A theatre, a people and peace

From ‘Mogal Tamasha’  

The large open-air stage is set in front of a Shiva temple. A colourful throne is placed on it. Large numbers of men, women and children have gathered on its three sides and eagerly await the arrival of Mirza Sahib in a procession.

As Mirza Sahib approaches the stage, a Hindu priest and a Muslim fakir sing and dance in praise of Shiva and Allah and hug each other. The play unfolds.

Like the audience, the large number of characters who take the stage one after another are both Hindu and Muslim, and they interchange roles of characters from both communities.

A slice of tradition

For the past 250 years, this unique folk theatre called Mogal Tamasha has been thriving in the small town of Bhadrak in Odisha. And both Hindus and Muslims take great pride in a tradition that they call their ‘own’.

Interestingly, Mogal Tamasha was first established to maintain communal harmony and it has survived only in this town. Bhadrak has equally large Muslim and Hindu populations and it witnessed two major communal riots in 1991 and 2017.

Bhadrak has always played a big role in Odisha’s history. Strategically located on the erstwhile Grand Trunk Road that passes via Jajpur, Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, connecting Kolkata with Puri, it has held an important position in the administrative, military, commercial, religious and cultural affairs of the State.

A theatre, a people and peace

Mogal Tamasha was created by poet Bansi Ballav Goswami around 1780, a cultural outcome of when Bhadrak was part of the Mughal empire. Odisha was Mughal territory for nearly 200 years until the Marathas took over in 1751. The folk theatre depicts the corrupt practices of the Mughal administration in a farcical and comical manner.

Poet Bansi Ballav was adept in six languages — Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Bengali, Sanskrit and Odia (his mother-tongue) — and the Tamashas he scripted and directed were multi-lingual.

Although he wrote a large number of Tamashas, just seven scripts have survived, of which only Mogal Tamasha is staged now.

Believed to be the poet-playwright’s magnum opus, Mogal Tamasha has not only survived the onslaught of time, its inherent message of communal harmony has become the symbol of peaceful co-existence in this town.

“Just after the communal clashes of 2017, I staged a show here. Nearly two-thirds of my audience were Muslim women,” says Badal Sikdar, the octogenarian exponent of the theatre form and a recipient of the Natya-Guru award from the Ministry of Culture.

A theatre, a people and peace

Sikdar played a pivotal role in redesigning Mogal Tamasha. Earlier staged from dusk to dawn in the open, Sikdar adapted it for the proscenium stage and an urban audience. He also introduced women actors.

Says Kanta Singh, an Odia cinema actor from Bhadrak who shifted to tamasha, “There was a lot of criticism when I decided to join Badal Sikdar’s Sanket troupe in 1988. But I went ahead and gradually the presence of women in Mogal Tamasha found social acceptance.”

“I believed that women characters must be played by women actors in order to give a realistic feel to the play. I introduced female actors despite much criticism, and 32 years later, we have so many women actors from Bhadrak who take pride in being members of Mogal Tamasha troupes,” says Sikdar.

“We consider Mogal Tamasha the pride of Bhadrak and our national heritage,” says Abdul Bari, a social activist, who won the National Harmony Award for his role in restoring peace in the town during communal tensions.

Sikdar agrees, “Saifullah is my favourite actor, who loves to essay any character, Muslim or Hindu. Similarly, Nizam sings songs in praise of Shiva in the play. We, the artistes and audience of Bhadrak, are oblivious of our religious identity as far as Mogal Tamasha is concerned.”

Why did Mogal Tamasha remain confined to Bhadrak unlike other art traditions of the State that are popular across geographical boundaries? “Its tradition prohibited anyone other than the ustads (exponents and troupe leaders) to stage it. It was even believed that if anyone unauthorised tried to stage it, they would die of some disease.

“The directors and actors were thus limited to the nine villages in and around Bhadrak where Mogal Tamasha was a part of the annual Chaitra Parva (spring festival),” explains Krushna Charan Behera, renowned researcher and professor of Odia literature, whose 11 years of persistent effort finally brought the script to the public in printed form in 1966.

The original palm-leaf manuscript, preserved and worshipped by the practitioners, was destroyed in a fire. However, bits and pieces of it had been noted down by actors to memorise dialogue, sequences and songs. The professor, a student of Bhadrak College who later became a lecturer there, spoke to these actors and compiled a volume from what they remembered. The collection was published as a book that was treated as a priceless discovery in literary, historical and cultural circles.

All India Radio and Doordarshan documented it and presented it. As people outside Bhadrak came to know of it, Mogal Tamasha was invited to a number of theatre festivals. And directors like Badal Sikdar developed abridged versions suitable for the proscenium stage about four decades ago.

“In the last 40 years, my troupe has staged more than 300 shows across Odisha and India. Both urban and rural audiences enjoy our shows,” says Sikdar.

Though there is no definite plot and most of the 18 characters are not necessarily connected, the manner of its presentation makes it exciting for the audience. “I believe the visionary poet-playwright crafted Mogal Tamasha keeping in mind the socio-cultural realities of his town. The subject, treatment, languages used, place of performance, background of actors and audiences have contributed in maintaining communal harmony in this region,” says Behera.

Despite the accolades Sikdar has received for the revival of Mogal Tamasha, he is disheartened. “Without patronage it has become a dying tradition,” he says. “Over the years, the nine original villages have merged into Bhadrak. So the tradition of celebrating Chaitra Parva and allied rituals like Mogal Tamasha have also disappeared. The number of troupes has come down from 13 to just 3. Unless the Government steps in with a definite action plan, it will fade into oblivion again,” he warns.

“Times and tastes have changed, but the mass appeal of Mogal Tamasha continues, apparently due to its classic artistic structure and inherent elements of communal harmony,” says National Award winning filmmaker, Himansu Khatua, whose documentary Kahe Ballav, made two years ago on the theatre form, has been screened across the globe.

The Bhubaneshwar-based author writes on culture and heritage.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 9:18:15 PM |

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