Râs Lila (Braj)

The term râslila refers to an episode of the devotional text the Bhagavata Purana, in which the divine and youthful Krishna meets the young girls of his hometown, Vrindavan, in the forest at night to dance together the swirling râs dance.  A few theatre forms have adopted this term.  The various kinds of Râs Lila theatres, which differ from each other in significant and distinct ways, can be distinguished regionally.

Braj Map

Braj Region in North India

One of the principal forms of Râs Lila theatre is the definitively devotional form that developed in the early sixteenth century in northern India’s Braj region, an area about the size of Long Island lying directly between Delhi and Agra.  The Braj Râs Lila combines elements of temple ritual, Kathak dance, dhrupad music, devotional poetry, and conventional acting to dramatize the many stories of Krishna—the same Krishna that appears in the Mahabharata and who reveals his divinity to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.  However, in this devotional tradition, Krishna never appears as the adult warlord of epic literature.  Instead, Braj religion focuses almost exclusively on Krishna’s childhood in a bucolic paradise that was Braj, the center of which is the small town of Vrindavan.

Through Braj’s Râs Lila tradition, devotees see the staging of the various stories of Krishna’s idyllic childhood—stories mostly derived from the Bhagavata Purana.

Krishna and Gopis

Krishna and Gopis (photo by Celia Mason)

The principal characters of the genre are the young girls who play with Krishna in a mythic Vrindavan village.  These gopis share, somewhat, Krishna’s divine identity, and are certainly a part of the divine vision that the Râs Lila intends to provide.  Boys are employed to play these central, female roles, since no women ever perform in Râs Lila plays.  Because the Krishna character in these plays is also young, the featured actors of Râs Lila performances are boys who are, generally, between the ages of eight and sixteen (though it is not terribly uncommon to find boys as young as four or five years old on a Râs Lila stage).

A typical performance goes for two to three hours and, like other traditional theatre forms in India, often begins after sundown.  A traditional Râs Lila performance will stage one of the well-known, scriptural stories of Krishna and his cohorts by way of song, dance, and theatrical spectacle.

Performances typically coincide with festival days, especially Holi in the Spring and Janmashtami in the Fall, but Râs Lila troupes may be contracted to perform throughout the year for special occasions.  Most Râs Lila troupes are based in Vrindavan, a small town near the geographic center of Braj, and most performances take place within Braj.  Râs Lila troupes are highly mobile, nevertheless.  Because Râs Lila serves a distinctly devotional purpose, troupes do not, generally, “go on tour”—that is, travel a circuit of venues that pay troupes from the proceeds of ticket sales.  Rather, a troupe will travel to meet the terms of a specific invitation—a performance for a wedding or a festival in Rajasthan or West Bengal, for instance—after which the troupe will return to Braj.

The stories of Krishna that Râs Lila plays dramatize derive from epic and puranic sources.  Chief among these sources is the Bhagavata Purana.  Like the other Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana recounts stories of divine incarnations.  Here, the important form of divinity’s incarnation is Krishna.  Somewhere between one hundred and one hundred and fifty of the puranic stories have been adapted into Râs Lila plays.  A typical troupe will know between twenty and thirty of these plays, and may have developed a few plays of its own.

Râs Lila Dance

Krishna and Radha

As adapted from the Bhagavata Purana, the protagonist of Râs Lila theatre—Krishna—is a rather spirited child, and the stories of this genre revel in Krishna’s pure childishness.  Popular Râs Lila stories offer audiences a Krishna who steals from his mother, lies to his friends, throws fierce tantrums when contradicted, and incites others to join him in mischief.  Nevertheless, the other characters in the plays are seldom cross with Krishna for long, as he is inimitably adorable, and, in any case, clearly only trying to have some fun.  The plays show how the characters around Krishna enjoy his antics.  And because the troublesome Krishna of the Braj Râs Lila is divine, the way the plays present him challenges audiences to discover the joy in life that is to be had by playing with God, rather than scolding Him.

The video of The Butter Thief play included here provides an overview of an entire Râs Lila performance, performed at Jaising Ghera in Vrindavan by the Râs Lila troupe led by Swami Fateh Krishna Sharma.

The “butter thief” motif is one of the best-known and best-loved Krishna stories, and it showcases Krishna’s unique personality.  In this performance, Krishna banters petulantly with his mother, tricks a gopi who catches him red-handed, then assembles a gang of his friends to help him steal a pot of sweet butter that the gopis have hung up too high for him to reach by himself.  In the climax, a gang of gopis bursts in and scatters Krishna and his cohorts with sticks.

Ras Lila: Butter Thief

Each Râs Lila performance, as is indicated in this video summary, is divided, roughly, in half.  The first half involves the ritual worship of Krishna and Radha (the pre-eminent gopi, who enjoys a divine status of her own), and the dancing of Krishna and his associates that provides an object for the audience’s devotion.  The second half is comprised of the acting out of one or two of the various stories—all well-known to the audience—of the lore of Krishna’s childhood.

At the beginning of this video, you will see the arati ceremony, in which the gopis use an oil lamp to venerate Krishna and Radha, seated on the upstage dais.  These rites reiterate the rites conducted daily in Krishna temples and in home shrines, suggesting both that Râs Lila theatre functions as a temple rite, and that the actors who play Krishna and Radha manifest Krishna’s and Radha’s real presence, in the same way as images and icons in Krishna temples do.

Râs Lila Jhanki

Râs Lila "Jhanki"

At the nine-minute mark in the “Butter Thief” video included above, you will find a distinctive feature of the dancing that opens every Râs Lila performance.  Here, Krishna and Radha arrange themselves in a series of poses, or jhankis.  The arati rite associates Râs Lila performances with the worship activity that occurs in Krishna temples, and the jhanki explicitly associates the Râs Lila actors with the images and icons of Krishna temple worship, as the poses the actors assume, here, mimic the poses of temple images.  In this production, which takes place in a permanent theatre building especially constructed for Râs Lila performances, dramatic changes of lighting place emphasis on these poses, indicating just how important these moments are to the devotional function of Râs Lila plays.  For devotees, devices like jhankis truly manifest Krishna and Radha in Râs Lila performances.

Presence and Meta-presence

Perhaps the most important aspect of Râs Lila plays in Braj is Krishna’s presence.  At the beginning of each performance, other members of the performing troupe as well as dignitaries who might be part of the audience worship, on stage, the actors who play Krishna and Radha.  Customarily, at the end of every Râs Lila performance, the entire audience is invited to come into the stage and worship Krishna and Radha.

This activity of worship resembles the worship ceremonies directed to the images installed in Krishna temples.  Audiences regard the actor who plays Krishna, while he plays Krishna, to be a material manifestation of God, just as the images installed in temples make God manifest in the world.

Nevertheless, audiences do not lose track of the actor.  During performances, the actor is both a Vrindavan child in a costume and the divine Krishna, at the same time.

Krishna’s real presence creates a multi-layered reality in Râs Lila performances.  The theatre building, the actors, and the audience, are, of course, real.  But in the devotional religion of Braj, a transcendent realm is also real.  In the Râs Lila, these two realities overlap.  Through the actors, audiences can perceive Krishna’s persistent, transcendent reality.

Consequently, the Râs Lila is a kind of “meta-theatre”, or “play within a play”.  In his transcendent, unmanifest reality, the divine Krishna plays, and his playing produces the material reality in which people live.  The Râs Lila theatre intends to represent or imitate that divine playing.  And when the divine Krishna manifests in a Râs Lila performance, he enters into an imitation of his own divine activity.  Hence, the Râs Lila plays are plays that are embedded within play.

Furthermore, scholar John Stratton Hawley has suggested that every Râs Lila performance imitates the episode in the Bhagavata Purana in which the gopis play at being Krishna.  In this way Râs Lila performances are also a second kind of metatheatre: plays about plays.  In this theory, the Râs Lila play that you might see in Vrindavan is not an imitation of Krishna’s divine playing, but an imitation of the gopis while they are imitating Krishna’s divine playing.

This second type of metatheatre reveals an important element of the sixteenth-century Krishna devotion that continues in Braj.  Because Krishna’s divine playing is transcendent, it is invisible (even though it is always going on).  Devotees might develop the devotional sensitivity necessary to ‘see’ Krishna’s unmanifest play, but only by nurturing in themselves the sensibility of the mythical cowherd girls, the gopis.  Râs Lila plays, when thought of as reiterations of the gopis’ nighttime play in the forest, can be understood as a tool that assists devotees in seeing the world more like gopis do.

Further Study

Hawley, John Stratton.  Krishna, the Butter Thief. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Hawley, John Stratton and Srivatsa Goswami.  At Play with Krishna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2010.

Mason, David.  Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage. New York: Palgrave, 2009.