VOICES: Bhikari Thakur- Shakespeare of Bihar
The narrative of Bidesia has been made so effective through the medium of vibrant dances and pleasing music and based on such life-like stories that it presents a realistic picture of the poor joint families of the region.
The Bhojpuri taste is so theatrically inclined that it will not hesitate even to undertake long journeys to witness a performance. Like in many other folk forms, the female roles in Bidesia are played by the male actor-dancers. Normally they wear dhoti or shirt trousers but they sport long hair and make it and ornament it like women's hair.
Dance forms an integral part of this form, in fact it’s the essence of the performance, which starts with dance in order to attract a large audience. Once this is done the Bidesia starts. The actors, besides dancing take on female roles in different dramatic contexts. Inspite of the advent of various other modes of entertainment, Bidesia remains the most popular and refreshing relaxation for the Bhojpuris.
Through his plays, he gave voice to the cause of poor laborers and tried to create awareness about the poor situation of women in bhojpuri society. He always stood and spoke against casteism and communalism in the same cultural tunes. People from this region are very fond of and feel proud of his contribution to the local cultural traditions. His plays and his style of theatre are very popular for their rhythmic language, sweet songs and appealing music. His plays are a true reflection of bhojpuri culture. Almost all of his works focused on the day-to-day problems of lower castes/classes. He used satire and light-hearted comments to maximum effect to put forward his views on social ills and other problems plaguing Bhojpuri society.
He was born on December 18, 1887 at the village of Kutubpur in the district of Saran, Bihar. His mother’s name was Shivakali Devi and father was Dalsingar Thakur. He belonged to a naai (barber) caste, one of the most backward castes in Indian society. The traditional work of his caste was cutting hairs and assisting brahmins in marriage as well as in death ceremonies. They were also used by dikus to send and distribute ceremonial (in cases of marriages and deaths) and other messages in the village and nearby areas. They acted like postal workers in the traditional-feudal village setup.
In one of his works he says: “Jati Hazzam more Kutubpur mokam… Jati-pesha bate, bidya naheen bate babujee”. In this he speaks about his own caste and regrets that his caste people are distributing letters to all without knowing the importance of the letter, or the alphabets. He clearly understood the power of education and continuously chided his people for being illiterate and bounded by jajmani (patron-client) relations with the dikus.
Among the masses of Bihar and other Bhojpuri-speaking areas, he needs no introduction. But the so-called mainstream ‘culture’, like always, has conspired to keep mum about his contribution, actively avoiding even mentioning his name. Hence, there are no serious documented accounts of his works till now. It is only very recently that Hindi novelist and story writer Sanjeev wrote a novel on his life and some research work has been taking place on his works.
He is greatest flag bearer of Bhojpuri language and culture. Bhojpuri is widely spoken in major parts of Bihar including Jharkhand, some parts of eastern UP and Bengal. He is not only popular in this linguistic belt but also in the cities where Bihari workers migrated for their livelihood. Many criticized him for upholding feudal and Brahminical values, which to some extent may be true. Despite the support and legitimation of few brahminical and feudal values in his works, he always pioneered the vision of a just and egalitarian society and this is the difference we have to understand. No vision of egalitarian and subaltern society can be even imagined under these idiotic and nonsensical shadows of Brahminical values.
Though his plays revolved and evolved around villages and rural society, they still became very famous in the big cities like Kolkatta, Patna, Benares and other small cities, where migrant labourers and poor workers went in search for their livelihood. Breaking all boundaries of nation he, along with his mandali, also visited Mauritius, Kenya, Singapore, Nepal, British Guyana, Surinam, Uganda, Myanmar, Madagascar, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad and other places where bhojpuri culture is more or less flourishing.
Bidesia, as a vibrant mode of a regional cultural expression, rugged and unsophisticated in form and rich in variety, is a powerful expression of cultural heritage of weaker section of society. Bhikari Thakur, through his artistic talents and bitter experiences, developed it by picking up elements from Ramlila, raslila, birha yatra and other performative elements and molded it into a totally new and wonderful style known now as bidesia. Bidesia means migrated people, who left their home in search of livelihood, but in the larger context Bhikari’s bidesia not only migrated from the lands but also from their culture also. Many people get confused between the bidesia style and his play Bidesia. Actually, he did all his plays in bidesia style which is very similar to nautanki, but later his theatrical style was known from his famous production Bidesia.
He has written as well as directed and performed ten major works; beginning with a non-serious vasant-bahar based on the dhobi-dhobin dance he saw somewhere.
After Thakur’s death in 1971, his theatre style and use of bhojpuri language are continually being abused by the music industry in producing bhojpuri songs and plays replete with sexual innuendo. This is like a counter-revolution of the brahmin-bania combine against all the ideals that Bhikari Thakur propagated through his art. The dikus have no relations based on social reality and always aim to get maximum monetary profits on the basis of cultural vulgarity. This market forced a shift from Bhikari Thakur’s socio-economic oriented plays to mere sexual fantasy and cheap entertainment. This reflects the creative bankruptcy of dikus against which we dalit-bahujans should come forward and play a vital role to safe guard our anti-diku legacy in which Bhikari Thakur is one of the big stars in the galaxy of Dalit-bahujan revolutionary artistes.
His major productions include: - Bidesia, Bhai- Birodh, Beti-Viyog or Beti Bechba (seller of daughter), Kalyuga Prema (Love in Kalyuga), Radheshyam Behar (based on krisna- radha love), Ganga-asnan (ceremonial bath in ganga), Bidhwa- vilap, Putrabadh (killing of son), Gabar- Bichar (based on an illegitimate child), and Nanad Bhojai.
1. Bhai-Virodh (opposition from brother)
This play deals with the theme of joint family, which is a very prominent feature of Bihar’s rural society. Three brothers are separated due to lack of confidence and respect for each other on the instigation of a person outside their family. However, at the end they realize the importance of living together but not before a lot of harm had actually taken place.
2. Beti-Viyog or Beti- Bechwa (seller of daughter)
This play is considered a very progressive play. Bhikari Thakur through this play criticizes the wide-spread custom of selling young girls in marriage to much older men. This custom prevailed in Bhojpuri-speaking areas until recently. The protagonist is a young girl whose father sells her to an older person.
3. Kalyuga- Prem
Through this play Bhikari Thakur talks about the bad effects of drinking. The lone wage earner of the family is a drunkard and often visits prostitutes. This extravagance soon leads to the pauperization of his family. His whole family including his wife and son suffers tremendously because of the bad habits of the head of the family. Later in the play the wife and son decide to confront him but to no avail. Later being fed up with his father’s immoral ways, the son runs away from the family and goes to Calcutta to earn money to eventually return and rescue his mother.
Malechu is from a village. His wife wants to go to bathe in the Ganga but his mother is too old to do so. The wife finally prevails and they set out but not after loading much luggage for his old mother to carry on the way. Before they reach the Ganga a quarrel ensues and Malechu beats up his mother. At the banks of the Ganga, his mother gets lost in a fair. In the same fair, his wife is seduced by a sadhu with the promise of giving her a son. Malechu finds her in the nick of time and epiphany dawns on the both of them who then find the mother and beg her forgiveness. The story is a critique both of the distance between parents and their children in a situation where old parents are completely dependent on their children and also of the tantric culture of sadhus who most often are conmen.
5. Vidhwa-Vilap (The weeping widow)
Almost all his plays took their themes from society but were molded in Bhikari’s new progressive and revolutionary style. When asked why he took to theatre, Bhikari answered, “I used to watch Ramlila and Raslila. When in Ramlila, Vyasji gave sermons to people; I also thought I could also give sermons to my people”. This dream came true and till his last day he served his people through his sermons, which unlike diku sermons were based on real life. But our legendary cultural figure is no more among us. He breathed his last on July 10, 1971 after giving us a new lease of life. In the next issue I would like to reevaluate his work from a socio-cultural and political understanding. I will also deal in length with Bidesia.
[B. Prakash is pursuing his MA in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi]
VOICES is a column on contemporary art, culture and literature. It is an attempt to interpret cultural politics and the ongoing arts-related movements of the marginalized groups of the country. It is also a small step towards resisting the brahminical hegemonisation of the arts as well as strengthening more egalitarian forms of art and culture. Your comments and suggestions are warmly welcomed. We request our readers to provide information regarding artists, their arts or related to folk culture which you find neglected in ‘National’ Culture. Such contributions will help us to fulfill the objectives of this column.