“Kabira Khada Bazar Mein” presented on World Theatre Day in New Delhi was a fitting tribute to an art known for fighting obscurantism and bigotry

It was an inspiring evening organised by Bhartiya Natya Sangh to observe World Theatre Day at Sammukh auditorium, National School of Drama, on March 30. What made the evening specially memorable was the presentation of “Kabira Khada Bazar Mein” which echoes the essence of Nobel Laureate Dario Fo’s World Theatre Day message. A great Italian satirist, Fo focuses in his message on the suppression of theatre workers during the Renaissance in Italy and other European countries who dared to expose the hypocrisy and bigotry of the clergy in a satirical vein. In the play the protagonist is accused of offending the priestly class for his verses spreading the message of humanism and physically tortured by the ruling class. What was in keeping with the basic tenor of the evening was that the playwright of the evening’s play fought all his life through his writings and art against communal forces, obscurantism and bigotry. One of the highlights of the evening was that the Natya Sangh honoured two beloved artists of Delhi — Asghar Wajahat, playwright, and Vinod Nagpal, theatre, television and film actor — for their outstanding contribution in strengthening the theatre movement in the country.

“Kabira Khada Bazar Mein” is written by Bhisham Sahni, a novelist, playwright and social and political activist. He was most famous for his television serial “Tamas”. His artistic vision is shaped by his association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers Association. His plays like “Hanush”, “Madhavi” and “Muavze” which reflect his profound humanism and his empathy for the oppressed, are frequently presented. “Kabira Khada Bazar Mein”, directed by M.K. Raina in the ’80s was considered a tour de force which toured several parts of the country under the banner of Prayog.

The recent revival of the play under the auspices of Sahitya Kala Parishad illustrates its enduring appeal and relevance. Directed by Govind Singh Yadav, a recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Ratna Puraskar instituted by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the production has as its core Kabir’s verses, which continue to be recited with great fervour in the entire Hindi belt. The music score by Sudhir Rikhari, beautifully sung by an impressive chorus and performers in the style of opera, is inspired by folk tunes of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Uttarakhand. Some verses are recited. These verses logically and cohesively form the part of the narrative which captures the life and times of the poor Muslim weaver, Kabir.

Through his verses he condemns the rigid caste system perpetuated by the Brahminical social and religious order and the futility of idol worship. Drawn by the simplicity of his diction and the forceful reflection of the miseries of the socially and economically marginalised, impoverished artisans and plebeians start to join his sSatsang held on the pavements and near the riverbank. Gradually, this turns into a mass movement. Though peaceful, the ruling class, Brahmins and Mullas all become his enemies. Denied the so-called salvation by the Brahminical order on grounds of caste, the satsang participants see in the message of Kabir the opportunity for spiritual enlightenment. His followers are convinced of his philosophy that all men are equal.

Set in Varanasi in the period of Sikandar Lodi, the Brahmins, high priests and the local Raja are given full freedom to suppress those who do not belong to high Brahaminical social order. The director has treated some of the scenes with subtle intricacy. The first meeting of Kabir with his bride in his half ruined hut is touching, revealing Kabir’s profound humanism and the divinity of true love. The climactic scene where Kabir confronts Sikandar Lodi, who has come to Varanasi after crushing rebellion in Bihar, is dramatically intense and full of suspense. Unable to placate Kabir to accompany him to Delhi and meet Persian mystics, Lodi Sultan gets angry and orders the arrest of Kabir for his strong conviction and raising uncomfortable questions about God and religion.

The following verse used as a refrain by the chorus appears to be the motif of the play:

Moko Kahan Dhoonde Bande, Mein To Tere Paas Mein

Na Mein Debal, Na Mein Masjid, Na Kaaba Kailash Mein

Na To Kauno Kriya Karam Mein, Na Hee Yog Beraan Mein

Khoji Howe Turat Mili Hai, Palbhar Ke Talash Mein, Kaho Kabira Suno Bhai Sadho

“O Servant, where dost thou seek Me? Lo! I am beside thee.

I am neither in temple nor in mosque; I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:

Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.

If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment’s time.

Kabir says, O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath’.”

(From The Oxford History of India, edited by Percival Spear)

Sudhir Rikhari as Kabir, Ajit Chauhan as Sikandar Lodi, Sonal as the mother of a blind boy who is flogged to death for singing Kabir’s verses, Raj Tanvar as the cruel Kotwal, Sugandha as the wife of Kabir and Radha as the mother of Kabir give impressive performances.