The Language of Performance

One of the striking aspects of performative traditions in South Asia is the local appeal of these arts. Most performances spring forth from humble backdrop of a street-play-like setting, and continue along the lines of constant communication with the viewers. Simply put, the spectator in South Asian performative arts is hardly ever a mute observer, but an active participant. This very relationship between the actor or performer and the audience unravels with the actors interacting with the public, or making grand entrance through the seated audience to reel them in, or to step a bit further: calling on the audience to join in the singing, dancing or echoing key phrases in the performance. A more formal form of performances seen today is most likely an expression of fusing the local arts with the so called formal parameters of theater performance.

If we were to take a formal approach, the dichotomy of langue (language) and parole (acts of speech) popular in the field of linguistics, comes to forefront. To explain Saussure’s position in a nutshell, known form and conventions of languages (langue)in Konkan (as discussed in the last post) can be separated from the manifestation of language in a social sense: parole. What one might speak, or utter, is langue, but the shared linguistic communication as the performances, is parole.

Why this dichotomy?

Barring the criticism against Saussure’s thesis, langue-parole offers a good segue into discussing how the languages come together alongwith their dialects and regional peculiarities in a social space.

Performances of Dashavatari and Khele, among others in Konkan, render a complex linguistic milieu through the performances. An actor playing a deity in the play will likely use a different dialect than a common man, or an animal played in the specific scene. Sometimes, even without the aid of specific drapery and costumes, the audience would be able to identify the characters based on the use of language, or by supplementing spoken word with action. (I use Dashavatari and Khele as representative examples, but this is a standard practice for almost all theater performances).

Dashavatari and Khele

Local performative arts in Konkan span from recitation of traditional texts (Puranas, Gita, Quran, Bible, etc) to theater reenactment for public entertainment. In some cases, the performances mark the beginning of a festival, or a religious day. Dashavatari, for instance is often performed as a dedication to a village deity. The performances are inspired from the religious narrative literature, with a melange of scenes from local history or oral narratives appended in the performances. The formal text forms the langue here, and the fluid performance with some interlude of local currents forms the parole. For further details on Dashavatari, its history and other nuances, read this post.

Opening scene from Dashavtari performance (Malvan, 2019)

Khele (lit. translated as play) takes the integration of the narrative with public, a step further. The performance follows a series of small acts, based on mythical stories, local narratives, and a call to action for some social concern. In both Dashavatari and Khele, the use of masks or face makeup forms a veil between the actor and the character, much like the native-tongue of the actor and the dialect in which they speak for the character.

“Gavlan” section from Khele performance (Narvan, 2019)

As the actors chart various territories in the performance through the use of language, each member of the audience becomes a participant in the shared social reality in that moment. At this moment, parole becomes the narrative of the moment.


Qawwali songs fill the streets and pendals in Konkan for their Sufi devotional rhythm and hymn-like characteristics. The performative aspect in terms of singing, and occasional dance, offers social participation at the mosques and in Mohallas. Attitude for Qawwali in Konkan is ambiguous, with some people in favor, while some vehemently opposed, owing to its entertainment aspect. Qawwali performances routinely follow the formal, codified compositions. However, sponteneous insertions by the singer or shahir (poet/bard) are not unheard of. “Jugalbandi” or a faceoff between singers/poets forms a charming aspect of Qawwali with one trying to oust the other with clever compositions. These compositions, as you may have guessed, is a delicate dance between langue and parole!

The devotional aspect in Qawwali songs appears most prominent, with ample room for local linguistic insertions and shayari (poetic couplets). I am uncertain about the participatory role of the public, but Qawwali as a form caters to the various shades of local narrative performances, while championing the commentary or discourse aspect from the formal textual tradition of Quran and Hadith. Local hegeographies of Sufi saints and Pirs finds a voice in Qawwali narration. Chamatkar or miracles by the pir find lyrical compositions to reach the intended audience, while achieving entertainment and the intention of a sermon.


Konkan, and other areas of South Asia, boast of many performative arts that combine words, language and images. One school of traditional narrative art that continues to captivate artist’s imagination is at Pinguli, in Sindhudurg district. The tradition of Chitrakathi follows a performative trope of narrating the stories of scenes with the aid of painted panels, leather puppets or scrolls. The bard or the narrator weaves the narrative threads and creates an ambiance for the listeners to be awestruck by the introduction of these beautifully painted intricate characters in the form of leather puppets on wooden sticks. The puppets dance and make movements so as to unfold the narrative further. Accompanying music and commentary renders a fuller picture for the audience.

Leather puppetry at Kudal, Sindhudurg

Retracing the roots

This performative scheme is by no means novel to South Asia, or unique to the region of Konkan. The practice of travelling bards with scrolls of narrative paintings finds a mention in a plethora of texts, correspondences and Colonial reports during the British Raj. The tradition of Phad paintings in Gujarat owes its origin to a similar tradition of bardic performative arts. Maybe you would like to read a short piece on the intersection of material culture and oral narratives here?

The Puranas were also very much a part of this performative sphere, and were delivered to the public in the form of sermons, lectures of narratives. The texts had a narrative tradition, which became a story-telling process by the bards and speakers. It is for this reason, that the Puranic and Epics canon in South Asia is considered to be a fluid canon of texts. Hence we have many Ramayanas for instance – one by Tulsidasa, Valmiki, Pampa, Jain Ramayana and so on. Similarly, we have numerous renderings of Mahabharata in various parts of the continent. And if were to circle back to Konkan, the performative tradition – as recitation or theater performances – of various local Puranas, we have a multitude of local narratives that add more characters, re-frame some narratives and present a slightly different take on some stories, as a result of this ostentatious performative tradition. Some representative narratives can be found in the texts of Sahyadri Khanda, Sangmeshwar Mahatmya and Vyadeshwar Mahatmya.

As a tradition ossifies into a mainframe story, we tend to look for conformity in our parole, or social meaning. However, isn’t different manifestations of langue the essence of parole? The performative traditions in Konkan not only showcased the warp and woof of local narrativity for me, but also made me wonder if I was losing the sight of a tradition as fluid as these regional performances in looking for a “solid” textual foundation.


23 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”

A representative Pinguli /Paithan narrative art scroll (Kudal, 2018)


Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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