For three days around November, Garamur market on Majuli island is ablaze with coloured lights and earthen lamps. As the early winter evening sets in, the beat of the khol drums and the clashing of taal cymbals blares out through the bank of loudspeakers scattered around.
The Raas Mahotsav has begun.
The festival is held on the purnima or full moon day of the Assamese months of Kati-Aghun – falling sometime during October and November – drawing pilgrims and tourists to this island every year. It continues for two days after as well.
“If it weren’t there, we would feel like we had lost something. It [Raas Mahotsav] is our culture,” says Raja Payeng, secretary of the committee organising the festival in Borun Chitadar Chuk village. “People eagerly wait for this all through the year,” he adds.Hundreds of residents dressed in their best clothes, have gathered near the Garamur Saru Satra – one of the several Vaishnavite monasteries in Assam.
Raas Mahotsav (festival of Krishna’s dance) celebrates the life of Lord Krishna through dance, drama and musical performances. More than 100 characters may be depicted on stage during a single day of the festival.
The shows depict various stages of his life – as a child growing up in Vrindavan to the raas lila he is said to have danced with the gopis (female cowherds). Some of the plays enacted during this time are variations of the ankiya naat (one-act plays) ‘Keli Gopal’ written by Sankaradeva and ‘Raas Jhumura’ attributed to his disciple Madhavadeva.
Mukta Dutta, who has played Vishnu at the Garamur mahotsav , says once he is cast, he has to follow certain traditions: “Since the day the role is given, those of us who play Krishna, Narayana or Vishnu usually observe the ritual of eating only vegetarian sattvik food. On the first day of raas , we observe a brot [fast]. We break the brot only after the performance is over on the first day.”
Majuli is a large island in the Brahmaputra that flows for about 640 kilometres through Assam. The island’s satras (monasteries) are centres of Vaishnavite religion as well as art and culture. Established by social reformer and saint Srimanta Sankaradeva in the 15th century, satras have played an important role in shaping the Neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti movement in Assam.
Of the 65 or so satras that were once established in Majuli, only around 22 remain operational today. The rest have faced erosion due to repeated flooding of the Brahmaputra – one of the largest riverine systems in the world. Himalayan glacial snow, which melts during the summer-monsoon months, feeds the rivers that empty into the river basin. This, along with the rainfall in and around Majuli, creates prime conditions for erosion.
The satras function as venues for the celebration of the Raas Mahotsav and different communities across the island organise celebrations and performances in community halls, makeshift stages in open fields and even on school grounds.
Unlike the Garamur Saru Satra, the performances by the Uttar Kamalabari Satra do not generally include women. Here, celibate monks of the satra called bhakats , who have been provided religious and cultural education, perform in the plays that are free and open to all.
Indranil Dutta, 82, is one of the founders of the Raas Mahotsav in the Garamur Saru Satra. He recalls how in 1950, Pitambar Dev Goswami, the Satradhikar (head of the satra ), discontinued the tradition of having only male actors and welcomed female actors in the performances.
“Pitambar Dev had the stage constructed outside of the [traditional space] of the namghar [prayer house]. Since the namghar was a place of worship, we brought the stage out,” he recalls.The tradition continues even today. Garamur is one of the more than 60 venues where the Mahotsav is organised. Performances are ticketed and take place in an auditorium with seating arrangements for around 1,000 people.
The plays performed here are variations of the plays written by Sankaradeva and others in the Vaishnavite tradition, adapted into something new by the experienced artists. “When I write the play, I introduce elements of lok sanskriti [folk culture] into it. We have to keep alive our jati [community] and our sanskriti [culture],” says Indranil Dutta.
“The main rehearsal starts only the next day after Diwali,” says Mukta Dutta. This gives the performers less than two weeks to be ready. “People who have acted before live in different places. To bring them back is inconvenient,” says Dutta who in addition to be being an actor, also teaches English at the Garamur Sanskrit tol (school).
College and university exams often coincide with the mahotsav . “[Students] still come, even if for a day. They play their role in the raas and leave the next day for their exams,” adds Mukta.
The cost of organising the festival increases every year. In Garamur, it was around Rs. 4 lakhs in 2022. Mukta says, “We pay the technicians. All the actors are volunteers. Around 100 to 150 people – they all work voluntarily.”The Raas Mahotsav in Borun Chitadar Chuk is held in a school and organised by members of the Mising (or Mishing) community, a Scheduled Tribe in Assam. In the last few years, a lack of interest of the younger generation and high levels of migration out of the area have reduced the number of performers. But still they persist, “If we don’t organise it, we might have something amangal [inauspicious] happen in the village,” says Raja Payeng. “That is the popular belief in the village.”
This story is supported by a fellowship from Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation (MMF).