Theatre

The fire is still burning

TORCHBEARER OF A TRADITION: Ramchandra Manjhi  

The announcement of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2017 for Ramchandra Manjhi, the collaborator of the legendary Bhikhari Thakur, has spread a joyous wave among the lovers of folk theatre and it is being viewed as a great help to resurrect this popular agrarian theatre form and revive people’s interest in it. And what a sweet coincidence, the state recognition, and award came at a time when the practitioners of folk art forms are celebrating the centenary year of the Bhikhari Thakur’s folk theatre this year. Some critics even say that this much-coveted award is actually a long due felicitation for the untiring quest of the messiah of the folk theatre.

Impersonating a woman

Bihar’s Chhapra-born Manjhi is the last living artist of the veteran Bhikhari Thakur’s Bhojpuri theatre troupe. He is a legendary Launda Naach performer. A remarkable folk art from Bihar and Bhojpuri-speaking eastern Uttar Pradesh, Launda Naach is a prominent folk art comprising songs, dance, comedy, satire, pun, banter, parody, and theatre where men impersonate women in performances that last all night. “Basically, it’s a narrative art, handed down from generations orally, so little literature exists about Naach that dates back to the 11th Century and continues to thrive in the dusty land of the Bhojpuri belt — beginning around the Chhath Puja, every year. Each performance is based on caste, gender, migration, the plight of the peasants, etc, reflecting social realities of the rural areas,” says Jainendra Kumar Dost, director, Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training and Research Centre. Manjhi is 93, but his wrinkled hands still work like magic the moment the kohl his eyes. With loving precision, he draws his eyebrows with a matchstick, peering into a grimy mirror. “I do my own makeup. I have been doing it for 82 years,” he said, fixing a weary wig when one met him backstage before a performance in Jawaharlal Nehru University last year.

Transforming into a woman on stage every night is routine for him – he has perfected the art since he was 12. His clothes and makeup travel from one performance to another in a rusty steel trunk, one that he shares with his friend and fellow ‘launda’ artiste.

Around Dussehra and Diwali, every winter these artists join the troupe when the business is in full swing touring most corners of the country, be it the site of an animal fair, pooja pandal, marriage party, pre-wedding celebrations, or at a private soiree. With great pride, he recalls how in his youth time, he performed before matinee idols like Suraiyya, Helen, Waheeda Rahman, Meena Kumari and Naushad. “If we didn’t get news of men falling from rooftops or into wells during our performance, we would get depressed. It meant the night wasn’t a hit,” he told me. “My life is the Naach. But it is like ‘sadhana’ to me. Launda is a dirty word… a ‘gaali’. It was added by the upper caste people who exhibited their regressive views on sexuality and see the irony, today they shy away from us.

According to them ‘launda’ doesn’t suit their upper castes sensibilities. So I basically stick to the term ‘Naach’ as we are dance performers and it is a matter of pride for us,” explained Manjhi.

Indian Theatre has a long history of female impersonation by men. Even Bharat Muni’s Natyashashtra and Mahabhashya mention the terms like ‘Roop Anusarini’ (follower of the form/gender). In the feudal Bhojpuri belt, Lunda Naach gained momentum in the 19th Century when women were not allowed in public spaces.

Bhikhari Thakur (1887-1971) belonged to a weaker caste, rose to be called the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri theatre, championed the cause of poor peasants and lower castes. Today, he is mostly known for his magnum opus “Bidesiya”, highlighting the burning social issues like the migration of the landless class and their exploitation, addiction, dowry, pangs of separation and sexuality.

Vast repertoire

After his death in 1971, his disciple and collaborator Manjhi carried forward the torch and today at the fag end of his glorious career he could boast of such a rich legacy and vast repertoire of Naach Theatre such as “Gabarghichor”, “Beti Bechawa” , “Gunga Snan”, “Krishna Leela”, “Vidhawa Vilaap”, “Nanad- Bhaujai” , “Putr –Vadh” , “Bhai-Virodh”, “Piya- Nisaeel”, etc.

And today the greatest relief for him is that, despite all odds, Naach is not a dying art, but is still very popular among the masses.

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 1:50:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/the-fire-is-still-burning/article24580281.ece

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