What is artistic license and how can it be used in devotional dramas?
Transcribed by: Keshavgopal Das and Ambuj Gupta
Question: What is artistic license and how can it be used properly in emotional dramas?
Answer: Artistic license refers to the freedom or facility an artist has in order to depict a particular thing in a more artistically appealing way to adjust the literal narrative which may be given in the scripture. Artistic license is something which is quite fundamental to the literary, cultural, visual or other depictions of Krishna found in the history of Indian culture. For example, if we look at Ramalila, it is described in so many different ways by so many different saints and general principle for this sort of depiction is given by Rupa Goswami in Nataka Chandrika. He says- the artist can adjust the storyline for bringing out the rasa. Adjustment in the story, as long as it does not violate the siddhanta or create rasabhas, but brings out the rasa more vividly, then the adjustment in the storyline is considered an ornament and not considered a deviation. For example in Indian tradition, Kalidasa has written famous play Shakuntala. If you look at Mahabharata itself, the description of Shakuntala and the story is very brief. Kalidasa has expanded it in more detail.
The artistic license is used by great saints and it is also used by sadhaka devotees. When great saints use it for example, Jiva Goswami in Gopala Champu, or Vishvanatha Chakravaty Thakura in his tenth canto Sarartha Darshini commentary or Kavi Karnapura in Anand Vrindavan Champu describes many details of Krishna leela which we may not find in many of the puranas. Now where from these details have come from? These details very beautifully intensify the emotions that are involved in those pastimes and make our transportation and entry into Krishna leela deeper, richer and sweeter. For those great saints we can say that it is divya pratyaksha. There are various modes of perception and divya pratyaksha in the Madhva sampradaya is called as ______ pratyaksha which is the divine perception which happens with the spiritual senses. Just as great saints can see Krishna leela directly and based on those direct perceptions they depict those leelas. We can say that the revelations given by the great saints that are direct perception of Krishna leela they are divya pratyaksha.
Beyond that it is not only such great saints who can only do this. Our imagination is also a very important faculty and it is actually force of illusion, maya, which captivates our imagination and drags us into entanglement. We imagine that if I get this sense object, I’ll enjoy like this, like this and the imagination gets entangled. Just as bhakti allows us to engage our different faculties in devotional service, same way bhakti also provides us facility to engage our imagination in devotional service. Srila Prabhupada tells in a Bhagvatam lecture on June 1st 1974 in Geneva (SB 1.13.10): You can imagine that “In my heart I have placed now a very diamond throne, and Krishna is sitting.” That is accepted. It is… Actually it becomes. Even within the mind you think that “I have kept one diamond throne, very costly throne, because Krishna is coming. He will sit down here,” that is not false. That is a fact. So you create such situation within your heart. “Now Krishna has seated. Let me wash His feet with the Ganges water, Yamuna water. Now what Prabhupada is saying here, that it is not false it is a fact. So first he says it is imagination, you imagine like that, but then he says it is not false it is a fact. So what does this mean? We move beyond simplistic category of false and truth to understand this point. Ultimately whatever takes us closer to the absolute truth is a truth. Whatever takes us away from absolute truth is false. For example when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would see every forest as Vrindavan, is that false or is that true? From the point of view material literal truth that forest is not Vrindavan. So was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu seeing something false? In one sense Chaitanya Mahaprabhu aslo acknowledged that it is not Vrindavan because even after He saw that forest as Vrindavan He kept on moving towards Vrindavan. Point here is that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu seeing everything as Vrindavan is not a dushana, it is not an illusion, it is not a mistake, it is a bhushana, it is an ornament, it is testimony to His deep immersion in Krishna consciousness, His fervent attraction to Krishna, His all pervading Krishna prema that everything He sees in connection with Krishna.
When we are talking about offering our imagination to Krishna’s devotional service we do not have to go to the simplistic categories of true and false. For example Krishna Kshetra Maharaja has encouraged devotees to write books on Krishna smarana and Rama smarana where they visualize their own favorite pastimes, how those pastimes happened and how Krishna reciprocated with the devotees in those pastimes. In the introduction to that book Krishna Smarana he writes that as devotees we do not make any claim to the truth or falsity of these pastimes. Whether these occurred in the same way historically is not the important thing. What we are doing is, we are absorbing ourselves more in Krishna, we are rendering devotional service to Krishna, we are increasing our immersion in Krishna and thereby we are moving closer to Krishna. So manas puja which is a very respected and important part of bhakti tradition centers on using our mind and using our imagination, in Krishna’s service. This is the scriptural basis for artistic license to use in dramatic depictions.
Tamal Krishna Maharaja wrote several dramas. He wrote Jagannatha Nataka, at the start of which he analyzed this quite well and he also wrote a book on Prabhupada’s final pastimes (Prabhupada Antya Lila-The Final Pastimes of Srila Prabhupada). These are not TKG diaries. TKG diaries are the literal account of events that happened in the last days of Srila Prabhupada’s manifest leela. Prabhupada Antya Lila-The Final Pastimes of Srila Prabhupada is more of an artistic depiction, where along with Prabhupada and disciples he also reveals characters like Bhakti Devi, Shraddha Devi, Vrinda Devi and others and how they are also participating in the pastimes of Srila Prabhupada in order to intensify the rasa, in order to increase the reciprocation of affection between Srila Prabhupada and his disciples to raise Prabhupada’s disciples to a higher levels of dedication by increasing their love for Srila Prabhupada and by intensifying their feeling of immanent separation from Srila Prabhupada. Because it very beautifully and movingly depicts the rasa of the sweet relationship between spiritual master and the disciple, this again is not a dushana. We do not have to go in a hyper-critical mode and wonder whether actually Bhakti Devi and Vrinda Devi and other had this discussion or not.
The point is that we are meant to use all our resources in devotional service and that way we can use our imagination also in devotional service. For example when devotees are doing drama, scripture give us some description of kind of dress that Krishna would wear and kind of dress gopis would wear but does not give exhaustive description, so naturally when devotees dress in a particular costumes they try to use their imagination to depict Krishna in as vivid way as possible. Not just Krishna but all the associates of Krishna also. Similarly we have dialogs. Scriptures give us some dialogs, but we do not get an exhaustive narrative of everything that was spoken through scripture. Therefore in order to bring out emotions more the devotees can expand the dialogs. When this sort of expansion of dialogs is happening we do not see this again from the category of truth and false. Such artistic depictions should be seen as attempts to use one’s artistic talents in devotional service so that we can become more absorbed in Krishna and we can help others to become more absorbed in Krishna.
Like in other forms of devotional service we have to take some cautions. Just like when we sing we can use different tunes in Krishna’s service but then we do not change the mantra, we do not start singing any other mantra. There are limits when we use artistic skills in devotional service. Like that we shouldn’t while using our artistic imagination depict something which contradicts the siddhanta of Krishna leela. For example the novel Mrityunjaya, makes Karna into a hero of Mahabharata, a wronged hero who had been depicted in the book to meet a tragic end because of favoritism of Krishna and the envy of Arjuna. This is actually opposite of the reality of what is depicted in Mahabharata. As devotees we should not depict this and we should not condone this. Some artistic depiction contradicts the siddhanta of Mahabharata or Ramayana or Krishna leela in general that sort of depiction should certainly be avoided.
Similarly if some depiction creates a rasabhasa then that sort of depiction should also be avoided. We need to be careful and we need to consult if we are having any doubts and carefully contemplate on what we are doing. For example Bhakti Charu Maharaja has made the Abhay Charan series. Once when I met with him I had lunch prasad with him I asked Bhakti Charu Maharaja how he did this. I asked about artistic license and he mentioned two events and I had questions about exact same two events. For example when Srila Prabhupada is requesting Sumati Morarji to allow him to give him free passage on Jaladuta and she says no, you are an old person and my secretary is telling me you may die on the way to America. Now Prabhupada fervently requested and she agrees. In Abhay Charan, the way it is depicted is that Sumati Morarji says– You Prabhupada you are like my father and I cannot be a part of something which may cause my father’s death. Then Prabhupada starts walking away and then he turns around with look of utter determination on his face and then he says – “If you really consider me like your father and yourself like my daughter then will you not fulfill my last wish. My last wish in life is before I die I try my best to fulfill my spiritual master’s instructions. Please give me passage”. Then Sumati Morarji heart melts and she allows him passage and provide him all support for the journey. I asked Bhakti Charu Maharaja that this particular dialog that Sumati Morarji is calling Prabhupada her father and Prabhupada is saying Sumati Morarji is her daughter, this particular dialog is not there in Lilamrata. And Abhay Charan is primarily based on Lilamrata. Bhakti Charu Maharaja says yes, this dialog is not there and this is his artistic depiction. Also when in America he has also depicted Kali. Kali comes and maddens David, the first student of Srila Prabhupada who was aspiring to become Srila Prabhupada’s disciple but who suddenly become mad because of drungs and attacked Srila Prabhupada and Prabhupada had to flee the place. So He describes it as Kali’s attempt to stop Srila Prabhupada’s mission. This depiction of Kali is again an example of artistic license.
Artistic license, we should not become hypercritical about it thinking that this is not depicted in shastra but at the same time we should not use artistic license for taking extreme liberties and depicting things which are either against the siddhanta or against the rasa. By carefully understanding the siddhanta and rasa and carefully using our imagination in devotional service we can intensify our own absorption in Krishna leela and we can also use our imagination to help others also become more absorbed in Krishna leela. Thank you. Hare Krishna.
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Relevant Prabhupada quote:
You can imagine that “In my heart I have placed now a very diamond throne, and Krishna is sitting.” That is accepted. It is… Actually it becomes. Even within the mind you think that “I have kept one diamond throne, very costly throne, because Krishna is coming. He will sit down here,” that is not false. That is a fact. So you create such situation within your heart. “Now Krishna has seated. Let me wash His feet with the Ganges water, Yamuna water. (BhP 1.13.10 lecture, June 1, 1974, in Geneva).