Detecting the loci of an indigenous rite
The Essential theatre is like the plague, not because it is contagious but because, like the plague, it is the revelation, the foregrounding, the exteriorization of a latent depth of cruelty that enables all the perverse possibilities of the spirit to manifest themselves in an individual or a people. — Antonine Artaud
Catastrophe/trauma is a typical property in the multifarious streams of Bangladeshi indigenous performances whose foundational origin is ritual. When the reason of a physical action be that a rite or performance is derived from the metaphysical causality – refuge or safety from catastrophe – then the action summons and stages a special socio-ecology within the parameter of the performance/rite. These catastrophe-invoked or catastrophe-inspired performances, through the secular, the hybrid and the syncretistic, could be referred to as the repository of the 'sacred'. Of course, the notion of sacredness- catastrophe-ritual indicates the outer vernacular of a special kind of performance/rite.
In the strict terms of the Manasha rite, the catastrophe occurs in the realm of desire: here, the affliction of poison signifies a catastrophe; poison abides in the core of the struggle between goddess Manasha's desire to receive veneration from Chand Merchant and Chand Merchant's pride to not bow down to Manasha's wishes.
Unquestionably, Manasha, the goddess of serpents, is a Bengali deity. Although snake-worship is widely prevalent in Northern, Southern and Western India, it is only in Eastern India (Bengal) that the goddess is herself not a snake. She is also known as Padma (ie lotus) because she was conceived on a 'lotus' and Bisahari (from bishadhara, 'carrying poison', and bishahara, removing poison) because of her association with poison. The name Manasha has been derived from manosh (ie desire or will).
Thus, the goddess Manasha is simultaneously the vehicle to freight and treat poison: Manasha is a killer and a healer. When Manasha is the vehicle to convey toxin – though Manasha does not traffic poison directly, rather the snake – her children – carry the poisons for her – then she is a societal catastrophe, hence, Manasha is the goddess of serpents who grounds and engenders catastrophe – solicited by the fear-of-toxin – in human consciousness .
Manasha is Shakti, since her capacity to harm converges with her power to heal. Mostly, subalterns from agrarian and riverine societies worship Manasha as Shakti. And the rite and ceremony of Manasha worship, enacted with elaborate and vivid dialogued performance-drumming-hymn-dance transmogrify into a 'holy theatre' where Manasha, in the form of the feminine, emerges with the binary-opposite symbols of toxic injury and healing, catastrophe and salvation.
On a different register, Manasha signifies a shakti that can occasion death and endow life, and this shakti is linked to femininity.
Consequently, in terms of the rite of Manasha, the feminine is a perverted dialectical force which, in the imaginary of the subalterns who worship Manasha, occasions catastrophe and, at the same time, has the potential to release the antidote to counteract the effect of this catastrophe. And this antidotal meme translated through rituals and performances transform into somatic measure, which, in turn, is regarded as an anodyne or a real protective-field against catastrophe.
Through the rite and performance of Manasha, the performers and spectators formulate a community premised on the conviction that their world – the space to produce and control matter – is a spiritual field as well, a purgatory where only worship purifies. This world is not an incontrovertible heaven, rather a space of purification and healing – the toxin that induces the death of the self and pain – that defers the ultimate catastrophe of hell.
Consequently, the Manasha-rites while continuing to signify a theological causality institutes a theosophical hermeneutics. But, if Manasha's rite is the action of the body then its source in desire is the secondary desire of salvation and refuge from catastrophe. It is evoked by the spectator, performer and the worshiper; the seed of the primary desire – to receive veneration – was implanted in the desire of Manasha herself which opens up a new space for meaning and interpretation, in the conflict of Manasha's desire for receiving Chand's worship with Chand Merchant's egotistical stance of not worshiping Manasha. This is not theological, rather, in the guise of theology it is a sociological location where the rivalry of feudalist/proto-capitalist patriarchal power struggles for supremacy over the feminine power. Thus, the conflict between the two forces of patriarchy and the feminine entity works as conduit for the primordial feminine principle to witness an ultimate unpacking.
Also, Manasha is the serpent-deity, without embodying the physical attributes or features or soma of a snake; Manasha's feminine, contra the society of the father, is denuded – not unlike a snake. And this nakedness does not represent eros, rather, it excavates natural relationships linked with fertility and the life-cycle. In this excavation, nature and nakedness are equalled. Therefore, the Manasha rites externalize a tradition of popular Bangladeshi visual phenomenology which stages the resistance of not only common people within the matrix of an ecology of production-relations, against the feudal- aristocratic patriarchy, but also calls attention to a demography whose rites and rituals highlight an archaeo-psychology of a vernacular feminine.
This archaeo-psychological feminine captured in the multidimensional fields of nature, nakedness, production-relations – even though an aesthetisized icon in Bangladeshi popular culture – does not align with any model or definition of the euro-centric, modernist, feminist iconography.
The Manasha rite – co-created by the plebeian performer and spectator– is a womb that signifies the sanctuary –for the poor labour class – from the catastrophe of the cosmic fear of existential trauma while evoking the timeless nostalgia for the mother's womb.
Manosha and her rise to prominence
SAYED JAMIL AHMED
Unquestionably, Manosha, the goddess serpents, is a Bengali deity. Although snake worship is widely prevalent in northern, southern and western India, it is only in eastern India (Bengal) that the goddess is herself not a snake.1 She is also known as Padma (from padmo, ie, 'lotus') because she was conceived in a lotus and Bishohari (from bisho-dhara, 'carrying poison' and bisho-bara, 'removing poison') because of her association with poison. The name Manasha has been derived from Manosh, ie, 'desire, will'.
Quite a few performances in Bangladesh are based on a body of texts commonly known as the Padma-puran or the Manosha-mangol, a narrative in rhymed metrical verse eulogizing the goddess Manosha. Each of these is by narrative in rhymed metrical verse eulogizing the goddess Manosha. Each of these are by a separate poet and was composed mostly in the medieval period from the 15th to the 18th centuries. In Bangladesh today, the texts that enjoy greater popularity are by Vijay Gupta, Narayan Dev an Jonaki Nath, and the one commonly known as the Baishkabi (ie, by twenty-two poets). In addition, there are a number of unpublished oral versions current among the performers. The narrative of the Padma-puran is lengthy and intricate. Furthermore, each poet has often made important additions of omissions.
T W Clark interprets some elements of the narrative of the Padma-puran to reveal the circumstances of the origin of the cult of Manosha and the manner of its dissemination in Bengal. Manosha's first appearance among the cowherds point to her origin among the cattle-grazing country along of the great rivers. At this stage, the place of her worship was possibly in the open, her emblems were set up in the homes of the devotee where the women joined the men in worshiping the deity. No mention is made of priest to conduct the rituals of worship. Based on the above indications, it has been argued that 'Manosha was first a domestic deity, worshipped by families or occupational companions as small worshipping units. There is no evidence of corporate worship on any scale.' From the fishermen, the cult appears to have ascended social hierarchy as it was introduced in the house of the affluent householders through the servants and the womenfolk. It is important to note that Chand appears first as an agriculturist – a wealthy gardener whose prize possession was a large plantation of areca-nut. Only later do we see him as a see-going merchant. Even at this stage of development of the cult, there appears to be no role of the priestly class; the leaders of the rites appear to be women.2 It is only in some of the narratives that we find a priest conducting ritualized worship of Manosha at the end of the narrative. This can be taken to indicate later practice when the cult had attained recognition prestige among the Brahminical class.
That the cult had to fight hard in order to gain recognition in the Brahminical fold is demonstrated by the narrative itself. Manosha is the daughter of Shib, born of his sperm and fashioned in the underworld. She is neither is his wife nor was she born out of wedlock. References to her suspicious past has also been made clear by the amoral advances of Shib makes on his first encounter with Manosha and the intense suspicion of Chand when Shib brings Manosha home. These references also make in clear that the cult of Manasha initially gained admittance into the orthodox fold when the cult of Shib was immensely popular in Bengal. The period when the admittance was being made could be placed in early 12th century.3 The above view is further substantiated by the fact that quite a number of sculptural images of Manosha in stone have been discovered in various parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal, all dated to 11th century.4
- T W Clark. Evolution of Hinduism in Medieval Bengali Literature. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Voll. XVII Part 31. 507)
- Ibid. 508-509
- Ibid. 512
- Asutosh Bhattcharyya, Bangala-Mangal Kabyer Itihas, 279.
*Extracted from the book Acinpakhi Infinituy: Indigenous Theatre of Bangladesh, this text originally formed a part a chapter titled Performances Related to Manosha. The diacritics have been dropped in conformity with Depart's editorial policy.
Rewritten and translated by DEPART DESK
All photos showing Manasha rite are by KAMALUDDIN KABIR.