The revival of the centuries-old theatre tradition of Bhagat, which was nearly extinct seven years ago, owes itself to a timely meeting between a drama enthusiast and a nonagenarian practitioner

No art form remains with us forever. Forms, genres and artistic practices make their appearance, reign for a period of time and then either become less influential or fall prey to the natural process of extinction. Dhrupad, for example, was the dominant form of classical vocal music in the Hindustani idiom for several centuries. As a consequence, the Rudra veena, an ancient instrument most suited to reproduce the nuances of the gamak and meend-laced Dhrupad, too reigned supreme. However since the mid-19th Century, the majestic yet rigid Dhrupad had been consistently losing ground to the more flexible and charming Khayal and had in fact reached a point by the middle of the last century when serious concerns were expressed regarding the impending demise of the form. However, attempts were made for its preservation and now a revitalised Dhrupad is once again gaining popularity.

Anil Shukla, a senior Hindi journalist who cut his teeth in theatre in a six-month workshop conducted by well-known director Bansi Kaul in 1976 in Agra, has successfully attempted something similar to preserve the cultural heritage of his city’s and region’s folk theatre known as Bhagat, whose tradition is nearly four hundred years old. Agra alone had 18 akharas (groups) located in different localities and mohallas that used to stage Bhagat performances within their designated territories. An actor belonging to one akhara could not act in the performance staged by another akhara, although accompanists were free from this restriction.

Bhagat took its birth in the 17th Century in the Tajganj locality of Agra in the satirical comedies of the Bhand tribe. In the beginning, they were called Bhand Bhagat and made fun of the feudal elite and its ways from the perspective of the subaltern classes. The performances would begin in the afternoon and go on till late night and became very popular among common people. The ruling feudal elite naturally looked down upon them. In the 18th Century, the administration banned them and the satirical plays could not be staged for nearly 75-80 years. References to this folk theatre are found in local sayings, folk songs and the poetry of Nazir Akbarabadi.

Anil Shukla informs us that in 1827 Jauhri Rai, a Bhand folk poet and musician of Mohalla Moti Katra, brought four scripts of Swang, the popular folk theatre of Western Uttar Pradesh, from Amroha in Moradabad district where the parental family of his wife lived. He rewrote one of them called Roop Basant by incorporating Braj as well as Khari Boli of Agra and also using folk tunes of the Braj region. Jauhri Rai also made use of the Khayalgoi tradition of Agra and created a new theatrical form. One evening in the month of Kartik, he performed it in Moti Katra as the new Bhagat. Jauhri Rai established the first akhara and became its Khalifa. During the 19th Century, Bhagat’s popularity spread outside Agra and it was being played in neighbouring towns like Hathras and Mathura. In this phase, the artistes as well as audiences were made up of Dalits, lower class Muslims and backward castes.

However, towards the end of the 19th Century, rich merchants started taking interest in the akharas and soon got themselves anointed as their Khalifas. With their patronage, the akharas flourished tremendously and there was intense competition among them for artistic supremacy, providing impetus to the creativity of the artistes. But the advent of film changed all this. By the middle of the 20th Century, Bhagat, failing to adapt itself to the changed times, was almost dead.

Seven years ago, Anil Shukla got together the surviving Bhagat artistes and was fortunate to get the active support of the nonagenarian Khalifa Phool Singh Yadav. He wrote new Bhagat scripts with contemporary themes and in the face of tremendous resistance from traditionalists, succeeded in reviving the folk theatre. Today, it has become so hugely popular that several researchers are writing doctoral theses on it.