Socio-Cultural context of the performance of Gujarati “BHAVAI”

Socio-Cultural context of the performance of Gujarati “BHAVAI”

Bhavai, also known as Vesha or Swang, is a popular folk theatre form of western India, especially in Gujarat.

Bhavai may have been derived from sanskrit word, Bhava which means expression. It is also associated with Hindu goddess Amba. Bhav means universe and Aai means mother, so it is considered art form dedicated to Mother of Universe, Amba. Bhavai is also known as Vesha or Swang which literally means ‘get-up’.

havai is a popular folk theatre form in Gujarat with a 700-year old history. The word Bhavai derives its meaning from a combination of two words—bhav meaning emotion, and vahini meaning carrier—thus it is named as an art form which is a carrier of emotions.

Bhavai’s original aim was mass awareness and entertainment; hence it evolved to have an open-air style, with simple storylines and exaggerated acting. One night of performance includes several skits being performed and these small skits are called vesha. Music, dance, and vernacular humour are highlights of any Bhavai vesha.

In the context of Bhavai and its traditional staging, it is essential to mention the Bhavaiyya community. Also known as Vyas or Nayak in different parts of Gujarat, the Bhavaiyya community has historical claim to the art and tradition of Bhavai. While actors of different backgrounds learn and perform Bhavai today, it was the male members of the Bhavaiyya community who were the sole performers of Bhavai for most of its history.

The story of Bhavai’s origin and creation of the Bhavaiyya community dates back to the 14th century and is credited to Asait Thakar, the father of Bhavai. Legend has it that in Unjha of present day Gujarat, there lived a Brahmin called Asait Thakar. A Muslim subedar kidnapped Ganga, the daughter of the local village headman Hema Patel. In order to free her, Thakar appeared before the subedar and claimed Ganga as his daughter. Thakar was a Brahmin, and knowing the fact, the subedar asked him to dine with Ganga to prove their relationship. In those times, stringent rules regarding caste segregation were in place. Thakar obliged and was thus able to free Ganga. However, he invited the wrath of his native Brahmin community which decided to excommunicate him for breaking caste barriers. As a token of gratitude, Hema Patel gifted some land to Thakar. Thakar started writing short plays satirising social evils and taboos which became the foundation for Bhavai.

Some dramatic form (or forms) were the common heritage of the people of the entire region and Asaita changed or added certain elements to give it a local flavour. He seems to have put the gift of story-telling into writing and turned out the first ‘swang’ of Ramdeva—a simple narrative drama. He said: There are the pakhavaja player(s), two ravaja players—two making a pair or two pairs of them—tala player(s), and the Bhungala players, again making a pair or two pairs—and Rangalo stood in front of them (ready to begin), and thus, says Asaita, Ramadeva was played.

Historically, the Bhavaiyya community made its living by relying on the alms provided by village patrons in exchange for performing Bhavai. Bhavai was not seen merely as a means of entertainment, but also as a platform for the community to gather and socialise, and a medium to invoke and inspire spiritual consciousness. The annual arrival of the Bhavai troupe in the village was much anticipated and the members were accorded generous hospitality. The peripatetic community relied entirely on the rations, clothing, and other alms given to them by the host village.

Traditional vesha are categorised into four types according to their central theme:  Historical events and characters: Skits based on local history and figures as their main theme. Prominent plays include Zanda Zulan, Juthan, and Jasma Odan.  Religious themes and characters: Ganpati, Kan Gopi, Raval, Ardhnarishwar  Social issues: These vesha have satire and social commentary as their primary elements. Purabio, Saraniyo, Vanzara are some noteworthy mentions.  Skill veshas: These involve physical dexterity and sleight of hand, and depend upon skills of individual performers.

Despite its ritual significance and a number of mythological plays in its repertory Bhavai as a folk dramatic form is specially known for its social plays full of humour. Subtle criticism laced with pungent humour is the specialty of Bhavai. The pompous and incongruous behavior of high caste people is scoffed at in Bhavai plays.

Bhavai troupes visit patron villages annually. The visits are made after prior consultation with the village head ensuring a good social atmosphere for performances (no recent deaths, no marriages or major social occasion). Upon arrival, the troupe stays at the village outskirts, awaiting their welcome. The local patron receives the troupe and brings the members inside the village. Troupe members set up camp in the village temple. The village collectively arranges for food and the other personal needs of the visiting troupe.

The proceedings begin after lunch. The troupe visits homes which have recently had a wedding or birth of a baby boy. They offer blessings and sing auspicious songs. In return, the family offers some presents to the troupe; usually saris, grains, and money. This is followed by an interactive storytelling session in a public space, usually the village square chanchar. The troupe members share stories from their travels to other villages. Locals share news about the village and recent activities. The troupe tries to weave this information into their skits to make them more localised and relatable.

Preparations for the night’s performance start after sunset. Performers arrive in the chanchar with their dresses and make-up. Usually, the temple compound is utilised as makeshift make-up room. Firstly, the troupe leader, known as nayak, draws a trident symbolising goddess Amba with red kumkum (vermilion) powder on an east-facing wall. He then lights an earthen lamp and troupe members chant prayers to invoke the goddess’s blessings. Afterwards, they start by putting on make-up. Multani mitti (mud pack) is used for whitening the skin, and soot from the earthen lamp is used as kohl.

Once makeup is finished, the actors start dressing up. Female characters are dressed in ghaghra choli or saris. They put bor in their hair parting, booti in their ears, bangli on their arms, and jhanjh on their ankles. Men wear dhoti or traditional Kathiawadi jamu. In the meanwhile, the musicians arrive at the site. The nayak draws a circle using water or oil in the chanchar. He then sanctifies the area by sprinkling red kumkum powder. After this, the musicians sound the bhungal and play other instruments to signal to the crowds that the performance will start shortly. Until the actors are ready, the musicians sing and play religious songs.

The opening act of the performance is the Ganpati no vesh, which is in accordance with the traditional Hindu practice of invoking the blessings of Lord Ganesh at the start of any task. Through the rest of the evening, multiple vesha are performed. The choice of vesha is done considering the audience’s and sponsor’s preferences, availability of actors, and specific time of the year or occasion. The characters of Rangalo and Rangli are crowd-puller items. This pair of jesters uses sarcasm, double entendres, and popular references to make jokes at the expense of society and matrimony.

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