HPB-Caves-3

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Letter III

The same evening, in Elphinstone's Theatre, there was given an extraordinary performance in honour of “the American Mission,” as we are styled here. Native actors represented in Gujarati[1] the ancient fairy drama Sita-Rama, that has been adapted from the Ramayana, the celebrated epic by Valmiki. This drama is composed of 14 acts and no end of tableaux, in addition to transformation scenes. All the female parts, as usual, were acted by young boys, and the actors, according to the historical and national customs, were bare-footed and half-naked. Still, the richness of the costumes, the stage adornments and transformations, were truly wonderful. For instance, even on the stages of large metropolitan theaters, it would have been difficult to give a better representation of the army of Rama's allies, who are nothing more than troops of monkeys under the leadership of Hanuman – the soldier, statesman, dramatist, poet, god, who is so celebrated in history (that of India s.v.p.[2]). The oldest and best of all Sanskrit dramas, Hanuman-Natak (natak means drama), is ascribed to this talented forefather of ours.

Alas! gone is the glorious time when, proud of our white skin (which after all may be nothing more than the result of a fading, under the influences of our northern sky), we looked down upon Hindus and other “niggers” with a feeling of contempt well suited to our own magnificence. No doubt Sir William Jones's soft heart ached, when translating from the Sanskrit such humiliating sentences as the following: “Hanuman is said to be our forefather.” Rama, being a hero and a demi-god, was well entitled to unite all the bachelors of his useful monkey army to the daughters of the Lanka (Ceylon) giants, the Rakshasas[3], and to present these Dravidian beauties with the dowry of all Western lands. After the most pompous marriage ceremonies, the monkey soldiers made a bridge, with the help of their own tails, and safely landed with their spouses in Europe, where they lived very happily and had a numerous progeny. This progeny are we, Europeans. Dravidian words found in some European languages, in Basque for instance, greatly rejoice the hearts of the Brahmins, who would gladly promote the philologists to the rank of gods for this important discovery, which confirms so gloriously their ancient legend. But it was Darwin who crowned the edifice of proof with the authority of Western education and Western scientific literature. The Indians became still more convinced that we are the veritable descendants of Hanuman, and that, if one only took the trouble to examine carefully, our tails might easily be discovered. Our narrow breeches and long skirts only add to the evidence, however uncomplimentary the idea may be to us. Still, if you consider seriously, what are we to say when Science, in the person of Darwin, concedes this hypothesis to the wisdom of ancient Aryans. We must perforce submit. And, really, it is better to have for a forefather Hanuman, the poet, the hero, the god, than any other monkey, even though it be a tailless one.

But Sita-Rama – the play performed that evening – belongs to the category of mythological dramas-mysteries, something like the tragedies of Aeschylus[4]. Listening to this production of the remotest antiquity, the spectators are carried back to the times when the gods, descending upon earth, took an active part in the everyday life of mortals. Nothing reminds one of a modern drama, though the exterior arrangement is the same. “From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step,” and vice versa. The goat, chosen for a sacrifice to Bacchus, presented the world tragedy (τράγος ὐδη)[5]. The death bleatings and buttings of the quadrupedal offering of antiquity have been polished by the hands of time and of civilization, and, as a result of this process, we get the dying whisper of Rachel[6] in the part of Adrienne Lecouvreur[7], and the fearfully realistic “kicking” of the modern Croizette[8] in the poisoning scene of The Sphinx. But, whereas the descendants of Themistocles[9] gladly receive, whether captive or free, all the changes and improvements considered as such by modern taste, thinking them to be a corrected and enlarged edition of the genius of Aeschylus; Hindus, happily for archaeologists and lovers of antiquity, have never moved a step since the times of our much honored forefather Hanuman...

We awaited the performance of Sita-Rama with the liveliest curiosity. Except ourselves and the building of the theater, everything was strictly indigenous and nothing reminded us of the West. There was not the trace of an orchestra. Music was only to be heard from the stage, or from behind it. At last the curtain rose... The silence, which had been very remarkable before the performance, considering the huge crowd of spectators of both sexes, now became even more remarkable. It was obvious that for the public – as the most of the audience were worshipers of Vishnu[10], – it was not a mere theatrical performance, but a religious mystery, representing the life and achievements of their favorite and most venerated gods.

The prologue was laid in the epoch before creation began (it may safely be said that no dramatist would dare to choose an earlier one) – or, rather, before the last manifestation of the universe:[11] when Pralaya comes to an end Parabrahma awakens, and, with this awakening, the universe that rested in deity, in other words, that was reabsorbed in its subjective essence, emanates from the divine principle and becomes visible. The gods, who died at the same time as the universe, begin slowly to return to life. The “Invisible” spirit alone, – “infinite and lifeless,” for he is unconditioned original life, – soars, surrounded by shoreless chaos. Its holy “presence” is not visible. It shows itself only in the periodical pulsation of chaos, represented by a dark mass of waters filling the stage. These waters are not, as yet, separated from the dry land, because Brahma, the creative spirit of Narayana, has not yet separated from the Eternal. Then comes a heavy shock of the whole mass and the waters begin to brighten: rays, proceeding from a golden egg at the bottom, spread through the chaotic waters. Receiving life from the spirit of Narayana, the egg bursts and the awakened Brahma rises to the surface of the water in the shape of a huge lotus. Light clouds appear, at first transparent and web-like. They gradually become condensed, and transform themselves into Prajapatis, the ten personified creative powers of Brahma, the god of everything living, and sing a hymn of praise to the creator. Something naively poetical, to our unaccustomed ears, breathed in this uniform melody unaccompanied by any orchestra. The hour of general revival has struck, pralaya comes to an end: everything rejoices, returning to life. The sky is separated from the waters and on it appear the Asuras and Gandharvas[12]. Then Indra, Yama, Varuna, and Kubera, the spirits presiding over the four cardinal points. From the four elements: water, fire, earth, and air – pour forth atoms, whence springs the serpent Ananta. The monster swims to the surface of the waves and, bending its swanlike neck, forms a couch on which Vishnu reclines with the Goddess of Beauty, his wife Lakshmi, at his feet. “Swaha! Swaha! Swaha!”[13] cries the choir of heavenly musicians, hailing the deity. In one of his future avatars Vishnu will incarnate in Rama, the son of a great king, and Lakshmi will become Sita. The motive of the whole poem of Ramayana is sung in a few words by the celestial musicians. Kama, the God of Love, shelters the divine couple and, that very moment, a flame is lit in their hearts and the whole world is generating and propagating...[14]

Later there are performed the 14 acts of the drama, which is well known to everybody, and in which several hundred personages take part. At the end of the prologue the whole assembly of gods come forward, one after another, and acquaint the audience with the contents and the epilogue of their performance, asking the public not to be too exacting. It is as though all these familiar deities, made of painted granite and marble, left the temples and came down to remind mortals of events...

“... of bygone days,
Legends of deep antiquity ...”[15]

The hall was full of natives. We four alone were representatives of Europe. Like a huge flower bed, the women displayed the bright colors of their garments. Here and there, among handsome, bronze-like heads, were the pretty, dull white faces of Parsee women, whose beauty reminds us of the beauties of the Georgians. The front rows were occupied by women only. It follows that the Parsee women could only be distinguished from their Hindu sisters by very slight differences. The almost white faces of the former were separated by a strip of smooth black hair from a sort of white cap, and the whole was covered with a bright veil. The latter wore no covering on their rich, shining hair, twisted into a kind of Greek chignon[16].[17] Their foreheads were brightly painted,[18] and their nostrils adorned with golden rings. Both are fond of bright, but uniform colors, both cover their arms up to the elbow with bangles, and both wear alike saris (shawl). Behind them, in the stalls, there was ruffling a whole sea of ​​the most original turbans which can be found only in India. There were long-haired Rajputs with regular Grecian features and long beards parted in the middle, their heads covered with pagris (turbans) consisting of twenty arshins [15,56 yards] of finest white muslin, twisted with a rope around the head with earrings and necklaces; there were Mahrata Brahmins, who shave their heads, leaving only one long central lock, and wear turbans of blinding red, decorated in front with a sort of golden horn of plenty. Next are Banias[19], wearing three-cornered helmets with a kind of cockscomb on the top; Kachhis[20], with Roman-like helmets; Bhillis, from the borders of Rajastan, whose chins are wrapped in the ends of their pyramidal turbans, so that the innocent tourist never fails to think that they constantly suffer from toothache; Bengalis and Calcutta Babus, bare-headed all the year round outside or inside a house, their hair cut after an Athenian fashion, and their bodies clothed in the proud folds of a white toga-virilis, in no way different from those once worn by Roman senators. Parsees, in their black (bishop) mitres; Sikhs, the followers of Nanaka[21], strictly monotheist and mystic, whose turbans are very like the Bhillis', but who wear long hair down to their waists; and hundreds of other tribes.

Proposing to count how many different turbans are to be seen in Bombay alone, we had to abandon the task as impracticable after a fortnight – it is more easy to count stars in the sky. Every caste, every trade, guild, and sect, every one of the thousand sub-divisions of the social hierarchy, has its own bright turban, often sparkling with gold lace and precious stones, which is laid aside only in case of mourning. But everybody, even rich persons, the members of the municipality, merchants, brahmins, Rao Bahadurs[22] and baronets created by the Government – everyone walk barefoot with legs naked up to knees and wear a dress of a kind of shapeless white loose overall, that semishirt-semicaftan, which can not be compared with anything. Some minister or rajah is sitting on the back of an elephant[23] – we used to see them in Baroda riding giraffes from the stable of Gaikvar's[24] menagerie on the solemn days of their holidays – sitting and chewing pansopari (betel)[25]. Their heads drooping under the weight of the precious stones on their turbans, and each of their fingers and toes adorned with rich golden rings. While the evening I am describing lasted, however, we saw no elephants, no giraffes, though we enjoyed the company of Rajas and ministers. We had in our box the handsome ambassador and late tutor of the Maharani of Udaipur. Our companion was a Raja and a pandit. His name was a Mohanlal-Vishnulal-Pandia. He wore a small pink turban sparkling with diamonds, a pair of pink barege[26] trousers, and a white gauze coat. His raven black hair half covered his amber-colored neck, which was surrounded by a necklace that might have driven any Parisian belle frantic with envy. The poor Rajput was awfully sleepy, but he stuck heroically to his duties, and, thoughtfully pulling his beard, led us all through the endless labyrinth of metaphysical entanglements of the Ramayana. During the entr'actes[27] we were offered coffee, sherbets, and cigarettes, which we smoked even during the performance, sitting in front of the stage in the first row. We were covered, like idols, with garlands of flowers, and the manager, a stout Hindu clad in transparent muslins, sprinkled us several times with rose-water.

The performance began at 8 p.m. and, at half-past two, had only reached the ninth act. In spite of each of us having a Sepoy with punkah (fan) at our backs, the heat was unbearable. We had reached the limits of our endurance, and tried to excuse ourselves. This led to general disturbance, on the stage as well as in the auditorium. The airy chariot, on which the wicked king Ravana was carrying Sita away, paused in the air. The king of the Nagas (serpents) ceased breathing flames, the monkey soldiers hung motionless on the trees, and Rama himself, clad in light blue and crowned with a diminutive pagoda, came to the front of the stage and thanked us, in pure English speech, for the honor of our presence. Then new bouquets, pansupari, and rose-water, and, finally, we reached home about four a.m... Next morning we learned that the performance had ended at half-past six in the morning.

Raddha-Bai


Footnotes


  1. Gujarati is referring to a State in India, or to an ethnic group which resides in that State, or in this case, the language spoken by those people. – Ed.
  2. “If you please” (Fr. “s’il voul plais” or just “s.v.p.”). – Ed.
  3. Originally “bakshazasas” (бакшазасы), could be a mistype. – Ed.
  4. Aeschylus (525-456 BC) – an ancient Greek author of Greek tragedy, and is often described as the father of tragedy. – Ed.
  5. “Synonym to the word ᾠδή, which means song is τράγος – goat; the whole phrase [τράγος ὐδή] is translated as goat-song” (The origin of drama: Primitive tragedy and the role of the goat in the history of its rise by N. N. Evreinov, 1921). – Ed.
  6. Elisa Rachel Felix (1821-1858) – a talented French actress, better know as Mademoiselle Rachel. – Ed.
  7. Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730) – a leading French actress of the 18th century, who became a main character in a play of the same name, dedicated to her in 1849. – Ed.
  8. Sophie Croizette (1847-1901) – a French actress. – Ed.
  9. Themistocles (524-459) – an Athenian statesman, one of the "Founding fathers" of Athenian democracy, a commander who won several significant victories over the Persians at sea, his reforms significantly strengthened the weight of Athens in the ancient world. In 471 BC as a result of the intrigues of the Athenian aristocracy, Themistocles was ostracized, and eventually expelled from the city. After a long wandering, he fled to the Persian king, who, recognizing his talents, handed him over to management of a number of cities in Asia Minor. Apparently H. P. Blavatsky uses this reference to the great, but rejected by his Greek compatriots, as a reproach to her contemporary Greek theater. – Ed.
  10. Rama is one of the incarnations of Vishnu.
  11. All the philosophical sects of India (except Mussulmans) agree that the universe has always existed. But the Hindus divide the periodical appearances and vanishings into days and nights of Brahma. The nights, or withdrawals of the objective universe, are called Pralayas, and the days, or epochs of new awakening into life and light, are called Manvantaras and Yugas, or “centuries of the gods.” These periods are also called, respectively, the inbreathings and outbreathings of Brahma.
  12. The heavenly musicians and singers – cherubs.
  13. “Svyat! Svyat! Svyat!” [Rus. holy! holy! holy!] or “One of all saints.”
  14. Vishnu is one of the three faces of Trimurti (literally: three faces; murti means a sacred face or idol), the Trinity of Hindus, the preserver of all living, as Brahma is the creator, and Shiva is the destroyer.
  15. A. S. Pushkin, “Ruslan and Ludmila”. – Ed.
  16. Chignon is a roll of hair worn at the nape of the neck. – Ed.
  17. Since the time when Alexander the Great destroyed the sacred books of the Gebars, they have constantly been oppressed by the idol worshippers. King Ardeshir-Babechan restored fire worship in the years 229-243 A.C. Since then they have again been persecuted during the reign of one of the Shakpurs, either II, IX, or XI, of the Sassanids, but which of them is not known. It is, however, reported that one of them was a great protector of the Zartushta doctrines. After the fall of Yazdegerd, the fire-worshippers emigrated to the island of Ormasd, and, 15 years later, having found a book of Zoroastrian prophecies, in obedience to one of them they set out for Hindustan. After many wanderings, they appeared, about 1,000 or 1,200 years ago, in the territory of Maharani Jayadeva, a vassal of the Rajput King Champanir, who allowed them to colonize his land, but only on condition that they laid down their weapons, that they abandoned the Persian language for Hindi, and that their women put off their national dress and clothed themselves after the manner of Hindu women. He, however, allowed them to wear shoes, since this is strictly prescribed by Zoroaster. Since then very few changes have been made.
  18. In India it is quite easy to learn a person's religion, sect, and caste, and even whether a woman is married or single, from the marks painted in bright colors on everyone's forehead.
  19. Bania – The most influential trading and financial caste in north India. – Ed.
  20. Kachhi – a caste of gardeners. – Ed.
  21. Gurū Nānak (1469-1539) – the founder of Sikhism and is the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. – Ed.
  22. Rao Bahadur (Rai Bahadur) – a title of honor which the British colonial authorities bestowed upon the Indians for special merit. - Ed.
  23. Elephants in Bombay, under the pretext that they frighten the horses of the British, are now banned, but in all other cities in the province there are a lot of them.
  24. Gaikvar – a common name or title for the Baroda princes.
  25. Pansupari – a blend of spicy betel leaves with some pieces of Areca palm seed and a little amount of lime. – Ed.
  26. Barege – a light silk, woolen or cotton fabric. – Ed.
  27. Entr'actes (Fr.) – intermission, a period of time between two acts in performance. – Ed.