Devotional Theatre

Devotional movements transformed the way that theatre was done in India, and created new and widely varied forms of theatrical performance. The performance forms that emerged from devotional sensibilities and movements were, variously, strictly for an elite class, for the general public, for the educated, for the illiterate, for urban and for rural audiences, for the wealthy, for the poor, and for the demographic spectrum in between all of these extremes. The common element, perhaps, of India’s many devotional forms is their design for a believing patronage. From Kutiyattam to Ram Lila, devotional theatre in India anticipates an audience of devotees, for whom the theatrical performance manifests divine presence.

The term devotional, here, or bhakti, refers broadly to the popular, often affective religious movements that come out of southern India from the sixth century spread across the subcontinent until they become in a few centuries the dominant spiritual mode.  These movements appealed widely by legitimizing unmediated, reciprocal encounters between individuals and divinity.  Pushing against traditional religious systems that placed hereditary classes of priests and the rituals they could provide between individuals and the pantheon (and pushing, as well, against the “protestant” religions—Buddhism and Jainism—which had drawn populations away from Hindu systems), the devotional movements of southern India promoted love for God as the access to God.

Poets and musicians were at the vanguard of these movements.  From the sixth century, the Alvar singer-poets of the southern tip of the peninsula, used art to nurture fervent affection for divinity in the being of Vishnu, and they identified the affective force of poetic art as the experience of God.  Performing arts, then, were from the beginning essential components of bhakti—the avenue by which the devotee found God and by which God found the devotee.

By the twelfth century, devotional Hinduism had gone everywhere, and a wave turned back southward in the form of Jayadeva’s song-poem Gita Govinda.  Composed in the subcontinent’s central-east region, this intensely devotional poem constructed the romantic relationship between Vishnu’s appearance as Krishna and his female counterpart Radha as an aesthetic object, per se.  That is, Jayadeva’s poem directed the considerable imaginations of devotees towards contemplation of the beauty of Krishna’s and Radha’s intimacy, with the anticipation that the devotees’ ensuing rapture constituted a bond between devotees and Krishna-Radha.  The poem was soon performed in temples all the way to the southern coast, confirming in bhakti the indivisibility of aesthetics and spirituality.

Devotional theatre forms follow in this tradition.  The theatre of devotees does not distinguish between art and religion, but, rather, fails to find one without the other.  Kutiyattam, Ram Lila, et al., are art and religion at once.