I realise the overbearing presence of a “researcher” point of view vis a vis that of a patron as I await for the play to begin. The “Dashavtari” performance is a stage play based on local traditional narratives in India. A wooden stage for “Dashavtari” is set, and we grab the spots close to the stage – the best viewing seats. And I continue to mull over Goffman’s thesis briefly… The performative in the foreground and background presents a multiverse of the petite cosmos of Dashavtari.
The actors transformed themselves into the characters with bold stokes of makeup and impressive drapery. As I watched the transformation of a young boy turn himself into a beautiful damsel for the play, I believed in magic and all that comes with it… Wooden swords, trident and other paraphernalia added a sense of reality to the character, while playing on the notion of reality and make-believe.
The transition from the backstage to the frontstage unfolded with a musical ode to the props to be used for the Dashavtari play and an idol of Ganesha (the Hindu god revered as the remover of obstacles). This musical thread of worshipping the deity in the form of melodious song was to continue as musicals in the Dashavtari performance. Harmonium and a percussion instrument accompanied the musical interlude in the Dashavtari.
Why the name, though? Dashavtari literally means “ten forms” if split dash= ten, Avatar= forms, I= (of). Traditionally, Dashavtari is a single act play of approximately ten characters as a night-long performance.
The narrative scape of Dashavtari is charted along the lines of a Puranic narrative. One of the characters perform the role of a narrator, stinging together various sections of the story enacted for the audience. The narrator often reiterates and repeats some part of the narrative as new people join in the audience. The performance is set up such that it begins post-dinner, and continues into the midnight, often getting wrapped up by dawn. The endeavor to make it interesting and palatable for all ages, the role of the narrator appeared to be the key in the success of the performance.
As lectures and other avenues where the people are”spoken to”, Dashavtari performance begins and ends with a generally known or familiar song, story snippet or a devotional melody.
I sat in the audience, as the first song inaugurating the performance began…and we all joined in. Next five hours were filled with a range of emotions flooding across the audience as the characters displayed happinss, killed the villians, wept and rejoiced… After a rollercoaster of storylines, all was well and Dashavtari ended on a high note.
The performance is considered sacrosanct, offered to the deities. Probably that is why the traditional Dashavtari troupes are all-male. Females are considered impure or liable to pollution owing to menstruation (a very regressive stand). The performance takes place in a temple or in the environs of the temple such that the deity could be entertained.
I experienced a local (some say folk) performative art up close for the very first time. It is a concrete step in unfolding the vicissitudes of performative religion in my area of study. I look forward to the patterns in which performances such as these connect with the traditional religious storytelling…
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