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The Krishna factory

From Nagaland to Navi Mumbai, Krishna is in huge demand everywhere. With Janmashtami in a few days, the raas leela artists of Vrindavan are raking it in, writes Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: Aug 09, 2009 00:09 IST
Paramita Ghosh

At Rs 3.5 lakh, Majhle Shyamji, a crowd favourite as ‘Krishna’ for years, stopped pacing around his Scorpio SUV at his farm on the Delhi-Agra highway five kilometres from Vrindavan and sealed the deal. “Let’s talk packages,” he told the festival organiser from Nagaland on the phone, giving him a breakup of men, days and distance to show why his Krishna

Leela added up to this figure. Forty-plus Majhle is one of nearly one lakh artistes of Mathura-Vrindavan — the birthplace of Krishna, one of the most loved gods of the Indian pantheon — engaged in exporting their skills in theatre, music and dance to a ready market of religious and popular art audiences. In a sense, they’re ‘outsourcing’ Krishna to these audiences, who could be a community of rich Haryana farmers or cell-phone toting corporators in Navi Mumbai. Or, they could be in peaceloving Thailand. “Krishna is in demand everywhere. No god, Buddha, Shani, Shiva, comes close,” says an artiste.

Each troupe of 20-40 artistes is headed by a master, ‘Swami’, in keeping with old traditions of the guild when wandering groups of minstrels put up raas leela (a ballet that Krishna is said to have performed) on request at courtyards in exchange for bags of rice and lentils. The ‘returns’ were shared by all. Then, as now, the master made the deal but the items and etiquettes of exchange have changed. The Swami is now boss, the art is now a job, and actors are professionals with salaries.

For example, Chandrashekhar Koushik, part of Swami Fatehkrishna Sharma’s troupe, goes on tour for six months; the rest of the year he is an advocate. Sitaram Sharma, with the same team, has an optional career: farming. “That’s a second option. Krishna Leela beings more money.”

How did the culture of the holy city of Vrindavan enter a shop? There are no easy answers. But the loosening hold of religion over life and state neglect of the arts have made artistes of the 250-odd theatre companies keep one eye on their art (bhaav) and the other on bookings, in this post-globalised world. Meghshyam Sharma (15) as Krishna, and his Radha, Virendra Sharma (13), are part of a troupe that outsources religious drama. Half the year, they travel through India. Last year, they went to Hong Kong.

Seasoned artistes say they have been around the world six times. The peak season and rates continue till Dussehra; a 15-20 member troupe earns between Rs 1-3 lakh. The shelf-life of a Krishna is till pre-teen — till hormonal changes harden the voice and the moustache begins to grow. (That, of course, can be taken care of. Majhle Shyamji, for example, is clean-shaven and a daily consumption of ghee and milk has sweetened the baritone.)

Krishna Leela used to be a way of life performed as art in people’s homes. It is now an organised event available on call for a good budget. It can be staged on any date, even outside the religious calendar, to the accompaniment of the
synthesiser, electric drum and, the ultimate blasphemy — ‘Krishna’ played by actors who eat eggs.

Tradition has been given the go by. Eating of ‘asatwik bhojan’ (impure food) and the phasing out of Dhrupad, for instance, have diluted the art and its image, and affected livelihoods, says veteran pakhawaj artiste Pandit Totaram Sharma. (Pakhawaj is a kind of drum played during the rendition of classical Dhrupad.) Says Sharma, “Modern ears don’t want to hear the pakhawaj, sarangi or the flute.”

“Nowadays Kansa, Krishna’s uncle, gets up on stage wearing a watch and costumes in the style of TV serials,” says actor Lokendra Kaushik, one of the dying breed of performers attached to the ‘history’ of raas, who updates his knowledge of Natyashastra with theoretical discussions with a local historian, Dr Ballabh Mishra.

Koushik, however, is now looking forward to two things: building a Lok Kala Bhawan in Mathura and a Russia trip. “Now when Krishna Leela has become a ‘business’,” he says, “every artiste tries to recreate Vrindavan wherever he goes.”
The Krishna market has also gone beyond, as locals say, ‘tange ka ghoda, raasleela ka chhora’ (tonga horses, the boy-actors of raas). Vrindavan is the world’s biggest export market of Krishna accessories. Businessman Banwari Mukutwala has an export turnover of Rs 5 crore, selling idols, costumes and Krishna-Radha crowns each year.

God is clearly with him.