Agra: The century-old theatrical tradition of presenting Sri Krishna Lila for 10 days has seen a revival this year and is even making tales of the cowherd god come alive on the streets of Agra. So much so that it rivals the Ram Lila in its grandeur.
"The unique institution of Sri Krishna Leela in Agra had been seeing a low, with loss of interest and promoters shying away, but it is back in full force this year," said Pandit Mahesh Sharma, the man who has helped revive interest in it.
Sri Krishna Lila, which enacts tales of Lord Krishna - from the birth to the killing of the demon king of Mathura Kansa, is presented in an open ground at the Balkeshwar Gaushala. The Krishna Lila starts soon after Diwali and goes on till full moon night Nov 21.
The sprawling grounds have the look of an ampitheatre, the ground encircled by stairs for devout spectators. Sri Krishna Lila, often referred to as Raas Lila, is a unique music-cum-theatrical tradition of the Braj area. The trained performers from Mathura and Vrindavan move around the ground.
"This year a new feature has been added. Like they create a Janakpuri in Ram Lila, we are creating a Dwarka Puri. The huge stage will be used for live performances on the final day, `poornamasi`," Sharma told reporters.
"Departing from tradition, this year we have some episodes from the Mahabharata. Abhimanyu`s chariot and his breaking the Chakravyuha was a big hit with people. Vrindavan`s Sri Ram Sharma Nimai directed this performance.
"On Sunday, hundreds of cows led by actors enacting Sri Krishna and his elder brother Baldev went through the main streets in a procession. Radha`s birthday was also celebrated in a big way!"
In Vrindavan, Krishna Lilas are performed daily for the pilgrims. "Neither the popularity nor the number of patrons has diminished over the years," said Jagannath Poddar, convener of Friends of Vrindavan.
The tradition of Sri Krishna Lilas climaxing with a `Maha Raas` - in which the god is shown taking many forms and dancing with the gopis in total bliss and in harmony with nature on a full moon night - is at least a century old.
"What we now have is a presentation that integrates the essential elements of theatre, music, folk dances and the classical input of kathak," said culture critic Mahesh Dhakar.
In Agra, the Sri Krishna Lila at the Balkeshwar maidan began a century ago as a rival to the Ram Lila.
"Nowhere else would you find Krishna Lilas being performed on such a grand scale, in a style that is similar to the Ram Lila. We have an open theatre with stairs for the audience. The actors move around the ground and perform direct and live while interacting with the audience," said Sharma.
Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society president Surendra Sharma said it was "necessary to conserve and promote these art forms for posterity and the young generation should particularly be involved in it".
In parts of Braj Mandal, the area lying within a 100-km radius of Mathura, Ras Lilas continue to fascinate people. "Now of course more and more performances are on stage, supported by electronic gadgetry and advanced props. The level of music and singing has improved vastly as pre-recorded music is played," said Jyoti Khandelwal, director of Jyoti Kathak Kendra.
The main themes include `Phoolon Ki Holi`, `Makhan Chori`, `Narsi Charitra`, `Narsi Ka Bhaat`, `Nanibai ka Mayera` and `Shri Krishn Janm`.
In the whole of Braj Mandal, there are around 50 `mandalis`, each with a troupe of 35 to 40 young and old artists.
"Ras Lilas continue to remain a male bastion, as women are not permitted to join the mandalis. Young boys have to act as `gopis` and Radha," said Poddar.
Dhakar said: "The Braj Ras Lilas are now a cottage industry in Mathura and Vrindavan. The artists are all booked and have no time; if you want them for a performance you have to wait. Geetanjali of Mathura took the medium to new heights. If anything from northern India is selling in foreign countries, it is Ras Lilas!"