A lithe figure shoves balls of cotton into his bra, before painting pencil-thin streaks for brows on his face, his colour concealed with skin-toned greasepaint. This is a scene from the documentary Naach Launda Naach, to be screened at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s festival of documentary films, Open Frame, today. This is also one of the most enduring memories for one of the film’s makers, Jainendra Kumar Dost. “For as long as I can remember, I have watched them get dressed in their make-up rooms and peered as they performed on stage” says Dost, a doctoral scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, who joined forces with his college-mate, Shilpi Gulati, a National Award-winning filmmaker, to document the traditional folk theatre of Bihar.
Across the state, 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 Dost.
Relying on the research Dost had already conducted for his doctorate, the two set out in search of performers of this subaltern art form in and around the Chhapra district of Bihar. Most of these men belonged to the 20th century naach performer Bhikhari Thakur’s repertory. “Bhikhari Thakur started his troupe in 1917. Unlike other troupes of the time that loosely based their narratives on folklore, Thakur wrote his own plays and songs which were an amalgam of other performing art forms that he had seen during his travels around the country. We have a record of 12 plays and about 100 songs composed by him,” says Dost.
Thakur was widely regarded as the “Shakespeare of Bihar” and was distinguished from his contemporaries for injecting comedy, sour and sardonic, into his performances while also using them as vehicles for social and political commentary.
Gulati rues how the city audience has hardly solicited his work. “I was struck by the popularity of Bhikhari Thakur in Bihar. Everyone knew his songs, their lyrics. They would tear up while singing them. It’s appalling that nobody in Delhi, even in the cultural centres, has any idea about him. While the folk theatre of other states has thrived, launda naach has not,” she says.
“When the upper caste considered the dance form vulgar, they termed it launda naach. As it gained popularity because of Thakur, they co-opted it, sanitised it and named it Bidesiya,” she says. “Bidesiya is associated with the phenomenon of migration which was rampant in Bihar and many plays were built around it. Thakur, too, looked at migration in his performances. But how can it be a form when it is merely one theme that naach explores?” adds Gulati.
While, to some, the innuendos are only disconcerting, to others the sight of men performing dressed as women is anathema thereby making the folk form vulnerable to stigmatisation. That it is performed by scheduled castes only lends to this. “How can they call it vulgar when traditionally it was performed at weddings, funerals and other rituals. We don’t think it is ashleel. Maybe the upper caste does. For us, it’s our language and our perspective. Besides, who gets to decide what is vulgar?” concludes Dost.
The film will be screened at IIC, today at 5.30 pm.
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