It requires a great exercise of imagination for most of us to conceive of village life in East Bengal in the 1930’s. Ours is an age that typically craves entertainment and diversions. This need is sumptuously fed by a plethora of options: television, dvds, the internet, books, magazines, theatre, restaurants, newspapers and so forth. Imagine, then, if all these diverse forms of recreation were eliminated, with the exception of a small number of sacred texts and the prospect of an occasional visit by a travelling theatre company. That is the world in which Sri Chinmoy grew up and our appreciation of it may help us to better understand an incident that occurred in connection with his mother Yogamaya and his elder brother Chitta…
Evening descends in Shakpura, a tiny village on the riverine system of Chittagong. In the Ghosh household, the kerosene lamps are lit and small pools of light reflect the family circle. The elders of the family might be deep in discussion, the younger ones playing chess1 or some other game. Perhaps someone is reading the Mahabharata and narrating various episodes. Another might be sewing some clothes or mending fishing nets. Thus the rhythm of life goes on – with a kind of pristine simplicity that has remained unchanged for generations.
News has reached the family by word of mouth that a Jatra troupe will be passing through the area and performing in a nearby village. Jatra is the folk theatre of Bengal and is particularly popular in rural areas. Usually these dramas portray much-loved episodes from the life of Bengal’s saint, Sri Chaitanya, or they illustrate the pastimes of Lord Krishna.
The impending arrival of the Jatra troupe is a matter of much excitement and conjecture. The monsoon season has passed and the long, hot nights are ideal for social gatherings. On the appointed night, villagers from near and far gather at the designated place – either a temple courtyard or an open field. A bell is rung to signal that the performance will start in two to three hours – typically, some time after midnight. The pace is unhurried and no one minds the extended wait. It is a chance to see distant relatives and exchange news.
The performance itself will last for up to four hours. Already the courtyard is thronging with people. We can imagine the Ghosh family arriving from Shakpura, by ox cart or on foot. Chitta has brought his mother Yogamaya and several of his sisters and brothers.
At the centre of the courtyard, a wooden stage or asar has been temporarily constructed for the performance. This platform is approximately three feet above the ground and sixteen feet square. It is open on all sides. As the starting time draws near, several musicians and singers take their seats on two ramps on opposite sides of the platform. The ramps are six inches lower than the platform itself. The musicians set up their instruments: harmonium, tabla, dholak, flute, pakhawaj, betala and so on. The audience is seated casually on the ground all around them.
The only furniture on the stage is a wooden bench. This will serve, by turns, as a throne, a log, a bed and the steps of a bathing ghat. A wooden gangway, bordered by bamboo strips and ropes, extends from one side of the stage to a curtained dressing area some sixty feet away. Via this gangway, the actors will make their appearance and also exit. Oil-fed torches, hung on poles, illuminate the asar and add to the atmosphere.
The performance Yogamaya has come to see is about the life of Sri Chaitanya. It will be presented in the dialect of the region and, according to custom, the characters will be portrayed by an all-male cast. The role of Shachi, Sri Chaitanya’s mother, will be taken by a seasoned actor wearing a sari and heavy make-up. This is a story that has many rich dramatic elements, including the antics of two hooligans, Madhai and Jagai. There are also courtly scenes requiring elaborate costumes, which provide a stark contrast to the ochre robes of Sri Chaitanya and his followers. Additionally, the saint’s ecstatic dancing creates wonderful dramatic opportunities. And there is the commanding presence of the narrator, the Vivek, who comments on the action and provides the voice of conscience.
The figures are all larger than life, their actions exaggerated and their voices, minus microphones or amplifiers, charged with melodrama. Nonetheless, the Jatra plays serve as a powerful medium to communicate religious and spiritual values.
The dramatic core of Chaitanya Jatra, the scene that evokes the most pathos, is undoubtedly the scene where Sri Chaitanya decides to leave his dear ones and go in search of his beloved Lord Krishna. He blesses his close disciples for the last time and then takes farewell of his mother. He touches her feet and slowly withdraws along the gangway into the darkness beyond, while his mother weeps inconsolably. She calls after him, using his childhood name, “Nimai! Nimai!” But the echo comes back, “Nai! Nai! Nai!” meaning ‘not here’ or ‘nothing’ in Bengali.
Here is the scene as Sri Chinmoy dramatises it in his 1973 full-length play Lord Gauranga: Love Incarnate:
(Chaitanya is alone.)
CHAITANYA: Krishna, where are you? Where are you? I can no longer bear your absence. I want only a glimpse of your smile, O my beloved Krishna, O my All. Show yourself to me. If not, to death this body of mine I shall give.
(Enter Sribas, Gadadhar and some of Chaitanya’s other close disciples, who sit near the Master’s feet.)
CHAITANYA: I am glad to see you all. I wish to tell you something quite important. I shall leave you soon. With an unparalleled devotion you all have served me. I offer to each of you my heart’s ceaseless gratitude. But I must go. I must go and find my beloved Krishna. Once I find him, I shall be back.
SRIBAS: Lord, your cruel announcement falls on us like a thunderbolt. Perhaps others can survive being separated from you, but I shall never survive it.
GADADHAR: I have lost all faith in God. Our Lord wants to see Krishna, and for that he is leaving us all. He is forsaking even his old mother. God’s ways are not mysterious at all. They are just cruel, unbearably and unpardonably cruel.
CHAITANYA Gadadhar, for God’s sake, aim not your venomous arrow at my heart. My Lord Krishna is all Love, all Compassion, all Perfection. Indeed, my greatest difficulty lies in leaving my old mother. I must overcome the problem. With Krishna my life is my heart’s delight. Without Krishna my life is the torture of hell. Meaningless and fruitless is my life without him. I need only Krishna.
(Enter Shachi, Chaitanya’s mother.)
SHACHI: Nimai, I have just come to learn that you are leaving me. My son, that can never be done. Impossible! Your elder brother took to sannyasa. He renounced the world. I shall not allow you to follow in his footsteps. Time and again you promised me that you would not desert me like your brother. Tell me frankly, are you determined to leave me, my son? Don’t you know that I cannot bear your absence even for a fleeting second?
CHAITANYA: O Mother of my heart and soul, Krishna is calling me. Mother, please, please allow me to go. I want to go to a sacred place. I feel that then I shall be able to meet my Krishna. Mother, without your full permission I shall not go. But if you allow me to go and find my Krishna, I promise you, Mother, I shall be back.
SHACHI (blessing Chaitanya): My heart’s pride, my life’s only joy, you have my sanction. You go in search of your beloved Krishna. After you have found him, come back without fail. I shall be counting the moments until your safe return. (With folded hands and closed eyes she prays!) O Lord Krishna, show yourself to my Nimai. You are his All. And he is my All.
(Chaitanya touches his mother’s feet and goes away. Shachi opens her eyes.)
SHACHI: Nimai, Nimai!
ECHO: Nai, nai ...
Jatra has always relied heavily on musical dialogue and, in 1982, in true Jatra tradition, Sri Chinmoy composed an exquisite bhajan song to capture this moment of parting.2
Shachimata dake Nimai Nimai
Pratidhani kahe nai nai nai.
He translated the Bengali words to his song as follows:
The mother of Sri Chaitanya
Is crying for her son, Nimai.
The echo answers,
“He is not here! He is not here! He is not here!”
This heart-wrenching scene would most certainly have had a profound effect on the audience, even though they knew the story well. Perhaps their very anticipation of this parting, as well as of other much-loved episodes in Sri Chaitanya’s life, would have heightened their emotional response. Moreover, it was not uncommon for Bengali families to have at least one male member renounce the world and become a monk. In the case of the Ghosh family, Yogamaya’s eldest son had joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in South India, while her husband’s elder brother was a monk in Nadia, West Bengal.
In later years, Sri Chinmoy described his mother’s intense reaction to this scene on numerous occasions. The following very moving version is from the evening of July 10th, 1998, when Sri Chinmoy was recounting some family stories:
This anecdote is about our village theatre. We call it Jatra. My brother Chitta took my mother to watch a play about Sri Chaitanya. When he took renunciation, his mother was crying and crying like anything. So my mother also cried like anything.
My brother asked her, “Why are you crying? We are your children. Nobody will take renunciation. You will have grandchildren. We are all going to get married. Do not cry, do not cry.”
My mother said, “Fool! Fool! I am crying – why? Will God listen to my prayer? I want all my children to remain unmarried, to take sannyasin life, like Sri Chaitanya.”
Being identified with Sri Chaitanya, she was crying for her children to be spiritual, to renounce the world. And here my brother thought she was crying because she thought if her children also do the same then she will have to cry the same way as Sri Chaitanya’s mother.
In another version of the story, Sri Chinmoy wrote that his mother “became racked with sobs” during this scene. What is exceptional is that she had identified herself not with Shachi, but with Sri Chaitanya; not with the human, but with the divine.
Curiously, Chitta completely misread his mother’s reaction. He assumed that, like any mother and especially one with seven children of her own, she longed for an ever-burgeoning family replete with grandchildren. But, as Sri Chinmoy often reflected, his mother’s inner cry was unique. She wanted nothing short of God-realisation for each of her children. It is a sacrifice very few mothers have been able to make.
It is not known in what year this episode took place, but it was clearly a turning point in the lives of the Ghosh siblings. In many ways, they took it as their mother’s sanction for each of them to follow their spiritual inclinations and renounce the world.
Yogamaya was, indeed, a most remarkable aspirant. Had her hopes and expectations for her children been more mundane, then their lives might have followed a different course altogether and the world would not have reaped the benefit of their immense spiritual depths.
Left to right back row: Hriday (who was already a permanent resident of the Ashram), Yogamaya, Mantu, Chitta.
Left to right front row: The little brother of Hriday’s best friend in the Ashram and on the far right is Chinmoy.
This was Mantu’s and Chinmoy’s last visit to the Ashram before they became permanent. On the day this photograph was taken, Chinmoy had a very high fever.
– End –
1 In unpublished reminiscences, Mantu describes how he and his younger brother Madal would sit on a cot together playing chess while their mother mended the fishing nets. Interestingly, the game of chess originated in India.
2 Sri Chinmoy wrote many spiritual plays and also a vast number of stories, which he encouraged his students to perform. These performances were frequently staged outdoors, under the stars, with simple costumes and props. In effect, he carried Bengali Jatra theatre to contemporary New York.