Theatre

Bard of Bhojpuri

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Bhikhari Thakur. He tried to restore the Bhojpuri art tradition. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Theatre was Bhikhari Thakur's forte, and he became an iconic figure with Bidesiya, the folk theatre style named after his magnum opus.

Bhikhari Thakur used folk tradition to recount the ordeal, courage and humanity of his community and bring about social change.

SARAN is a flatland of many faces—lush green during the rains and winter, and dreary and desolate in summer. This region of north-west Bihar forms, with its neighbouring districts and parts of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, the Bhojpuri heartland of the Gangetic plain. It was one of the earliest regions to attract the Europeans—the Dutch and the British—and the first to revolt against them. Yet it could not save its freedom, and its people were forced to live in poverty and deprivation for the next two centuries of colonial rule. Epidemics, floods and famines added to their woes. Fed up with this situation, hordes of them left for cities like Calcutta (now Kolkata), then India’s capital. Mesmerised by city life, many of them stayed there forever; others succumbed to urban vices and died in anonymity. Still others left for far-off lands such as Mauritius and Trinidad and never returned.

Back home, their womenfolk, children, the aged and the incapacitated languished in poverty and suffered pangs of separation, waiting perpetually for their loved ones to return. Historians are generally indifferent to their suffering. But the folk tradition recounts their ordeal, courage and humanity. Bhikhari Thakur, one of their heroes, is the bard of their joys and agony.

Bhikhari Thakur was born on December 18, 1887, in a poor family of the barber caste in a nondescript village, Kutubpur Diyara, in Saran. Like many around him, he went to Kharagpur in Bengal for employment; he earned enough but was not satisfied with the job. Ramlila (a form of theatre popular in north India) had impressed him early in his life. However, the artist in him wanted to see more of the world. He reached Puri in Odisha in search probably of his own self and his volition in life. By the time he returned from such wanderings, he was a changed man.

Thereafter, he lived the life of a crusader, fighting against the archaic social order. No longer caring for his livelihood, he organised a dance troupe in his village and began to play Ramlila and sing songs, and involved himself in social work. He took to folk art and addressed social problems in the language and idiom of the masses. He presented his works in the Bhojpuri dialect in a manner that was appealing to the masses. His popularity soared and he rose to become the most popular Bhojpuri folk singer, poet, writer and director and the exponent of a popular style of theatre, named subsequently after his magnum opus, Bidesiya. Against the background of cultural disintegration under colonialism, he tried to restore the Bhojpuri art tradition and give it an identity. He died on July 10, 1976, at the age of 88.

Towards social reform

Theatre was Bhikhari Thakur’s forte and he became an iconic figure with Bidesiya. Thanks to its novelty and appeal, it became very popular in the Bhojpuri-speaking region. It starts with dance and music and, using life-like stories, portrays a realistic picture of society. Music and dance are its integral parts intended to sustain the audience’s interest throughout the play. Its female roles are played by male actors. An elite audience may find Bidesiya lacking in sophistication, but it is rich in variety and represents the popular culture of the region. Bhikhari Thakur modelled it after nautanki (another form of north Indian theatre) but with significant innovations, creating a new style altogether.

He produced many other plays, too, and composed songs and poems portraying the miseries of rural life before and after Independence. He focussed on the poor and the deprived, particularly on their family life and women. He gave voice to their cause. He exposed the evils of the joint family in his Ganga-Asnan and Nanad-Bhoujai. The exodus to cities in the 18th and 19th centuries had shaken the local society profoundly, causing myriad problems for families. Many men left behind their wives to wait forever, and their children and parents uncared for. This often forced the families to seek help from moneylenders and other unscrupulous elements, inviting a trail of troubles for themselves ( Gabar-Ghichor is about an illegitimate child). Distress, oppression and suffering were characteristic of the age. Bhikhari Thakur picked up those threads with sensitivity and empathy to weave his moving stories. His works are a true reflection of contemporary decadent society—family feuds ( Bhai-Birodh), alcoholism and prostitution ( Kalayug Prem) and cruelty against women ( Bidhwa-Bilap, Beti-Bechwa). He also spoke against casteism and communalism.

Bhikhari Thakur used satire and light-hearted comments to enhance the effect of his stories and message. In one of his works, he laments: “ Jati Hazzam more Kutubpur mokam…/ Jati-pesha bate.../ Bidya naheen bate Babujee!” (I am a barber by caste from Kutubpur.... My profession is to deliver letters to others, but I am illiterate myself, Sir!) He understood the value of education and always chided his people for remaining illiterate.

In the midst of hardships, however, Bhikhari Thakur found time to take delight in the simple joys of rural life. His play Basant Bahar (springtime joy) is a duet dance of a washerman and his wife. In Radheshyam Bahar, he longingly looks back to the romance of Radha-Krishna, the iconic idols of love from time immemorial.

Bhikhari Thakur was immensely inspired by India’s mythology and theatrical tradition. He picked up elements of Ramlila, Raslila, Birha and other performing traditions of the region and fashioned them into a new style of Bidesiya. He had instinctively mastered the traditional Natya Kala, touching upon the deepest human sensibilities. In the episodes of Ramayana, he left the audience deeply moved and emotionally exalted. Performing as a dance party on social occasions in the villages gave him free access to the multitude; for them, it was an entertaining treat dished out at their doorsteps, an alternative to cinema.

A CULTURAL MESSENGER

Soon Bhikhari Thakur’s popularity spread in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal and Assam, and in areas with a significant Bhojpuri-speaking population. His plays became very popular in cities like Calcutta, Patna and Banaras (now Varanasi). Gradually, his fame spread to far-off lands too, and he led his mandali (troupe) to Mauritius, Kenya, Singapore, Nepal, British Guyana, Surinam, Uganda, Myanmar, Madagascar, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad and other places wherever Bhojpuri culture flourished. He must have kindled some sociopolitical awakening in these countries.

Indeed, Bhikhari Thakur was one of the last of the folk artists committed to social reform in rural north India. He carried with him the agenda of both 19th century awakening and 20th century social reform. He understood the needs, ethos and aspirations of the rural masses and talked in their parlance. He enthralled them with dance, music, satire and humour, but his real talent lay in the portrayal of their tribulations and agonies. Drawing from the county’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence, he took position from within the system and exposed its ills, stirring everybody’s conscience against them. He did not have any tall intellectual pretentions, yet at the grass-roots level in his cultural constituency he almost did what Premchand and Baba Ram Chandra had done in the Hindi provinces, and Nazrul Islam did in Bengal. It is time we remembered Bhikhari Thakur’s concerns and his tireless endeavours to create a just and enlightened society.

(Help received from scholars working on Bhikhari Thakur, Wikipedia, and other websites is acknowledged thankfully.)

J.N. Sinha is Associate Professor of History at Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, New Delhi. Email: jnsinha@rediffmail.com

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