The same evening, in Elphinstone’s Theatre, there was given a special performance in honour of «the American Mission,» as we are styled here. Native actors represented in Gujerati the ancient fairy drama Sita-Rama, that has been adapted from the Ramayana, the celebrated epic by Vilmiki. This drama is composed of fourteen acts and no end of tableaux, in addition to transformation scenes. All the female parts, as usual, were acted by young boys, and the actors, accord-ing to the historical and national customs, were bare-footed and half-naked. Still, the richness of the costumes, the stage adornments and transformations, were truly wonderful. For instance, even on the stages of large metropolitan theatres, it would have been difficult to give a better representation of the army of Rama’s allies, who are nothing more than troops of monkeys under the leadership of Hanuman—the soldier, statesman, dramatist, poet, god, who is so celebrated in history (that of India s.v.p.). The oldest and best of all Sanskrit dramas, Hanuman-Natak, is ascribed to this talented forefather of ours.
Alas! gone is the glorious time when, proud of our white skin (which after all may be nothing more than the result of a fading, under the influences of our northern sky), we looked down upon Hindus and other «niggers» with a feeling of contempt well suited to our own magnificence. No doubt Sir William Jones’s soft heart ached, when translating from the Sanskrit such humiliating sentences as the following: «Hanuman is said to be the forefather of the Europeans.» Rama, being a hero and a demi-god, was well entitled to unite all the bachelors of his useful monkey army to the daughters of the Lanka (Ceylon) giants, the Rakshasas, and to present these Dravidian beauties with the dowry of all Western lands. After the most pompous marriage ceremonies, the monkey soldiers made a bridge, with the help of their own tails, and safely landed with their spouses in Europe, where they lived very happily and had a numerous progeny. This progeny are we, Europeans. Dravidian words found in some European languages, in Basque for instance, greatly rejoice the hearts of the Brahmans, who would gladly promote the philologists to the rank of demi-gods for this important discovery, which confirms so gloriously their ancient legend. But it was Darwin who crowned the edifice of proof with the authority of Western education and Western scientific literature. The Indians became still more convinced that we are the veritable descendants of Hanuman, and that, if one only took the trouble to examine carefully, our tails might easily be discovered. Our narrow breeches and long skirts only add to the evidence, however uncomplimentary the idea may be to us.
Still, if you consider seriously, what are we to say when Science, in the person of Darwin, concedes this hypothesis to the wisdom of ancient Aryas. We must perforce submit. And, really, it is better to have for a forefather Hanuman, the poet, the hero, the god, than any other monkey, even though it be a tailless one. Sita-Rama belongs to the category of mythological dramas, something like the tragedies of Aeschylus. Listening to this production of the remotest antiquity, the spectators are carried back to the times when the gods, descending upon earth, took an active part in the everyday life of mortals. Nothing reminds one of a modern drama, though the exterior arrangement is the same. «From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step,» and vice versa. The goat, chosen for a sacrifice to Bacchus, presented the world tragedy (greek script here). The death bleatings and buttings of the quadrupedal offering of antiquity have been polished by the hands of time and of civilization, and, as a result of this process, we get the dying whisper of Rachel in the part of Adrienne Lecouvreur, and the fearfully realistic «kicking» of the modern Croisette in the poisoning scene of The Sphinx. But, whereas the descendants of Themistocles gladly receive, whether captive or free, all the changes and improvements considered as such by modern taste, thinking them to be a corrected and enlarged edition of the genius of Aeschylus; Hindus, happily for archaeologists and lovers of antiquity, have never moved a step since the times of our much honoured forefather Hanuman.
We awaited the performance of Sita-Rama with the liveliest curiosity. Except ourselves and the building of the theatre, everything was strictly indigenous and nothing reminded us of the West. There was not the trace of an orchestra. Music was only to be heard from the stage, or from behind it. At last the curtain rose. The silence, which had been very remarkable before the performance, considering the huge crowd of spectators of both sexes, now became absolute. Rama is one of the incarnations of Vishnu and, as most of the audience were worshippers of Vishnu, for them the spectacle was not a mere theatrical performance, but a religious mystery, representing the life and achievements of their favourite and most venerated gods.
The prologue was laid in the epoch before creation began (it may safely be said that no dramatist would dare to choose an earlier one)—or, rather, before the last manifestation of the universe. All the philosophical sects of India, except Mussulmans, agree that the universe has always existed. But the Hindus divide the periodical appearances and vanishings into days and nights of Brahma. The nights, or withdrawals of the objective universe, are called Pralayas, and the days, or epochs of new awakening into life and light, are called Manvantaras, Yugas, or «centuries of the gods.» These periods are also called, respectively, the inbreathings and outbreathings of Brahma. When Pralaya comes to an end Brahma awakens, and, with this awakening, the universe that rested in deity, in other words, that was reabsorbed in its subjective essence, emanates from the divine principle and becomes visible. The gods, who died at the same time as the universe, begin slowly to return to life. The «Invisible» alone, the «Infinite,» the «Lifeless,» the One who is the unconditioned original «Life» itself, soars, surrounded by shoreless chaos. Its holy presence is not visible. It shows itself only in the periodical pulsation of chaos, represented by a dark mass of waters filling the stage. These waters are not, as yet, separated from the dry land, because Brahma, the creative spirit of Narayana, has not yet separated from the «Ever Unchanging.» Then comes a heavy shock of the whole mass and the waters begin to acquire transparency. Rays, proceeding from a golden egg at the bottom, spread through the chaotic waters. Receiving life from the spirit of Narayana, the egg bursts and the awakened Brahma rises to the surface of the water in the shape of a huge lotus. Light clouds appear, at first transparent and web-like. They gradually become condensed, and transform themselves into Prajapatis, the ten personified creative powers of Brahma, the god of everything living, and sing a hymn of praise to the creator. Something naively poetical, to our unaccustomed ears, breathed in this uniform melody unaccompanied by any orchestra.
The hour of general revival has struck. Pralaya comes to an end. Everything rejoices, returning to life. The sky is separated from the waters and on it appear the Asuras and Gandharvas, the heavenly singers and musicians. Then Indra, Yama, Varuna, and Kuvera, the spirits presiding over the four cardinal points, or the four elements, water, fire, earth, and air, pour forth atoms, whence springs the serpent «Ananta.» The monster swims to the surface of the waves and, bending its swanlike neck, forms a couch on which Vishnu reclines with the Goddess of Beauty, his wife Lakshmi, at his feet. «Swatha! Swatha! Swatha!» cries the choir of heavenly musicians, hailing the deity. In the Russian church service this is pronounced Swiat! Swiat! Swiat! and means holy! holy! holy!
In one of his future avatars Vishnu will incarnate in Rama, the son of a great king, and Lakshmi will become Sita. The motive of the whole poem of Ramayana is sung in a few words by the celestial musicians. Kama, the God of Love, shelters the divine couple and, that very moment, a flame is lit in their hearts and the whole world is created.
Later there are performed the fourteen acts of the drama, which is well known to everybody, and in which several hundred personages take part. At the end of the prologue the whole assembly of gods come forward, one after another, and acquaint the audience with the contents and the epilogue of their performance, asking the public not to be too exacting. It is as though all these familiar deities, made of painted granite and marble, left the temples and came down to remind mortals of events long past and forgotten.
The hall was full of natives. We four alone were representatives of Europe. Like a huge flower bed, the women displayed the bright colors of their garments. Here and there, among handsome, bronze-like heads, were the pretty, dull white faces of Parsee women, whose beauty reminded me of the Georgians. The front rows were occupied by women only. In India it is quite easy to learn a person’s religion, sect, and caste, and even whether a woman is married or single, from the marks painted in bright colors on everyone’s forehead.
Since the time when Alexander the Great destroyed the sacred books of the Gebars, they have constantly been oppressed by the idol worshippers. King Ardeshir-Babechan restored fire worship in the years 229-243 A.C. Since then they have again been persecuted during the reign of one of the Shakpurs, either II., IX., or XI., of the Sassanids, but which of them is not known. It is, however, reported that one of them was a great protector of the Zartushta doctrines. After the fall of Yesdejird, the fire-worshippers emigrated to the island of Ormasd, and, some time later, having found a book of Zoroastrian prophecies, in obedience to one of them they set out for Hindustan. After many wanderings, they appeared, about 1,000 or 1,200 years ago, in the territory of Maharana-Jayadeva, a vassal of the Rajput King Champanir, who allowed them to colonize his land, but only on condition that they laid down their weapons, that they abandoned the Persian language for Hindi, and that their women put off their national dress and clothed themselves after the manner of Hindu women. He, however, allowed them to wear shoes, since this is strictly prescribed by Zoroaster. Since then very few changes have been made. It follows that the Parsee women could only be distinguished from their Hindu sisters by very slight differences. The almost white faces of the former were separated by a strip of smooth black hair from a sort of white cap, and the whole was covered with a bright veil. The latter wore no covering on their rich, shining hair, twisted into a kind of Greek chignon. Their foreheads were brightly painted, and their nostrils adorned with golden rings. Both are fond of bright, but uniform, colors, both cover their arms up to the elbow with bangles, and both wear saris.
Behind the women a whole sea of most wonderful turbans was waving in the pit. There were long-haired Rajputs with regular Grecian features and long beards parted in the middle, their heads covered with «pagris» consisting of, at least, twenty yards of finest white muslin, and their persons adorned with earrings and necklaces; there were Mahrata Brahmans, who shave their heads, leaving only one long central lock, and wear turbans of blinding red, decorated in front with a sort of golden horn of plenty; Bangas, wearing three-cornered helmets with a kind of cockscomb on the top; Kachhis, with Roman helmets; Bhillis, from the borders of Rajastan, whose chins are wrapped three times in the ends of their pyramidal turbans, so that the innocent tourist never fails to think that they constantly suffer from toothache; Bengalis and Calcutta Babus, bare-headed all the year round, their hair cut after an Athenian fashion, and their bodies clothed in the proud folds of a white toga-virilis, in no way different from those once worn by Roman senators; Parsees, in their black, oilcloth mitres; Sikhs, the followers of Nanaka, strictly monotheist and mystic, whose turbans are very like the Bhillis’, but who wear long hair down to their waists; and hundreds of other tribes.
Proposing to count how many different headgears are to be seen in Bombay alone, we had to abandon the task as impracticable after a fortnight. Every caste, every trade, guild, and sect, every one of the thousand sub-divisions of the social hierarchy, has its own bright turban, often sparkling with gold lace and precious stones, which is laid aside only in case of mourning. But, as if to compensate for this luxury, even the mem-bers of the municipality, rich merchants, and Rai-Bahadurs, who have been created baronets by the Government, never wear any stockings, and leave their legs bare up to the knees. As for their dress, it chiefly consists of a kind of shapeless white shirt.
In Baroda some Gaikwars (a title of all the Baroda princes) still keep in their stables elephants and the less common giraffes, though the former are strictly forbidden in the streets of Bombay. We had an opportunity of seeing ministers, and even Rajas, mounted on these noble animals, their mouths full of pansupari (betel leaves), their heads drooping under the weight of the precious stones on their turbans, and each of their fingers and toes adorned with rich golden rings. While the evening I am describing lasted, however, we saw no elephants, no giraffes, though we enjoyed the company of Rajas and ministers. We had in our box the hand-some ambassador and late tutor of the Mahararana of Oodeypore. Our companion was a Raja and a pandit. His name was a Mohunlal-Vishnulal-Pandia. He wore a small pink turban sparkling with diamonds, a pair of pink barege trousers, and a white gauze coat. His raven black hair half covered his amber-colored neck, which was surrounded by a necklace that might have driven any Parisian belle frantic with envy. The poor Raiput was awfully sleepy, but he stuck heroically to his duties, and, thoughtfully pulling his beard, led us all through the endless labyrinth of metaphysical entanglements of the Ramayana. During the entr’actes we were offered coffee, sherbets, and cigarettes, which we smoked even during the performance, sitting in front of the stage in the first row. We were covered, like idols, with garlands of flowers, and the manager, a stout Hindu clad in transparent muslins, sprinkled us several times with rose-water.
The performance began at eight p.m. and, at half-past two, had only reached the ninth act. In spite of each of us having a punkah-wallah at our backs, the heat was unbearable. We had reached the limits of our endurance, and tried to excuse ourselves. This led to general disturbance, on the stage as well as in the auditorium. The airy chariot, on which the wicked king Ravana was carrying Sita away, paused in the air. The king of the Nagas (serpents) ceased breathing flames, the monkey soldiers hung motionless on the trees, and Rama himself, clad in light blue and crowned with a diminutive pagoda, came to the front of the stage and pronounced in pure English speech, in which he thanked us for the honour of our presence. Then new bouquets, pansu-paris, and rose-water, and, finally, we reached home about four a.m. Next morning we learned that the performance had ended at half-past six.