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  • La Fête-spectacle: Théâtre et rite au Nepal
  • Kathy Foley
La Fête-spectacle: Théâtre et rite au Nepal (The Festival Performance: Theatre and Ritual of Nepal). By Gèrard Toffin. Paris: Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’hommes, 2010. Paper €21.85.

This text mines the author’s ongoing anthropological fieldwork since the 1970s in Nepal on the Newari Indra Jatra, the most important festival of Katmandu. Toffin analyzes the festival’s roots in Hindu kingship, related to the Vedic god Indra. Toffin shows the ways in which other cults are woven into the event dedicated to Indra. This includes both the cult of Kumari (Devi, represented by the “living goddess,” a prepubescent girl of the Shakya clan) and Bhairava (an angry manifestation of Shiva, the most important deity of the Newars). These deities are interpolated into the older festival dedicated to Indra. Toffin maintains that the whole festival is “theatre” in the broad sense of the term. The events combine Vedic Hindu, Mahayana Buddhist, and colonial and postcolonial political features in this eight-day event.

Early chapters review anthropological theories of ritual as theatre. Toffin sees links to Indian dramatic theory of the Natyasastra as well as patterns of South Indian rituals of kingship. Toffin relates the central event of the festival—setting up a pole dedicated to Indra—to the myth of the creation of [End Page 576] drama in the Natyasastra: the episode in which Indra beats back the demons with his banner staff. This archaic myth has, Toffin postulates, until recently, been reactivated in relation to Nepali royal power. He acknowledges that with the fall of the monarch in 2008 changes may take place. The author conceives of the whole city as the theatrical space/stage and notes how the ritual focuses on and culminates in front of the main palace of the Malla kings (twelfth to eighteenth century), whose very names often were variations on the name of Indra. Their rites were later perpetuated by the later dynasties that succeeded the Malla.

The carts on which the Buddhist Kumari (living goddess) and representatives of other divine powers tour the city, Toffin compares to jatra, processional performances of Bengal. He sees a religiopolitical ideology embodied in the processional display. Throughout the book, the author points out correlations between Nepali practices that could be seen up to the twenty-first century and old Indian models. The patterns, not the particulars, are, he argues, the same.

For scholars interested in theatre per se the most useful chapter is the sixth, which gives specific information on actual theatre display, including the use of masks and puppets in performances. For the time of performances, dancers are considered repositories of the divine power (see pp. 100ff.). Bhairava, Kumari, and Candi (Devi) are the major masks regularly presented. Discussion of jhyalinca or putali (marionettes) are also included. Data on what happens when and where for processions and ceremonies is given.

Folklorization and touristification of these performances are more recent phenomena (see pp. 154ff). Though the author discusses these trends his focus is toward the past and ritual sources of the activities. Toffin’s attempt to link these rites to Greek Dionysian worship (pp. 118–119) remains conjectural.

Readers will find this text useful for understanding Nepali royal history and the use of myth in reinforcing kingship. While the focus is on the rites and their political and social implications rather than on the specific performance(s), dancers, and theatre apparatus, this is a valuable resource for those interested in Nepali ritual theatre and will interest scholars of Sanskrit theatre and Indian ritual practices.

Kathy Foley
University of California, Santa Cruz