The Play’s the Thing

by mrupa

“The thoughts of my pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me.” (Bg. 10-9)

Following this central principle plays and dramatic arrangements have always been part of ISKCON’s arsenal in its ‘cultural revolution’ of Krsna consciousness. Just as the devotional pictures of the artists inspired by Srila Prabhupada are windows to the spiritual world, so well done and well performed plays can wrap up an audience in the experience of the transcendental world.

ISKCON has a rich history of using this medium to reach the hearts and minds of people — from simple street theater, to professional off Broadway plays of Mahabharata and Ramayana. And so too plays have always been a part of major feast day celebrations in New Vrindavana.

Up top at Vrindavana Farm, the brhamacarinis would put on plays for Radha-Vrindavanath after Their Lordships’ installation. We’d go out and get all kinds of branches and leaves and turn the whole temple room into a forested scene. Sometimes we’d set up a little garden or waterfall type arrangement in the old fireplace. With the leaves and some colored paper over the fluorescent lights, the temple room already surcharged with the presence of Radha-Vrindavanath would undergo quite a strong transformation. Then Isani, who would usually be the narrator, did her reading parts with a flastlight, while we tried to act out a pastime for Their Lordships’ pleasure.

Not to many months after Radha Vrindavana Chandra had returned to Their altar, the brahmacarinis did the Prahlad-Nrsnghadeva play in the temple room at Bahulavana. Vidya played the part of Lord Nrsnghadeva and a devotee named Vrajesvari played Hiranyakasipu. Vidya had ratted her hair all the way out as the mane of Lord Nrsnghedeva with surprisingly good effect. When Vrajesvari came out of the anthill as the fully empowered Hiranyakasipu, strode towards the altar curtain turned and said her line with the same mannerism as the mortorcycle leader had, the ripple/chill experience was very powerful.

But plays in New Vrindavana remained pretty rustic until Sankirtana and Ruci moved here during the hepatitis epidemic and quarantine.

Sankirtana is a tremendous actor in his own right and a very good director as well. While he did plays the quality and impact they were capable of became exquisite. There were a couple of one-man plays that Sankirtana did: Krsnadas Kaviraj, and Sanatan Goswami that were simply ecstatic actually.

Most of our community plays, however, often have a touch of the giggles to them. One play about the Yadu dynasty in particular stands out in memory. Kuladri was playing Samba and as his character was introduced he pulled back on his bow and intoned, “Om tad Visnu boinggg!” I think it was in the same play that Taru was playing Lord Balaram.

You can be sure Taru approached the role and the service with all sincerity and very good realization as well. But Taru was one of those guys who when they take off their shirt, you wonder why he’s wearing a sweater underneath it. He was a very hairy Hare Krsna. For some reason, instead of simply giving him a full type costume, he’d been dusted down with what looked like talcum powder to try to give him a Balaram-like complexion. Definitely a ‘special effect’, but nope, not even close.

In another Lord Nrsnghadeva play, probably one of the best really ever done here, Bimbadhara played Lord Nrsnghadeva and Bhagavat Ananda played Hiranyakasipu. Bimbadhara is simple huge tall-wise. And even though Bhagavat was no midget, when Lord Nrsnghdeva put Hiranyakasipu on His lap it made for an extremely explicit depiction.

That Nrsnghadeva play was performed in the same year that the concrete casting started. The concrete shop was at first crewed entirely New Vrindavana women who wanted to do something ‘solid’ for Prabhhupada’s Palace, but it ran under the direction of Bhagavat. During the play; as the characters and the pastime were unfolding, Gomata leaned over to me in the audience indicating the intense performance of Hiranyakasipu and whispered almost shakily, “He’s not acting!”

But whether the plays are simple, professional, or even a little silly, they serve so many elements of devotional service, the association of devotees, and elements of community building, and bonding, they all have a special value. They are potentially a very efficacious way to catch the consciousness, which is the thing.

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