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The lure of folk lore

Two JNU scholars have documented traditional folk theatre of Bihar and paid tribute to the legendary Bhikhari Thakur

His name might spell like
a beggar,
But king he was, not a rag,
And on many a giant fortress
He had raised the Bhojpuri flag.

The opening lines of Naach Bhikhari Naach, the documentary on Bhikhari Thakur and folk theatre of Bihar, are entirely befitting of the legend that he was. Popularly known as the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri, Bhikari Thakur was a celebrated playwright, actor, singer and a social reformer from Bihar.

Directed by Jainendra Dosta and Shilpi Gulati, the film follows the story of four surviving members of Bhikhari’s troupe, as they recall the experience of working with him. It gives us a glimpse of performance tradition of Launda Naach, a traditional folk theatre of Bihar, where men don the attire of women and impersonate them in performances that continue till late night.

The journey of this film began at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU in 2012, where both the filmmakers were research scholars. While Shilpi was doing her research on contemporary documentary practises in India, Jainendra was doing his MPhil research on folk theatre in Bihar. Having no prior knowledge about Bhikhari Thakur, it was Jainendra who introduced her to the world of Bihari folk theatre.

“I grew up in Delhi. Strangely enough in the larger cultural industry that operates in big cities of Delhi and Mumbai, I had never heard of a traditional folk theatre in Bihar. Someone as big as Bhikhari Thakur who is a household name in Bihar, yet none of us knew about him” says Shilpi.

Conversing and interacting over the past six years along with their deep-rooted passion for theatre, the duo collaborated to create the film.

Shilpi’s involvement with theatre is over 14 years now. An active member of drama troupes in college, she subsequently became a part of an activist theatre group called Pandies. However, like most undergraduates, Gulati was not sure about her future career “My engagement with storytelling and theatre practices started very early but filmmaking was never on my mind.” Until her Master’s in media studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) where she was introduced to the world of documentaries. It was the first time she held a camera and learned about the nuances of editing. That is when she decided to take up filmmaking as a profession.

A National Award winning filmmaker, Shilpi believes research is the backbone of any kind of creative process and it sharpens her arguments as a social commentator. Largely working on different regional communities in India, her first film ‘Dere tun Dilli’ was based on the Dera community in Delhi, while ‘Qissa-e-Parsi’ was about the Parsi community in Maharasthra and Gujarat. Her latest work ‘Taala te Kunjee’ portrays rampant drug abuse in Punjab. “As I moved from film to film, I realised I like to enter a new regional space,” says Swati.

For ‘Naach Bhikhari Naach’, Jainendra’s research on Bhikhari Thakur’s folk theatre and Launda Naach, contributed heavily to the documentation of the performers. Hailing from Bihar’s Chhapra district, he was familiar with the art as he had himself performed and seen several naach performances in his childhood.

His passion for theatre brought him to Delhi in 2006. It was here that he realised that while the folk traditions of other states were practised, there was hardly any representation of Bihar folk theatre in the city. Completing his Master’s from Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Maharashtra, he returned to Delhi and joined JNU as a doctoral scholar in 2012. He also started the Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training and Research Centre, which is working towards the revival of folk theatre in Bihar.

Very early into the shoot, they realised that Jainendra was an insider and she was an outsider, recalls Shilpi. There was a certain kind of familiarity when Jainendra talked to them and a formal approach when they interacted with her. “But they were really really warm and happily welcomed us into their houses. We developed a beautiful relationship in the process and I felt privileged to be able to document for the first time the last few members of Bhikhari Thakur’s troupe,” says Swati.

According to Shilipi, the post-credit scene on the film beautifully captures this relationship between the filmmakers and performers. After the end of a performance, at around five in the morning, the whole crew is packing up. Shivlalji, one of the artistes, directly walks up to the camera, peeps inside the lens and says, ‘I can’t see what you are shooting. How was the show?’ Shilpi describes this as a magic moment in the documentary, a moment none of them could have imagined.

Throughout the film, the presence of Thakur is felt through the memories of the artists as there is no record of his works. “What’s fascinating is, the artists never rehearse as they have been doing this for the past 50-60 years of their lives. His works survive through it being performed,” explains Shilpi.

Currently, people are reproducing Thakur’s works, however they are sanitising a lot of it to cater to the entertainment of city audiences. The content is changing, dances are evolving, dialogues are being cut, explains Jainendra. Limiting it to only the theatre part, the main aspects of dance and songs are removed. “One of the songs, ‘Piya gaile Kalkatwa aa sajani’ is about a wife expressing her grief that her husband is leaving her for work in Kolkata. However, the tunes and the beats of the songs have been so transformed that it suggests a sentiment of celebration,” says Jainendra.

Bhojpuri culture is often regarded in a derogatory light. Naach was renamed as Launda Naach by upper castes. “While the word launda in very literal terms means a young boy, in everyday language the word has a lot of caste and sexual connotations to it. It suggests a man who is effeminate, vulgar and belongs to an inferior caste and thus adding launda to naach further stigmatises the art form,” Jainendra adds.

Jainendra continues to perform Thakur’s theatres and has written a play, Bhikharinama on the life of the legend. He also hopes to provide due recognition to the artistes. Ram Chandra Manjhi, the 92-year-old Launda Naach veteran, is to be honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award this year.