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BHIKHARI THAKUR

Old is Gold
BHIKHARI THAKUR: Shakespeare of Bhojpuri Films and Theatre
(1887 – 1971)


 

 BHIKHARI THAKUR

 

The label ‘Shakespeare of Bhojpuri’ might sound like a tongue-in-cheek oxymoron to those who are unfamiliar with Bhikhari Thakur’s legacy, but it’s only befitting for a man who happened to be the sole vanguard of an entire cultural movement. Kamlesh Pandey calls him the Aadi-Purush (protoplast) of Bhojpuri (i.e. the language of western Bihar) literature and folk art. 

Undoubtedly, the most popular Bhojpuri playwright, lyricist, singer, performer and theater-director Bhikhari Thakur continues to rule hearts after more than forty years of his death. 

BIRTH 

Bhikhari Thakur was born on December 18, 1887 in Qutubpur (Diyara) of Saran district (Bihar) to Dal Singar Thakur and Shivkali Devi. He also had a younger brother named Bahor Thakur. Bhikhari grew up learning his father’s occupation and went to Kharagpur to earn his livelihood as a barber. Within a few years he had started to feel a creative urge as his fondness for Ramlila kept on growing. He went to Jagannath Puri to imbibe the art and upon his return, formed a theatre group in his native village which started performing Ramlila. 

Thakur was also drawn to blazing social issues and soon, started to address those in his freshly written theatrical pieces in his own innovative style. On being asked why he took to writing plays, Thakur had once answered in an interview - “I would watch Ramlila in which Hrishi Vyas gave sermons to people; I also thought I could give sermons to my folks!” 

Bhikhari Thakur wrote plays on contemporary themes suffused with songs, dance and a lot of humor. What he learnt while doing Ramlila, along with his inherent histrionics, came handy in his new ventures. His plays would captivate thousands of villagers throughout the night. Thakur was on his way to create what today is considered as his biggest contribution to Bhojpuri culture - the folk theatre form of Bidesia. 

Bidesia 

The literal meaning of the term Bidesia is ‘the one who has become a foreigner’. In 1917, Bhikhari Thakur had originally performed a play about the agony and endless wait of a newly-wed village bride whose husband goes off to another city to earn money. The theme which portrayed migration as the root cause of misery found such an immediate echo with the social reality that this play, after minor variations, gathered the status of an independent folk form named Bidesia. 

This form is heavy on elements like songs, dances and heightened drama which are characterized by ballad style singing, melodrama, comedy, regional wits and a strong element of poetry rendered on a high note. A performance starts with a dance aiming to attract a large audience and once the viewers have settled down, the actual play unfolds. Pathos is the dominant mood of Bidesia while all the female roles are played by the male cast. A show requires no more than three or four actors, who double up for several roles. Bidesia continues to be popular in the villages of Bihar, as its theme remains relevant, reflecting a reality of rural life where men have to migrate and families have to live in agony. It remains the most popular and refreshing relaxation for a big section of Bhojpuris. 

Other Important Plays 

Along with Bidesia, many of Bhikhari Thakur’s plays acquired widespread recognition and later, also got published. He wrote and directed about a dozen of plays including: 

Bidesia, Bhai-Virodh, Beti-Bechva (Beti-Viyog), Kalyuga-Prem, Radheshyam Behar (based on Radha-Krishna love), Ganga-Asnan, Bidhva-Vilap, Putra-Badh, Gabar-Dichor, Nanad-Bhojai and Vasant-Bahar. 

Here’s a quick summary of a few of these: 

Beti-Bechva (Or Beti-Viyog) 

Thakur sensitized his audience against the ills of the widespread custom of selling young girls by their fathers to older men for marriage. This custom prevailed in Bihar until quite recently. Mr. Kamlesh Pandey shares his own memories of watching Beti-Bechva and says, “I still remember the lyrics of a song from this play. It goes like this – 

Rupaiya Ginaayi Lehala, Pagaha Dharai Dehwla, Chiraya Ke Cheraya Banaula O Babuji! 

The girl is saying to her father – “You counted the money, and the way a goat is sold to the butcher, you sold me to an old man.” 

In those days women were not allowed to watch Nautanki and whenever this play would be staged, while all the men would watch it, women would sit together somewhere close by and sob hearing these lines!” 

Bidhva-Vilaap 

Here the story is an extension to Beti-Bechva. The play portrays the seclusion a widow had to suffer for no fault of her own. 

Bhai-Virodh 

Three brothers are separated on the instigation of a conspirator before they realize the importance of togetherness only after a lot of harm has been done. 

Kalyuga- Prem 

Bhikhari Thakur exposes the ills of alcoholism when the lone wage earner of a family becomes a drunkard and his deeds run his family into troubles. 

Ganga-Asnan 

A man and his wife take a pilgrimage to the Ganges but are mean to his old and weary mother. At the banks of the river the mother goes missing while the wife is seduced by a Sadhu with the promise of giving her a son. In the end the man finds them both and begs his mother for forgiveness. 

Gabar-Dichor 

Galij returns to his village only to find his wife having an illegitimate son named Dichor with Garbari. After initial quarrels Galij, his wife and Garbari raise their individual claims on Dichor. The Panchayat decides that Dichor would be divided into three pieces. At the final moment the mother gives up her claim to save her son’s life. The Panchayat sees the light and Dichor is allowed to stay with his mother. 

Literary Style 

Through his plays, Bhikhari Thakur not only gave voice to the deprived woman but also provided a great relief to the poor migrants. He openly spoke against casteism and used satire to great effect to propagate his progressive ideas. 

In one of his plays he writes - “Jati Hazzam More Kutubpur Mokam. Jati-Pesha Bate, Bidya Naheen Bate, Babujee”. Here he laments that people of his caste would distribute letters without knowing their true importance. 

Bhikhari Thakur’s plays were not only popular in Bihar but also in big cities like Kolkata, Patna and Benares where there is a big population of migrant laborers. Thakur had also performed in countries like Mauritius, Kenya, Singapore, Nepal, British Guyana, Suriname, Uganda, Myanmar, Madagascar, South Africa, Fiji, Trinidad etc. 

Sharing his thoughts on Thakur’s literary style Mr. Pandey says – “He had a keen eye for all that which went on in the surroundings. By profession he was a barber and lived in a small hut. What I have heard is that he would keep his razor and a notebook with a pencil stuck up in the canopy. That way he would switch between using the tool to serve his customers and giving shape to the array of thoughts running in his mind. 

He was the first writer of Bhojpuri who acknowledged the truth of his times and aimed to bring down the evil customs of the society. It’s fascinating that he gained tremendous popularity despite working with folk art, which is essentially considered as an entertainment medium. He dealt with serious cultural issues through his plays.” 

Legacy 

Bhikhari Thakur died at the age of 84 on July 10, 1971. One would not be wrong in calling him the founding father and flag-bearer of Bhojpuri music and storytelling. A film has also been made on his play Bidesia, by the same name (Bidesiya, 1963, Directed by S.N. Tripathi), which starred Sujit Kumar and Jeevan. Today, there is a drama institute in Patna founded in Thakur’s memory along with several awards and felicitations which are given every year in his fond remembrance. Talk about the songs of Bidesia to a lover of Bhojpuri theatre and his eyes would light up as he starts to hum. The great nostalgia with which Bhojpuri singers sing all those melodies also speaks volumes. Unfortunately, it’s been observed that since Thakur’s death his style is being continuously exploited by the Bhojpuri music industry for producing gawky songs. 

Kamlesh Pandey sums up the issue with these words “Today, when films have presumably become a medium to shove out cheap entertainment, is it possible for Bhojpuri cinema to draw inspiration from Bhikhari Thakur and realize that even entertainment value can go hand in hand with social concerns. He set an example that even a medium of entertainment can be used to highlight important issues and thus, cause social awakening. The question which I pose is; can the Bhojpuri Cinema take up the challenge to produce an heir to the Shakespeare of Bhojpuri?” 
 



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