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Lead actors of Bal Rangmanch enact a play in Begusarai. Credit: Zeyad Masroor Khan. 
Society

The Theatre Scene of 'Bihar’s Leningrad’ Is Alive and Kicking

As raunchy Bhojpuri and Bollywood films increase in popularity across India, theatre artists in this small town still practise in dingy offices, community grounds, and ‘communist complexes’.
February 11, 2019, 7:06am

Amit Roushan’s life changed when he watched the Bollywood classic Do Bigha Zamin at the age of 11. “We didn’t have a TV at home and it was the first film I watched. Coming from a family of farmers, I was mesmerised by [actor] Balraj Sahni’s realistic portrayal of a farmer exploited by landlords.” When he saw Sunil Dutt’s Dard ka Rishta, the teenage obsession of this farmer’s son turned into a passion, and he ended up acting in plays organised in his village, mostly at festivals like Durga Puja, Chatt, and Dussehra.

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Presently, Roushan serves as the secretary of Aashirwad Rang Mandal, a renowned theatre group in his hometown, Begusarai. Begusarai is a dusty, bustling factory town, best known as ‘Bihar’s Leningrad’ and the last remaining stronghold of communism in the state. Named after the Begum of Bhagalpur, who regularly visited it for praying at the banks of Ganga, the town later came to be known for being the birthplace of socialist leaders like Chandrashekhar Singh, its oil refinery and, often, the political and class violence (an image furthered by a Hindi soap opera named Begusarai). Few outside Bihar are aware of the town’s legacy of being a theatre powerhouse—arguably next only to Patna—with its flavours of socialism and anti-establishment.

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A play in progress at the Aashirwad Rang Mandal. Credit: Zeyad Masroor Khan.

As raunchy Bhojpuri and masala Bollywood films lure the public, theatre here is kept alive by organisations like Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Aakash Ganga Manch, Bal Rangmanch, Humrahi and Aashirwad Rang Mandal. The artists gather at dingy offices, community grounds or the Ram Dhari Singh Dinkar Hall, the town hall named after the legendary Hindi poet born in Begusarai. “Our group is a collective of professional artists, who do theatre along with their jobs and businesses. The founder, Vijay Pal Sharma, was a railway employee who took care of most of the finances. He went on to act in Nana Patekar’s Prahaar and few other films,” says Roushan. The 41-year-old himself had to come back to his village after graduation from Patna University to help his father in farming and sustain their family income.

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The major themes in their plays are caste atrocities, workers’ rights, exploitation of farmers, communal politics, gender discrimination, and bureaucratic corruption. “I think theatre always has to be anti-establishment and driven by idealism. Those who join it to earn money are disappointed eventually,” says Roushan, who is currently documenting the historiography of Bihar’s theatre as part of his academic research. According to him, his group is also driven by a healthy rivalry with IPTA, a theatre organisation with considerable influence in Begusarai’s villages. “They mostly focus on civil movements and socialist ideals, but we are politically neutral,” he adds.

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Hrishikesh Kumar, who runs Bal Rangmanch, with his theatre students. Credit: Zeyad Masroor Khan.

IPTA’s office in Bihat, one of the villages in Begusarai, lies in a bustling complex housing of the office of Communist Party of India (CPI). It comprises a primary school, rehearsal rooms, a stage, a playground, and a sports training centre. At different points of the day, it serves as the practice spot for the female kabaddi team, kids learning taekwondo, badminton and volleyball and arts like theatre and singing. It’s also the place where the controversial student leader Kanhaiya Kumar nurtured his oratory skills. The president of IPTA’s Bihat branch, Ram Avtar Singh, says this complex has had a long history of socialist leaders fighting for workers’ right and mobilising public opinion through theatre.

“Who motivated the workers in the refineries and factories to fight for their rights? It was IPTA, which made them aware of their exploitation through folk songs, theatre and street plays,” says Singh. During the height of the communist movement of the 1970s, he adds, the street play was used extensively to engage with farmers and jobless youth. “A popular song for their movement was ‘Uth ja mere saathi, dekh zara surkhi se sawera hota hai’ (Rise comrades, and see that every morning comes with a hint of red).”

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Singh’s group was currently working on their next play to be showcased at the end of January. Named Eklavyavah, it narrates the old-age tale of a Dalit archer from the Mahabharata, who was asked to donate his thumb by his teacher. “In our play, we don’t show it as a sacrifice, but as caste oppression faced by the legendary hero,” says Singh.

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IPTA artists during a rehearsal in their Bihat headquarters in Begusarai. Credit: Zeyad Masroor Khan.

Lakshmi Prasad Yadav, 50, a folk singer is engaged in a discussion with an old communist leader outside the CPI office. He thinks that songs and dialogues in local languages (and not in Hindi and Urdu) influenced the district’s rural population more than films. “IPTA was instrumental in motivating farmers to get back their lands, labourers demand better wages at factories and fight against caste oppression by Bhumihar landlords,” says Yadav. He sings in local languages like Bhojpuri, Angika and Maithali, often performing for several radio and television programs on All India Radio and Doordarshan.

He then breaks into a song about a worker telling his wife why he can’t go to work.

Kaise javenge sajanaiya pahad tode la
hamra anguli se khunoon ka dhaar bahela
Pathar tode to tutal jawani, dhalal umariya dhal
lahoo phadke bahe paseena, chaati phate hamaar
Hamra ankhiyan ke aage andhaar laagela
kaise javenge sajanaiya pahad tode la.”

(How will I go to break the mountain, darling
Streams of blood are flowing from my fingers
Breaking stones takes away youth, age passes away
Sweat flows from blood veins, chest is shattered
I feel the darkness engulf my eyes
How will I go to break the mountain, darling.)

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In another corner of the busy ground in Bihat, a roomful of smiling kids answer to the commands of Hrishikesh Kumar, who runs Bal Rangmanch, the theatre of the kids. When he was 10, Kumar’s father went to work and went missing, a not-so-rare occurrence in Bihar, which continues to battle a kidnapping and organised crime industry. A few years later, his mother died of a road accident on the main highway to Patna. After failing to get into National School of Drama for the third time, Kumar began organising theatre workshops for the village kids, a pool which steadily grew to 25. He has been doing it for the last five years, without a fee. His group has now earned a name for itself, keeps travelling to neighbouring villages/cities, winning several awards in the process.

Kumar’s first role was of a ‘King of Andhernagri’ in a comedy play at the age of 12, which he practised hard by showing to his brothers and sisters-in-law. “During a scene, I fell unintentionally seven times while climbing the throne. The audience went nuts laughing.” This, says Kumar, was the moment he decided to devote his life to theatre. “I treat the kids of my group like my family. When they are not in the mood to practice, but to play games, I have to bow down to their wishes,” says Kumar, who thinks that kids have a unique sense of humour and sharpness. “I am often surprised by their improvisations. They now prepare on their own and select roles within the group, with as less fighting as they can manage.”

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Kids learning taekwondo at Bihat's communist complex. Credit: Zeyad Masroor Khan.

In the workshop room, his kids are rehearsing for their flagship play Matadin, in which a corrupt cop, Inspector Matadin, is invited from Bihar by the Prime Minister of Moon to control law and order. In a sort of comedy of errors, Matadin then corrupts the perfect system on the moon. Vishal Kumar, 13, who plays an assistant cop, says before coming to Bal Rangmanch, he used to beat village kids who made fun of his dark complexion. “Earlier I couldn’t even speak of full sentence, and now I perform in front of hundreds of audience. I have improved in studies and learnt to communicate with people. Pehle to bas phod deta tha (Earlier, I just used to demolish them),” he says.

Purnima Kumari, 15, who plays the role of main protagonist, Matadin, says the happiest moment for her team was audience shouting for them to perform once again after the end of their plays. “In these parts, people go home back in evening as it’s often not that safe at night. But during one of our performances, the audience just wouldn’t go home. Even as the night progressed, they just kept coming.”

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