Known as the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri, Bhikhari Thakur (1887-1971) was a playwright, poet, singer, actor-dancer and social activist. In recent years, contemporary theatre practitioners of Bihar have been showing keen interest in his life, art and times. A few leading practitioners consider him as the pioneer of modern Bhojpuri theatre, describing his style as Bidesia. Some compare his play “Gabarghichor” with Bertolt Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. Arguably, Satish Anand initiated a keen interest in the theatre of Bhikhari Thakur, highlighting the elements of Brechtian theatre in Thakur's Bidesia. Sanjay Upadhyay is exploring the wealth of theatre music in the works of Thakur. More recently, Jainendra Dost has added a new dimension to Thakur's musical theatre with a sharp social satirical tone. Dost has written and directed “Bhikhari Naama”, which was presented by Bhikhari Thakur Repertory, Chhapra, Bihar, at the just concluded 21st Bharat Rang Mahotsav 2020 at Shri Ram Centre. A neat production, it entertained, provoked and brought to the fore the social contradictions of Bhikari's times.
A Ph.D. in Launda Naatch tradition with special focus on Thakur’s contribution to the form, Dost is passionately involved in preserving and enriching Thakur's theatre and regrouping all those performers of Thakur's style and exploring his social concerns and their contemporary relevance. A founding director of Bhikhari Thakur Repertory and Research Centre, he has invited some veteran artists of Thakur's days to work at his centre.
In terms of format, “Bhikhari Naama” tends to be a docu-drama but beneath the comic surface the contradictions of a feudal system and its cruelty towards lower castes is revealed. While conceptualising the design of his production, Dost has retained the traditional style with accent on the epic theatre. Upstage a platform is formed which is occupied by folk instrumentalists and singers. On either side of the centre stage costumes are placed on stands, aesthetically. The main performer, who frequently steps out of the character of narrator to act as Bhikhari Thakur, changes costumes in full view of the audience. The instrumentalists and vocalists offer thrilling moments with the narrator playing the vital role in establishing a lively rapport with the audience.
The narrator takes us to a little known rural landscape of Bihar, providing us with vignettes of poverty-stricken families who are the victim of social injustice. Just after the birth of Bhikhari Thakur, the area is swept away by flood and with it thejhuggi of the parents of the newly born. After the flood recedes, the parents of the infant erect another slum. The narrator highlights the struggle for survival of the poor and the marginalised. He further tells the audience in a satirical tone, “You know about Thakur – the owner of landed property – not about Bhikhari – the beggar. Wait, Thakur also means barber, the landless low cast.” This is the milieu in which Bhikhari Thakur is born, brought up which shaped his consciousness. The narrator then reads out an official order of the Colonial period which says, “Lower castes are duty-bound to serve upper castes." They are paid pittance, hardly enough to survive.
Now the narrator enters the character of Bhikhari Thakur, depicting his early life, his school days, poverty forcing him to stop attending the school, the torture inflicted on him by upper castes while doing arduous errand for them during odd hours. In this heartless world, Bhikhari comes in contact with a few kind-hearted people who develop his interest in reading and writing and local folk performing art. Abysmally poor, Bhikhari does what his peers have been doing — migrating to Calcutta for a livelihood, leaving his bride back home who keeps on waiting for the return of her husband. Out of this suffering of such young wives, Bhikhari evolves his theatre form known as Bidesia. Then, the narrator takes us to a new chapter in the life of Bhikhari that transformed him into a poet, social reformer and pioneer of a new art form in Bhojpuri.
Bhikhari's interactions with this ‘wonderland’ is painted in comic colour, manifesting curiosity, hope and exposure to new art forms, especially to Ramlila and then the greatest moment of his life comes – he goes back to his lovely bride, identifies with his people, their sufferings and mirroring prevailing social evils, composing new songs, singing before thousands of people to entertain, to make them socially aware as well as of their creative potential.
The members of the cast included old-timers like Ramchandra Manjhi, the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. He brought spontaneity and mature artistry to the performances. Sarita Saaz, as the main singer and bride of Bhikhari Thakur, enthralled the audience with her soulful musicality. Jainendra Dost as the narrator and Bhikhari Thakur was the cynosure of all eyes.