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TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 96-106

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Performing the Goddess
Sacred Ritual into Professional Performance

Anjum Katyal

[Photos by Naveen Kishore]

The Mother is coming! The Mother is coming! The Mother is coming!

Bearing a basket of the deadly pox on her head, to village after village, comes the mother of all the poxes, Devi Sitala. That is why, in every village, there is the worship and puja of Devi Sitala. Along with the worship of the mother one must utter her sacred name, have devotional songs in her praise; and to spread the song of the mother are New Loknath Opera's Chapal Rani, Nadu Chakraborty, Maya Chakraborty, Manik Patra, Minati, Rathin babu, M. Loknath, and Kishore Kumar and other skilled artists. The devotional hymn of praise has been directed by Chapal Rani, its adornment with a garland of lights is by Bholanath. Therefore, for songs in praise of the mother, contact--

New Loknath Opera 1

Next follows the addresses and contact numbers. Below that, at the bottom of the handbill, is the following:

"See a bear dance onstage"

The italicized text is a translation of the handbill distributed by the New Loknath Opera theatre company, the professional company currently engaging the services of Chapal Bhaduri, the erstwhile star female impersonator of the jatra form of theatre in Bengal, 2 known professionally as Chapal Rani (literally, Queen Chapal). 3 I open with this text because it perfectly encapsulates the issues I am looking at in this article: the layering of religious ritual and professional theatre that is a unique feature of this form of sacred performance, Sitalapala, or the enacting of the Sitala saga. Through the case study of one particular Sitala performer, Chapal Bhaduri, and his performative approach and circumstances, I endeavor to show how religious custom and belief are put to the service of professional theatre in a skillful blend of ritual and performance. My purpose is to examine the material roots of the "sacred," and to tease out the intermeshed strands of the socio-economic from the mystical-spiritual aura of this performance tradition. I feel that understanding the historicity of such processes has become especially important in the context of the growing fundamentalist appropriation [End Page 96] of "tradition" as rigid and exclusionist in India, as in many countries of the world.

By way of historical background, Sitala (from sital, meaning cool; literally, the cool one) is the much-dreaded goddess or mother of spring diseases. A whole range of diseases known as basanta (which is also the word for spring) are her children or followers. They do her bidding and strike humankind with attacks of fever, pain, and a wide variety of poxes, each named after its distinctive appearance. 4 Sitala is widely worshipped in the villages of eastern India, where the dreaded smallpox, until fairly recently, was a killer disease. Known by different names in different parts of the country, she is also worshipped elsewhere in India, although I am concerned here with Sitala worship in Bengal and its neighboring states.

Sitala is a pre-Aryan goddess, worshipped by tribals of Bengal, Assam, Bihar, and Orissa. 5 She demands animal sacrifice, though this practice has been less widespread since her Brahminization, or gentrification. Sitala was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon at some point in time, as one born of the mind of Brahma, recognized and worshipped by the others of the divine trio, Shiva and Vishnu, upon Brahma's recommendation. She is granted the power of visiting sickness on humankind and of curing and healing those already sick. The Skandapurana, one of the Sanskrit puranas (holy ancient scriptures) refers to Sitala as a goddess (devi) of the Hindu pantheon. 6 Texts written in the 17th and 18th centuries as paeans (mangal kavyas) elaborate on the Sitala saga 7 : her origins, her insistence on being recognized and worshipped, elaborate descriptions of all the diseases in her sack of poxes, her attendants, particularly her "son" Jwarasur (jwar meaning fever and asura meaning demon; literally, the fever demon). In each case the pattern is...


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