly controlled and regulated and has until recently been limited to twice-born males, usually Brahmans. Apart from its liturgical use in the major sacrifices, the recitation of Vedic texts has, since classical times, also been part of various Hindu religious ceremonies.

The most ‘private’ mode of performance is the svadhyaya, the individual practice of reciting the texts for purposes of memorization.

b. Ritual Performances in Predominantly Oral Cultures:

The second set of ritual performances on which we want to focus here used oral texts not written down within the respective traditions themselves, but recorded only by scholars.

Out of the vast range of ritual performances, we have selected the possession rituals using the per formative paradigm to study such rituals that opens up a vastly different perspective from that gained by a ‘textural’ approach. Various forms of possession rituals are widespread in south Asia.

They include possession states in which divine or demonic beings are incorporated in human beings, whether to endanger the cosmic order (spirit possession), or to announce the causes of misfortune, illness, etc. (divinational possession), or to be worshipped and give blessings to their devotees (theatrical possession).

Outside observers are generally awed by the often-spectacular performances in which the possessed person acts rather menacingly while incorporating a furious spirit or a goddess in all her rage. For a long time, the interpretation of possession rituals was dominated by the altered state of consciousness of the possessed person, who subsequently was supposed to act in an idiosyncratic way, pathologically or under social stress.

Possession was analysed and interpreted with western psychopathological concepts or under the presupposition of socio-economic marginality. An interpretation of possession as cultural performance, however, brings the description closer to the events experienced by the people themselves.

Possession rituals may be very simple, with minimal performative features, or they may be highly elaborated theatrical events. Examples from both ends of this range shall be quoted here.

Among the Vadabalija, a Telugu-speaking fishing caste on the coasts of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, female media (bhakturalu) can become possessed by a goddess who can then be approached by her devotees.

These rituals of divinational possession appear unspectacular when compared to the Teyyam cult in Kerala with its elaborate theatrical features. A closer look, however, reveals a planned and structured performance in both cases. In both possession rituals, time and space cannot be selected at random, but have to be in accordance with ritual requirements.

Whereas among the Vadabalija, the goddess can be invited to come into her human vessel throughout the year, but only on the days of the week when she is worshipped, in Kerala, the deity possesses its devotees only during the annual Teyyam festival.

In both cases, the medium, as well as the space where the ritual is to take place, have to be ritually purified. In Kerala, possession usually takes place at the shrine; among the Vadabalija, it takes place in the house of the medium or of any devotee, after the house has been ritually purified.

The medium who is going to be possessed, as well as the impersonator in the Teyyam cult, are devoted to one specific deity. Just before the possession, they reinforce their devotion by worshipping the deity and by fasting.

These necessary preparations are followed by the invocation, a text spoken or sung by another ritual specialist (a non-Brahmanic priest) in which he pleads with the god or goddess and convinces him or her ‘to come to his or her innocent children only for one hour’, thus creating the divine presence.

The invocational text consists of a number of fixed, stereotypical lines, ‘formulaic speech’ in the sense of Parry and Lord. They are interspersed with parts that display the individual style of the speaker.

After a successful invocation, the deity announces its temporary presence through the medium, who is now in trance, beginning to recite the divine words. Among the Vadabalija, the divine presence is created in a rather unspectacular way, by the medium falling into trance and the goddess announcing her presence.

In Teyyam rituals, possession marks the end of a process of transformation. Outwardly, the Teyyam dancer dons a specific costume and puts on make-up.

The process of getting possessed is completed by the gazing into a mirror, the final step, when the performer perceives his image as that of the deity. The divine speech differs from ordinary speech in a number of linguistic and paralinguistic features.

Among the Vadabalija, the text is sung; it consists of lines of approximately the same length with the same beginnings and endings. Linguistic devices such as parallelism and repetition throughout the text guarantee the fluidity of the recitation.

The semantic structure follows certain rules. The recitation begins with the greeting of other deities, according to their status in the divine hierarchy This introductory greeting also has stabilizing qualities for the medium’s trance.

A change of melody and longer lines mark the beginning of the section in which the deity refers to individual problems of the devotees present. The divine answer to specific human problems is again interspersed with ‘formulaic’ passages in which the goddess’s power is praised and in which events of its biography are recited. The end of the seance is announced by the deity with the words ‘I am leaving’.

In Teyyam rituals, the performance is more rigidly structured and has other theatrical elements besides the recitation of the text. After the onset of possession, ‘the Teyyam performers commence a series of dance steps which are carefully rehearsed and executed to the sets of changing rhythms kept by the drummers’.

Despite a certain amount of textual improvising during Teyyam possession, there are long passages which are memorized and used by the performers to praise the deities, to narrate their story of origin and to give blessings to the devotees.

The meaning of possession rituals as they exist among the Vadabalija is usually derived from the divinational character of the text. Human problems are interpreted and explained by a divine entity, who also proposes the solution (which has to be interpreted again by the audience).

However, another meaning lies behind the divinational dimension of the text, although this seems to be the dominant part in a possession ritual. A comparison with the theatrical performance of the Teyyam cult shows similar, though less elaborate, performative patterns. Besides solving problems, possession rituals create time and space for worship and communication with the deities.

This is confirmed by the fact that the audience consists of persons ‘who ask’ and persons ‘who sit’. The worship of a deity by the audience occurs during its presence in the house and body of the medium. Offerings (coconuts, bananas, incense, kutnkum, money) are made by the persons who ask, just as if they were worshipping the deity at the temple.

As a further advantage, the persons in the audience get to know the problems in their neighbourhood, how they are dealt with, and how to avoid similar difficulties. The efficacy of a possession ritual depends not only on the recitation of the text, but also on the mode of life of the medium and on how well the deity comes onto the body.

A further important presupposition is the belief among the performers and the audience that the divine presence can be created by humans.

c. Theatrical Performances:

Considering the immense range of performance traditions in south Asia, it is often difficult to differentiate between strictly theatrical and non-theatrical forms.

If—as has been common in the West up to recently—we start from the notion of a dramatic text consisting of dialogues, soliloquies, etc.—rendered in direct speech by actors impersonating particular characters, then a form like the Kathakali dance theatre of Kerala would not be theatre since the actors do not speak.

The minimal definition of theatre offered by Fischer-Lichte is perhaps more helpful: A impersonates B while C is looking on. Furthermore, Hansen, referring to Abrahams, stresses ‘the acting out of the story, so that make-up, costumes, and movement visually represent the narrative events to the audience’.

Probably the largest arena of public performances emerged from the Sanskrit epics—and the Puranas following a few centuries later—which were presented by bards and narrators in a variety of ways. From about the tenth or eleventh century onwards, renderings of the epics were often based on vernacular versions.

The modes of performance ranged from the delivery of portions of the text by a teller or singer to full- fledged theatrical performances of episodes which might also include ritual possession of actors in certain peak scenes.

We want to discuss this range of performance genres as well as the range of theatre proper by using two major sets of examples, one from a north Indian Ramayana tradition, the other from a group of forms from south India based on the epics as well as the Bhagavata Purana.

Since most of the theatrical performance traditions to be sketched here share features with classical Sanskrit drama and its theory of performance as first elaborated in the Natyasastra (approximately second century), a few remarks about the classical traditions of the first millennium ad are in order.

The texts of the available classical plays such as the ones by Kalidasa (fifth century) are multi-lingual, which to some extent reflects, albeit in a stylized way, regional and social linguistic diversity. Most of the dramas are court-dramas centring on the love of a king for a young princess or nymph, or on political intrigues involving a minister (or both in combination).

Themes are often taken from the epics. The king and his minister speak Sanskrit, the female characters speak Sauraseni Prakrit and may have verses in Maharastr! Prakrit, low- class males speak Magadhl Prakrit.

There are two interesting exceptions: female ascetics and highly educated courtesans may also speak in Sanskrit; the jester (vidusaka) who is a Brahman and the king’s companion speaks Sauraseni like the noble ladies, and not Sanskrit as may be expected. The plays all have prologues in which a stage-manager (sutradhara) introduces the audience to the play and usually also to the playwright and the performance context.

The joint evidence of the information contained in Sanskrit theoretical treatises such as the Natyasastra and the Dasaripa (approximately tenth century) on the one hand, and of the hints contained in the prologues and stage directions of the dramas themselves, on the other hand, suggests that classical Indian theatre was radically non-naturalistic and non-illusionistic and made hardly any use of props and scenery.

It assigned at least as much importance to the subtleties of histrionics, especially the mimic expression of emotions, music and dance as to the verbal delivery of a fixed text.

The most important concept developed in the Ndtyasastra and elaborated in the tenth century into a comprehensive aesthetic theory by the Kashmiri author Abhinavagupta is the concept of rasa (lit. ‘taste’, ‘essence’).

The dramatic depiction of eight, later nine, emotional states (bhava) such as love, mirth, anger, and sorrow are meant to evoke the aesthetic experience, the ‘tasting’, of the erotic, the comic, the furious, the pathetic, etc. in a refined form presupposing an audience of connoisseurs.

In the course of the second millennium, the aesthetics of rasa originally developed for the theatre came to be generalized and extended to the appreciation of all the arts as well as to religious experience of the bhakti type.

This should be kept in mind while turning to our first example, a Ramayana performance tradition of north India. Its literary base is Tulsidas’s sixteenth-century Hindi retelling of the Sanskrit epic, the Ramcharitmdnas.

Lutgendorf (1991) distinguishes four performance genres: individual recitation of the text in homes; public recitation by professional reciters; public exposition by professionals (kathdpravacana); and full dramatic enactment in the Ramlila dramas. The notion of lila or divine play has most recently been discussed in Sax (1995).

In contradistinction to the Vedas, access to these texts is not restricted or controlled. Puranic recitation has probably served as a model for public recitation.

All types of performances, such as reciting the entire text in particular portions within a certain number of days, are considered religious activities and are sometimes equated in terms of merit with Vedic rituals. Both reciting and listening are considered equally meritorious. Lutgendorf (1991) gives detailed descriptions of various ‘rites of recitations’.

In spite of printed texts being available, including cheap editions, katha exposition of the text is still the most important mode of transmission. Lutgendorf defines it as ‘systematic-recitation-with-exposition’, a ‘slow, systematic, storytelling recitation, interspersed with prose explanations, elaborations, and homely illustrations of spiritual points’ (115).

He considers environment itself as constitutive of the act of katha (118). Based on Bonazzoli, he points out that there had similarly been two basic categories of Purana expounders, ‘those who simply recite texts with little or no elaboration and those who translate texts into the vernacular or otherwise comment on them’ (124-5).

The tradition of public exposition thus provided a living commentary in which the audience might also participate (126).

d. The Ramlila:

Perhaps the most complex performance genre of the Ramayana-Ramcharitmanas tradition is the Ramlila, performed over a large area of north India in various settings and with varying patronage (royal, temple-monastery, mercantile, neighbourhood).

Generally, the Ramlila stagings use different locations between which the performers and the audience have to move. In the tradition patronized by the maharajas of Benares (since the eighteenth century) these locations extend over several square miles and include a number of permanent structures.

Lutgendorf explains- ‘The Ramlila is outdoor and peripatetic not because latter-day patrons could not afford to construct theaters but because the pageant came to express notions of cosmography and pilgrimage that aim at reclaiming and transforming the mundane world’.

According to Schechner (1983), the ‘performance text’ (in the sense of the entire miseenscene) consists of three main ‘texts’: the Ramcharitmanas recited by a Ramayani-specialist seated at the back of the audience; the dialogues (samvada) spoken on stage by child actors (svarupa)-, and the ‘spectacle’.

There is constant alternation between dialogues and recitation. The dialogues translate and elaborate Tulsidas’s text. They are controlled by adult experts, the vyasas, who direct the performance on stage and whisper the text of the dialogues into the ears of the role-players.

The staging is iconographic, especially when at the end of the daily performance portion, lights are waved (arati) (in front of the five svarupas, the four brothers, and Rama’s spouse, Sita) as if they were statues (murti) of the divine heroes of the play The performance at Ramnagar is a 31-day event timed during the Dussehra period in September-October.

The daily performances alternate between stasis and motion including processional performance. The action is ‘both physical and narrative’. The actual movement of the characters is itself a decisive part of the story.

There is also audience participation in that the audience may be considered at certain times of the story as the population of Ayodhaya, etc. The svarupas and the other actors are non-professionals who receive a basic training for some time before the annual performances.

The points to be noted are: recitation of the basic text becomes part of the theatrical performance as well and the theatrical performance on stage is non-illusionistic. There is no attempt to hide that the svarupas in their dialogues are just repeating a text transmitted by the vyasas.

At the same time, the svarupas are in fact icons of the divine heroes they impersonate and are worshipped as such. Costume, make-up and especially the crowns worn by the svarupas play an important role.

e. Classifying Theatrical Performances:

The bardic traditions of rendering Sanskrit epics also have their counterpart in vernacular oral epic traditions found all over the subcontinent. Like the renderings of the Sanskrit epics and their vernacular telling, oral epic and other narrative traditions exist in a variety of performance genres and subgenres and in different contexts, including entirely different social settings and modes of patronage.

Kathryn Hansen (1992), discussing parameters of the ‘folk’ and ‘classical’, suggests ‘that instead of looking internally to textual strategies, themes, or codes as determinatives, we give consideration to the sources of a tradition’s authority, its modes of reproduction, and its relation to dominant social groups’.

On this basis she proposes a three-part definition of the ‘classical’:

First, a textual authority must be present that legitimizes and governs the art form … . Second, this textual tradition must be studied and passed on by trained specialists … who control reproduction of the art form. Third, the producers, performers, and their institutions must be supported by a dominant social group.

In pre-modern times, courts and temples most frequently acted as patrons; nowadays sponsorship comes from government agencies, corporations, and cultural institutions constituted from elite groups. Hansen’s aim is to locate the Nautanki theatre of north India studied by her as an ‘intermediate’ theatre between the folk and the classical stressing that these terms should not be used in an essentialist way.

Using her approach, the Ramnagar variety of the Ramlila just discussed would also occupy an ‘intermediate’ position displaying both folk and classical elements. A more comprehensive attempt at locating the multitude of Indian theatre traditions has been made by Richmond, Swann, and Zarrilli.

They distinguish the tradition of classical Sanskrit theatre, continued to some extent in the Kutiyattam theatre of Kerala, from five other traditions: the ‘ritual’ ones such as the Teyyam of Kerala; the ‘devotional’ ones, such as Ras Lila and Ramlila, the ‘folk-popular’ ones, such as Nautanki and Tamasa; the traditions of dance-dramas and dramatic dances, such as Kathakali and Chau; and, finally, the traditions of ‘modern’ theatre.

In this scheme, Ramlila figures as a devotional tradition which Swann distinguishes from the folk-popular in the following way: ‘Devotional forms in addition to their dramatic significance have a symbolic, holy meaning conveyed through spectacle, mimetic action, dialogues and the like.

Folk-popular forms focus their concern on the mundane life of human beings rather than on the gods’ (1990: 239). This would also be a way to distinguish more clearly between forms such as the Ramlila and the Nautanki.

Summarizing his observations on the folk-popular forms discussed by him, Swann lists a number of resemblances which mark them as being of and for the common people:

(1) They integrate in varying proportions vocal and instrumental music, dance, and mimetic action.

(2) All of them give a significant place to the comic sentiment and many of them have stock comic figures.

(3) They show evidence of having originated as open-air performances, open to whomever wishes to attend.

(4) While staging is simple, costume may be simple or elaborate.

(5) Although the forms may vary in their position in the sacred- profane continuum, all are set within the sacred context, as indicated by some form of religious preliminary.

f. Terukkuttu:

Among the south Indian set of examples we want to discuss now, the Terukkuttu (‘street- play’) of Tamil Nadu has been labelled ‘ritual’ theatre by Zarrilli. Like the Ramlila of Ramnagar, Terukkuttu is based mainly on a vernacular telling of a Sanskrit epic, here a Tamil version of the Mahabharata.

It is part of a large-scale performance setting covering an entire village and extending over a period of twenty days. It constitutes three levels of performance, the first one being recitation of the epic text by professionals termed piracankam (Skt. prasanga) and comparable to the recitations of the Ramayanis during the Ramlila; the second one is dramatic enactment proper, the Kuttu (cp Terukkuttu); and the third one is ritual enactment.

Although these appear to be the same components that we encountered in the Ramlila, their spatial and temporal distribution and weightage differ considerably In the variety studied by Frasca (1990), who is our major source, the Terukkuttu performance is part of the cult of the goddess and Mahabharata heroine DraupadI during whose annual festival rituals, core scenes from the Tamil Mahabharata are recited and enacted with a number of other rituals in synchronicity Epic recitation is a daily, independent feature all through the twenty-day festival.

From the tenth to the eighteenth day, the recitations are complemented by the enactment of the same scenes in the Terukkuttu performance mode which uses its own texts for the episodes. From the tenth to the last day there are also large- scale ritual enactments constituting the third level of rendering the Mahabharata events and partly involving some of the actors.

Thus, Frasca observes, the marriage of DraupadI is performed thrice: as described in the recitation of the prasanga; as staged by the Terukkuttu actors; and as a ritual in the temple performed by priests (1990: 147).

The dramatic enactment of the Terukkuttu uses stylized make-up, song, dance, rhythm, narrative prose, and intonation. Music and third-person narrative are delivered by musicians and singers at the back of the stage, dance and first-person dialogue by the actors in front.

There is a clown who figures mainly at the beginning of the performance. An important feature of the staging are the curtain entrances of the individual characters, also found in other south Indian theatre forms. A small curtain is held up by two stage hands. Behind it the character makes his appearance creating suspense until the curtain is removed.

He then shows artistic and energetic dances while the narrative is being sung by the singers. According to Frasca, these curtain entrances are the most intensive sequences of a performance. It is here that the actors and members of the audience may also lapse into possession during peak scenes.

These sequences alternate with dramatic enactment by the performers using first-person speech, that is, speaking directly as the characters. The improvised prose dialogues are called vacanam.

The predominance of the ritual frame and the feature of sometimes violent ritual possession would justify labelling Terrukkuttu as ritual theatre rather than bhakti-oriented devotional theatre. Its village base, communal patronage and comparatively low degree of codification and control of transmission would make it appear, at the same time, folk-popular rather than classical.

g. Yaksagana:

The folk-popular elements link Kuttu to the performance tradition in neighbouring Karnataka state, the Yaksagana, which could also be labelled a ‘dance-drama’. Zarrilli argues that the dance-drama is distinguished by being overtly dramatic and by giving primary or equal emphasis to dance when enacting a scripted drama or dramatic story- In his words,’… movement and choreography are determined by dramatic context—pure and interpretative dance elements are subsumed within and shaped by the drama  … Movement supports and fills out the playing of roles in the drama. In Yaksagana, third-person narrative and sung dialogue by background singers alternates with impromptu dialogic sequences spoken by the actors as characters.

Traditionally, themes have been taken from Kannada versions of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavata Purana. The oldest known texts of the plays are preserved in manuscripts dating back to the sixteenth century.

They are called prasanga and contain only the texts sung and recited by the singer-director-stage-manager, termed Bhagavata, this name pointing back to a tradition of recitation and exposition of the Bhagavata Purana. Speech by the actors and the clown is not fixed in writing but improvised.

Yaksagana is performed in fields after the harvest or in open spaces near temples or estates. The performance area is marked off by four decorated poles creating a square or rectangular temporary stage.

Although there is no ritual framing comparable to Terukkuttu, performances are often sponsored in fulfillment of religious vows and many troupes are entertained by temples in the coastal region of Karnataka, some of them looking back on a continuous tradition of nearly 200 years.

The one-night performances commence with the worship of Ganapati in the greenroom and later on stage. The preliminaries include a dance by two young boys representing god Krsna and his brother Balarama, followed by another dance by two cowgirls or milkmaids from the entourage of the god.

They are impersonated by males as there are no females among the performers. A clown and his troupe of youngsters also figure in the preliminaries. The clown returns to the stage at various points for comic interludes, sometimes functioning as messenger of the hero.

The performance structure of the play proper, the prasanga, is similar to Terukkuttu. It involves certain entrances alternating with impromptu dialogues that elaborate the sung or recited portions. In addition, the Bhagavata questions the character about his identity and purpose, giving him a chance to introduce himself.

The main themes and the highlights of the performances are battles displaying forceful male dances, and marriages, often as parts of the same play.

h. Kathakali:

Further down the west coast in Kerala, Yaksagana shares its martial and heroic character with Kathakali. In Kathakali, too, the story is told in third-person narrative by singers standing at the back of the stage. But, in contradistinction to Yaksagana, the actors translate the story heard in the linguistic code into highly stylized gestural and mimical codes.

They never speak. Both, verses in narrative third-person Sanskrit (sloka) and dialogue portions (pada) in the regional language, Malayalam—usually written in first person as if the actor were speaking— are delivered by the singers.

By divorcing the speaking and singing of the text from the acting, the actor-dancer is freed for the vigorous choreography and complex gestural interpretation of the text. There is no clown or jester in Kathakah.

The plays are based on dramatizations of stories drawn by playwright-composers first from the Ramayana, then the Mahabharata and later from the Bhagavata Purana , that is, from the same sources as in Yaksagana.

By incorporating ‘some of the more virtuosic dramatic techniques of Kutiyattam, including its emphasis on face, hand, and eye gesture’, Kathakali became more ‘classical’ and rasa-oriented although it remained highly popular. Patronage, too, originally came from the highest ranks of society and the patrons were connoisseurs who often contributed to the refinement of the form.

Kerala can also boast of the only surviving performance tradition of classical drama in India, the Kutiyattam theatre, dating back to at least the eleventh century au. The transmission of performance techniques and performance texts has been exclusively in the hands of Cakyar actors and Nanhyar actresses.

In Kutiyattam (‘acting together’) the aesthetics of rasa was developed to utmost subtlety by an extreme emotional elaboration of individual scenes and passages.

Thus, in this acting style the rendering and interpretation of a single stanza may take far more than an hour. Only individual acts of dramas are performed, taking several nights. The multilingualism of Sanskrit drama is multiplied by including Malayalam trans­lations of Sanskrit and Prakrit passages by the vidusaka, the jester.

His lengthy learned and humorous discourses add an epic element to the staging. They may also be presented inde­pendently in a purely male subgenre called Kuttu.

The Nanhyar actresses, on the other hand, have their own female subgenre of mono-acting, the Nannyar Kuttu, in which dance plays a major role. Performances of all three types were restricted to the temple theatres of Kerala until the 1970s and depended on royal or princely patronage of these temples.

The audience consisted of Brahmans, princes and landed nobility, and castes of temple-servants (ambalavasin). After Independence (1947) and as with Kathakali and other traditional forms, patronage has started shifting to the state and there often is ‘a disjuncture between social and artistic roles in the ranks of the patrons’.

i. Summary: Theatrical Performances:

The major features of all theatrical performances addressed here are:

(1) An ‘epic’, non- illusionistic performance style making little use of props and scenery but emphasizing the performance, costume and make-up of the actor; in several forms an alternation between sung third-person narrative and dialogue by the actors; sometimes the figure of a director or stage- manager on stage during the performance;

(2) A high degree of elaboration in terms of acting style, preliminaries, translation process between languages as well as from linguistic to other codes, leading to a minimum performance time of one full night and extending up to twenty (Terukuttu), thirty-one (Ramlila) or even forty-one nights (the longest Kutiyattam performance);

(3) Training of actors for certain role types (visa), generally no group rehearsals;

(4) A religious performance context; and

(5) A rural or temple economic base.

j. Modern Indian Theatre:

In contrast to the traditional forms of theatre, modern Indian theatre is profane, urban and commercial (ticketing system) with a standard performance duration of two to three hours. It developed in the nineteenth century under the impact of the British colonial power and the English education introduced by the latter. Modern drama first followed European as well as ancient Indian models.

Since the 1960s—and along with the reception of Brecht’s ‘epic’ theatre, itself inspired by Asian techniques—regional forms of traditional drama were rediscovered by modern Indian playwrights and directors and made fruitful for their own work.

At the same time, members of the international, mainly Euro-American theatre, scene developed the notion of intercultural performance. They were attracted by the subtleties of Indian traditional and ritual theatre forms.

Directors like Peter Brooks successfully staged a full night production of the Mahabharata in European and American capitals, integrating various features of traditional Indian renderings of the epic. At present, we witness in India the simultaneous existence and flourishing of the entire range of performances sketched here.


It has generally been postulated that cultural performances attempt to communicate meaning, and that they are of a reflexive character. More recently, aspects of agency have been stressed- cultural performances are not only said to communicate meaning but also to have the potential to change society and to be events where critique might be expressed or where different versions of culture could be negotiated.

As Schieffelin noted- ‘the central issue of performativity, whether in ritual performance, theatrical entertainment or the social articulation of ordinary human situations, is the imaginative creation of a human world’. Through the various performances, life is interpreted, identity is created, and individual crises explained and mastered.

The most important result of studying cultural performances is the insight that the textual dimension cannot be considered exclusively in the interpretation of performances. For one reason, the text is often incomprehensible to the participants.

Formalization, poetic language, and the unusual referential content of language give staged speech an esoteric character which distinguishes it from day-to-day speech, but which also makes it less accessible to both audience and performers. It seems to be precisely its esoteric character that makes staged speech effective, even if its meaning is not perceivable.

According to Tambiah (1968), the efficacy and power of ritual lie in the textual, symbolic, and cosmological representations that the performative character—repetition, conventionality and stereotype—establishes.

Frequently, the language of healing is incomprehensible—even to the patients. We may conclude that ‘meaning’ is more than mere words and action. Meaning does not derive from the text, not even from the text in context, but from the text in performance.

This has perhaps become most evident in our sketch of theatrical performances in which south Asian cultures create polyphone, aesthetically stylized, idealized projections of themselves to reconfirm and celebrate their multifaceted identities.

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