A barber, a confectioner, several children from the slums, and an MBA student walked onto a stage. It was an unlikely group perhaps, but that evening, at a literary event in Agra, all were players in the folk theatre known as Bhagat. They were assembled in the centre of the stage, while accompanying musicians sat at the sides, regaling the audience with songs and dialogues delivered in a high-octane yet musical tone.
Bhagat began life by poking the bear. Right from the time it was first ‘played’ ( khela jaane laga ) in the 17th century, its satirical comedies lampooning feudal landlords were a hit with the common people. The ruling classes, naturally, had a different perspective, and soon contrived to have Bhagat banned.
Interest in the theatre form revived in the 19th century, as poets put together shows that introduced a mixed ‘Khari Boli’ dialect of Hindi to appeal to urban audiences — earlier performances had been in Braj Bhasha — as well as folk tunes from the surrounding Braj region. And it wasn’t long before different akharas or ‘schools’ of Bhagat emerged, each with a khalifa or head who would train artists in their own style.
But even as Bhagat began to flourish once more, it was hit with a body blow. As the 20th century progressed, its audiences were increasingly lured away by the novelty of moving pictures. And as its appeal weakened, the folk theatre was driven to extinction. In fact, it’s believed that no Bhagat play was staged for more than four decades.
Memories, however, lived on. In the 1970s, Anil Shukla, a former journalist based in Agra who had faint memories
of power-packed musicals featuring “men in flashy costumes enacting female roles with an enthusiastic audience showering wads of notes on them,” started wondering, ‘Whatever happened to Bhagat?’ He still remembers some shows that had been very popular, with titles like Sheela ka Vivaah and Haqeerat Rai urf Shahjehan ka Insaaf . “It was unfortunate that while efforts were being made to keep theatre forms like Nautanki and Khayalgoi alive, nobody was thinking of Bhagat, which was once such an intrinsic part of Agra’s culture,” says the 62-year-old.
Deeply interested in theatre — he’d taken part in a workshop with Bansi Kaul, who went on to found Rang Vidushak, in the early 1970s — the ‘cultural activist’ (“that is what I prefer being called,” he says) became more and more determined to tell the world that “there’s more to Agra than just the Taj Mahal.” He made a start by combing the older parts of the city for surviving Bhagat artists, and was fortunate enough to come across Phool Singh Yadav, perhaps one of the last living performers.
Shukla recalls waiting outside the elderly artist’s home, when he saw a frail old man, “being mercilessly teased by the mohalla kids”, slowly walk towards him. With no source of income, Yadav “was living in abject poverty”. Needless to say, when Shukla spoke to him about the need to revive Bhagat, “his face lit up”. But he had a question: “Will people watch it now?”
The veteran artist had seen his beloved theatre form fall prey to the more modern forms of entertainment, “so his scepticism was justified,” says Shukla. But once convinced of the need to resurrect Bhagat, Yadav grew excited enough to share not just the various nuances of the form but also his memories of performances he’d seen and been part of in the 1930s.
He also started helping Shukla create new scripts for Bhagats “that were completely in sync with its original, old-world style”. And what’s more, he went on stage as a performer himself. “It was heartwarming to see the crowd’s response to Bhagat — their sense of pride in something they felt was part of their city’s heritage was palpable,” says a smiling Shukla. “And the unanimous feeling was that Bhagat must now not be allowed to die.”
Yadav is now no more — he passed away in 2015, “a happy man, content that the art-form that was part of him from the time he was barely eight had received another lease of life,” recalls Shukla.
Meanwhile, with his help, Shukla had put together a group of artists to be trained in the basics of Bhagat. “Although its essential form of raag - raginis and swang metre remains undisturbed, we introduced some changes in Naye Daur ki Nayi Bhagat (‘the new Bhagat for the new age’), bringing in social issues like women’s empowerment, the importance of education, religious harmony etc.” he says.
This new-age Bhagat is seeing women on stage too. Here Shukla mentions one of his group’s star performers, Komal Gupta, who, after watching a show, was fascinated enough to become part of it. “Its style of thet gayaki (the traditional style of singing in the regional idiom) is what attracted me to Bhagat,” says the 16-year-old student who, despite having no formal training in music, leaves audiences spellbound with her full-throated renditions.
With a “minimum of resources” at their disposal, Shukla and his team work hard to keep the folk theatre going. More than 100 slum children have joined his newly formed group, Basti Ka Rangmanch, including school dropouts and addicts.
“And because these kids have joined of their own volition, without any parental pressure, their sense of dedication to our cause is amazing.” But the lack of funds is concerning. “I wish we could start a repertory so that we’re at least able to pay some amount to our artists. Nobody can continue to work endlessly for free,” says Shukla.
Maybe that too will come to pass in the city of the Taj.
The independent journalist enjoys writing about people, places, art and culture.