Across the state of Bihar and in eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh, men, primarily those occupying the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy, don the garb of a woman to perform launda naach. “Even in its documentation, the folk form has been considered achhuta. When I started my research in 2012, I barely found any written material through which I could gain a historical understanding or contextualise the form,” says one of its makers, research scholar Jainendra Kumar Dost. Directors Shilpa Gulati and Jainendra Dost have made this 72-minute documentary named Naach Bhikari Naach in Bhojpuri, the dialect the performing artists speak in. The film is produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT).
Jainendra is a doctoral scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His work examines the social and political realities of Launda Naach and Bhikhari Thakur’s folk theatre in Bihar. He is also the Director of Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training and Research Centre, which is working towards the revival of folk theatre in Bihar. In the past, his work has been supported by India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) and Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. Shilpi Gulati is a filmmaker and researcher based out of New Delhi. Her body of work largely engages with themes of gender, performance and oral traditions in India. Her last documentary, Qissa-e Parsi (2014), won the National Award for the Best Ethnographic Film and her other works, Inside Out (2010), Dere to Delhi (2012) and Lock and Key (2017) have been screened at various festivals in Asia, Europe and the US. Shilpi is also a Fulbright scholar and is currently pursuing her PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The seeds of the documentary were sown at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2012, where the filmmakers were pursing Master of Philosophy degrees in different subjects. “I was researching on documentary practice and Jainendra was looking at folk theatre in Bihar,” Gulati said. “He had met the artists during his field research. Our interaction over the last five years and a deep-rooted love for theatre lead us to collaborate on this film.”
Jainendra points out that Indian theatre has a long history of female impersonation by men – with Natya Shastra and Mahabhasya, two ancient Sanskrit texts mentioning ‘Roop Anusarini’ (follower of the form/gender). In Bihar, Launda Naach gained currency in the 19th century when women were not allowed in public spaces, let alone the stage, which was considered polluted and dishonourable. Men, mostly from weaker castes, took their place.This was also a time when dominant landlords and royals were extending patronage to baijis – roughly translated as courtesans – that was increasingly seen as the entertainment for the elite. A parallel grassroots response for the poor was Launda Naach.
“The most legendary name in this tradition is Bhikari Thakur’s—an actor, playwright, and a social reformer popularly known as the ‘Shakespeare of Bhojpuri.’ The film follows the last four Naach performers to have worked with him and creates a visual archive of his performance tradition. As they share their plays, songs and a lifetime of memories, they immerse us into the world of folk theatre where we begin to see a glimpse of budhau– the old man, himself,” says Shilpi.
In the past three decades, the 1887-born Bhikhari Thakur’s work has grabbed national spotlight – with his plays on migration, addiction, dowry and the condition of women, being translated. But in the process, scholars say, the Naach has been sanitised, crunched and tailored to suit mainstream sensibilities. Thus, if preserved and sustained with promotion and proper marketing and practices, this also functions as a social agency to spread messages against social ills. Thakur died in 1971, but going by the moist-eyed interviews in the documentary Naach Launda Naach, he appears to moved on only a few weeks ago. Thakur authored 12 plays (including the landmark migration-themed Bidesiya) and numerous songs in Bhojpuri since the 1920s and ran a drama troupe. Four of the troupe’s surviving members appear in the film to recite his songs from memory, share their views on his politics, and rewind to their experiences of working with Thakur over the decades.
The film has multiple layers. The first explores the men who dress us as women before they go on the stage for a performance that covers singing, dancing and theatrics with live accompaniments of tabla,harmonium and sarangi. The second explores the psychological and social dynamics of these men who hide their female personas and their performances from their wives, their children and their grandchildren. The third shows that since this is a fading art, all performers, pioneers of the art are very old, their ages ranging between 50 and 92. Ram Chander Majhi, a star in his own right, is 92. The fourth is about the ostracism they suffer from upper castes in general and Brahmins in particular who opine that their performances are vulgar and obscene and yet, turn up to watch clandestinely. Last is the grinding poverty these old men must confront and fall back on farming when there are no call shows.
These various themes come across in the interactions between and among the directors (off-screen) and the performing artists intercut with on-stage performances of small skits with a joker, an anchor and an actor from time to time. Some of the younger performers look quite convincing in female attire but their voices give their sex away.
Jainendra, who has also written the biographical play Bhikarinama, drew from his origins while conducting his research – he is from Bihar’s Chhapra district, and has seen numerous Naach performances during his formative years “The documentary is one way of understanding the culture of Naach,” Dost said. “Bhikari Thakur is still popular, and in Chhapra district alone, according to my research, there are 30-35 groups that perform Launch Naach despite new forms of media.”
The directors inform us that pioneers of this fading folk art namely Ram Chandra Majhi Bade, Ram Chandra Majhi Chhote, Shivlal Bari, Lakhichand Majhi and other performers are very rigid about keeping the two worlds of private life and public performance separate. “Bari goes home after every performance, changes into a devoted house husband because his wife is mentally challenged. This includes feeding and taking care of her which shows that they are not only conforming to gender roles but also have a liberal approach towards feminism,” says Gulati summing up.