If you google him, you’ll find just one image of Bhikhari Thakur: a serious-looking man in a turban and thick-rimmed glasses. He doesn’t quite look like a man who, for years, ran a wildly successful dance-drama troupe, wrote Bhojpuri plays and songs in perfectly metered poetry, and drew thousands to his performances.
Thakur was born in 1887, into a poor, lower-caste family of nais or barbers in the nondescript village of Qutubpur in Bihar’s Saran district. He could have spent his life doing what his father had done, cutting hair and shaving beards with his ustra. But he became, in the words of writer and scholar Rahul Sankrityayan, the “Shakespeare of Bhojpuri”.
Recently, around his 50th death anniversary last month (Thakur died in July 1971), I re-read Hindi writer Sanjeev’s richly textured, widely acclaimed novel Sutradhar (Narrator), based on his life.
Bhikhari Thakur’s story is also the story of his village and his family. Over the years, Qutubpur is ravaged by drought, flood, disease. Sometimes there is just enough food for one meal, sometimes not even that. People have no choice but to flee the village in droves. By 1914, Thakur is 27, married and a father of two. There is a terrible famine that year. He too must leave his village in search of work. He goes to Kharagpur in Bengal, because an uncle once migrated there.
From Kharagpur, he goes on to Puri. Then Calcutta! Here, he sees people crammed into tiny rooms — Biharis, Bengalis, Odias. They are rickshawwallahs, coolies, cooks and labourers. Bhikhari Thakur gets by following his traditional occupation of cutting hair. At night, the Bihari contingent reads religious texts out loud. Others discuss goings-on in the city. This is the first time Thakur realises that the country he lives in is called Hindustan, and is ruled by the Angrez, who are white like milk. There were many Angrez in Kharagpur, but nothing like the number in Calcutta.
Thakur barely knows Hindi at this point. In Calcutta, he sees his first “cilema” (cinema), a parade of walking, talking photos! He meets Babulal, also from Bihar, who runs a naach hall there. They form an abiding friendship and professional partnership that will last years, until Babulal’s death.
Thakur meets people from his own des who have also left their families behind in search of work. They live with just the memories of their villages, wives, parents, children. It is their stories that Thakur will immortalise. His most famous play is Bidesiya, about a young man who migrates to Calcutta. He falls in love with another woman there, while his wife languishes at home.
The play that will rival Bidesiya in popularity is Beti Bechwa, on the custom of impoverished parents selling their young daughters to old bridegrooms. When the play is performed, the audience is stunned. You can hear sobs and sniffles. There is some anger too; no one likes a mirror that shows their most unsightly warts.
But the play is a great success. It almost ignites a movement. There are stories of young girls leaving the mandap and running away instead of docilely marrying the old men their parents have taken money from. In Nautanwa village in Uttar Pradesh, after the play is performed there, the villagers send back a baraat of an old bridegroom. After a performance in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, some members of the audience march to a nearby temple and take an oath that they will stop this practice.
Thakur’s fame spreads. He travels to Jharia in present-day Jharkhand, to perform for migrants who work in the coal mines; he makes his way across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, from Arrah to Gorakhpur, Ballia, Jaunpur, as far as Dibrugarh in Assam. The spectators come in the thousands. Members of his troupe, which includes both Hindus and Muslims, are wide-eyed at their first sight of glamorous Calcutta. They buy lanterns, dhotis, toys, torches (what a magical thing it is, see how it emits light!).
But caught up in a whirl of performances, Thakur loses family and friends. His mother dies when he’s away touring. In 1946, cholera sweeps his village and Manturna Devi, his wife, succumbs to the disease. In her last moments, she asks for her husband. The man who understands everyone’s pain is not there. Once again, he is away.
The show goes on. The years roll by. Though he faces disdain, for his low caste, for dressing in women’s clothes and dancing on stage, he has become a beloved hero too. He grows old, that tall figure, always in a dhoti, turban and spectacles. He finds it difficult to walk, but people still flock to see him. He is literally carried on stage in the last years of his life. He dies in his village Qutubpur, a brave and mighty presence to the end.
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