It’s a listless weekday morning at a marketplace in Bihar’s Chhapra town. Shopkeepers don’t expect a lot of customers at this time of the day. The local eatery has few patrons, and the staffers are huddled at a corner table. Suddenly, a man appears playing a ‘damru’, a jamoora in tow. Some shopkeepers look up, but are not interested enough to step out yet.
The jamoora lies down, the madaari asks him what he can see. “Rhea Chakraborty,” the jamoora answers. “Everywhere, across news channels, this is the most important name in the country right now. No other issue matters as much as that one name, Rhea Chakraborty.”
People chortle, a few gather around the two performers. The madaari and jamoora go on from there, raising the problems facing the country and Bihar, making snide jibes at Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The crowd swells.
Such nukkad naataks, or street plays, are new to election campaigning in Bihar. RJD leader Jeetendra Kumar Rai, sitting MLA and candidate from Marhaura, saw them being performed by the AAP in Delhi and was inspired.
“Campaigning here sees a lot of Bhojpuri songs, and this time, of course, social media platforms are flooded with election-related videos,” says Rai. “But Chhapra is the land of the great Bhojpuri playwright Bhikhari Thakur, and I wanted to do something that would highlight his legacy. Also, songs and videos are a passive way of connecting with your leaders. The nukkad naatak is a more two-way process. The performers get a sense of what jokes and issues are clicking with people.”
At one point during the naatak, ‘Nitish’ and ‘Modi’ appear tied together with their backs to each other, a dig at the ‘double-engine sarkaar’ the BJP and JD(U) run in Bihar. “You gave us 15 years. We have used this time to achieve something huge,” says ‘Modi’. “We have managed to figure out that all the problems facing the state are because of the previous government. Now give us another 15, so we can bring vikaas to Bihar.”
In a barb at the CM citing difficulties in setting up industries in the landlocked state, ‘Nitish’ says, “Orders for starting factories have been given to China. The day China delivers on its promises, Bihar will have industries.”
‘Modi’ then winks at the audience. “Don’t tell him, but his days are over,” he says, pointing to ‘Nitish’. “It’s going to be us all the way now.”
The play has been written and directed by Jainendra Dost, a filmmaker who runs the Bhikhari Thakur Repertory Training & Research Centre in Chhapra. “Jitendra ji came to me with the idea,” Dost says. “I wondered what kind of an impact a live skit would have in an election dominated by social media campaigning. However, artistes and performers had been long out of job due to Covid-19, and this seemed to be a good opportunity. Also, a live performance can convey nuances difficult to capture in a recorded show.”
The skit has already had more than 100 showings. Most of the performers are Dost’s students, and they say the response from viewers has been enthusiastic. “One reason for this,” says Dharmraaj, one of the performers, “is that people are really upset, what with the floods and Covid-19, and the play offers them a chance to laugh at their frustrations. The laughter is also a measure of their disaffection with the ruling dispensation. The mighty are truly in trouble when they can be reduced to a joke.”
Kumar Gaurav, a 34-year-old Chhapra resident, came across the naatak by chance but continued watching “because it struck a chord”. “All day long, we are subjected to hyperbole and propaganda by political parties. This unsparing critique of those who consider themselves invincible was refreshing. Of course, the crowd at the skit doesn’t mean everyone will go from here and vote for the RJD. They, too, have a lot to answer for. But it is just good to watch something that makes you both laugh and think,” Gaurav says.
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