Eminent theatre critic Diwan Singh Bajeli relates why he chose to write a book on the theatre of Bhanu Bharti

It is interesting to note that books across a wide spectrum of genres are being published in India these days. Particularly comforting is to see more and more books on theatre. So from an interested reader’s point of view, so also from that of a student of the stage, a book like “The Theatre of Bhanu Bharti” — recently published by Niyogi Books, must be a welcome change. Its author, eminent Delhi-based theatre critic Diwan Singh Bajeli, certainly notes this “change of trend” in our publishing industry with relief.

“For a long time, our publishers were not interested in documenting theatre. There is this playwright C.K. Siddhu in Delhi, who has written 34 plays. But he had to spend Rs. one lakh to publish them,” he laces it with a laugh before noting this, “I see the trend changing now. Also because the Central Board of Secondary Education has included theatre in its curriculum, it makes a difference. There is also more awareness about theatre in our society now.” Bajeli’s other book on theatre, “Mohan Upreti: The Man and His Art”, was published by the National School of Drama in 2006.

So why a book on Bhanu Bharti? Bajeli plucks out the reason. “I have seen Bhanu’s plays in the last three-four decades, I have noted that he never repeats himself. He is forever in quest of making his art perfect by bringing in a synthesis of form and content.”

A noteworthy contribution of Bharti, points out the author, is his use of Gavari, a theatrical style practised by the Bheel tribe of Rajasthan. “It is a 4000-year-old art form and is still thriving. It is much more powerful than Brechtian theatre, not just in terms of entertainment and bringing in didactic elements but also in reflecting contemporary socio-economic ironies,” says Bajeli. By bringing under the lens Bharti’s productions like “Kaal Katha”, “Amarbeej” and “Pashu Gayatri”, he explores in the book how Bharti gives a contemporary ring to the beliefs of the Bheels, their rituals and legends.

The author recalls accompanying Bharti to a Bheel village. “I stayed with them for two days. I asked a village elder, ‘where are your bows and arrows?’ He said, ‘They have become decorative pieces now.’” The author adds, “The Bheels are a proud people, they constantly fought British imperialism. But we have reduced them to daily wage earners. We have robbed them of their traditional means of livelihood by debarring them from venturing into the forest to gather honey. The Government has taken away most of their grazing land too. I feel it is praiseworthy that they have retained their art in spite of facing economic and social crises.”

Every chapter of the book begins with a quotation from a celebrated Western theatre practitioner. This has two functions, he says. One, since he reads the original plays of Western masters, he is “always tempted to also read what the authorities have to say about them.” Since every play has a socio-economic background, “one has to return to the sources to get the nuances.”

The other reason is to see Bharti’s work through these perspectives. “The entire idea is to look at what should be the relationship between art and society. Art without social context doesn’t appeal to me.”

But how relevant are these Western authorities to understand our theatre practices, our society? Bajeli concedes, “Every society has distinct characteristics and theatre is a mirror of society. Therefore, theatre is not an importable or exportable commodity. At the most, we can take certain elements from the others, incorporate them into our system, our reality.” The basic idea is, “the process should have thesis, antithesis and synthesis…only a few directors have achieved this. Habib Tanvir is one, Bhanu is another.”

Bajeli compares the subjects of his two books thus: “The book on Bhanu is more objective. He is a highly trained professional artiste who seeks to unite both form and content in his work. He seems to be closer to the Nehruvian ideology, a believer in a secular and democratic society that has a socialist pattern. My approach to the book on Upreti was more emotional as I was a member of the Parvatiya Kala Kendra founded by him.

Inspired by Maxim Gorky, Upreti used the folk form as an instrument to make people aware of the exploitative society. For him, the stress was more on the content.”

Next on Bajeli’s list is a book on Kumaoni folk theatre forms. Within its ambit would be “Jaagar, a theatre of guilt and expiation; Hurkiya Baul, a celebration of the transplantation of paddy; Haal Yatra, a collective worship of the plough and Thul Khel, an enactment of Ram Leela in Kumaoni dialect.” Thul Khel, he adds, “is on the verge of extinction.”