Bhavai 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.
Bhavai has seen a decline in popularity in the 21st century due to multiple factors, the most important being the advent of modern means of entertainment even in rural interiors. Efforts are being made by the government, private institutions, and individuals to preserve as well as propagate Bhavai.
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 (Patel 2002).
It is said that Asait composed approximately 360 vesha, of which around 60 survive to date. Bhavai draws heavily from other popular folk forms. Writing on the origins of Bhavai, Varadpande states:
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. (Varadpande 1987)
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 (Claus, Diamond, & Mills 2003).
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 (Bernhard).
The above categorisation notwithstanding, there are certain elements common to all Bhavai plays. As Varadpande explains:
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. (Varadpande 1987)
While Bhavai makes use of eight out of nine rasas, humour (hasya) remains the dominant rasa in all skits. The language used is a liberal mix of colloquial Gujarati and Hindi-Urdu as well as other local dialects.
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.
For the performance, vesha are selected keeping in mind the interests and general mood of the village. The troupe stays in the village for two to three days and performs on alternate nights. On the last day, the troupe collects presents (money, grain, clothing) from locals before departing.
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 (Kadakia 2010).
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.
Bhavai makes use of numerous musical instruments—bhungal, tabla, kansijoda, jhaanjh, sarangi and harmonium. Of these, bhungal is unique to Bhavai. It is a thin, horn-like instrument made of copper. Once assembled, the longer ‘male’ bhungal measures around six feet in length while the shorter ‘female’ variant measures around four feet. Apart from length, the male and female bhungal vary in their pitch. These are played to announce the arrival of important characters and for major scene changes. It is increasingly rare to find artists capable of playing bhungal (Times of India 2016)
Bhavai songs are composed in six basic rhythms. The specific rhythm is chosen according to the mood and timing of a scene. Dances are based on various popular forms of raas with hints of Kathak.
Training and initiation
Traditionally, boys became involved with their clan’s Bhavai troupe at around eight years of age. They started by accompanying the troupe to performances and observing them. Their initial work with the troupe included running errands, fetching tea and beedi, sewing costumes, arranging wigs, helping actors get ready, etc. At night, they observed the senior actors perform. During the day, they practised dance steps and songs. Those who showed proclivity towards performing were given bit roles to enact. Others were encouraged to master musical instruments. Those not adept in the arts were assigned organising and management tasks.
At present, fewer young artists are joining Bhavai as an occupation. Although the community takes immense pride in its heritage, fewer parents are encouraging their sons to take up Bhavai as a family profession. Common reasons are insufficient patronage and audience interest, difficulty in maintaining a nomadic lifestyle, insufficient earnings to keep up with inflation, and lack of prestige in contemporary society. As a result, many experts are calling the current state of Bhavai as being ‘on its last leg’ and are predicting the ‘death of an ancestral art’.
At the same time, Bhavai is undergoing a revival of sorts in urban professional theatre. Institutions such as Darpana Academy of Performing Arts and Theatre and Media Centre in Ahmedabad have done significant work in introducing Bhavai to urban audiences and in training new generations of actors in Bhavai. In the early 1980s, the Gujarat government established a Bhavai training centre in Visnagar (Mehsana district) to enhance and streamline training in the popular art form. Chimanlal Nayak, a great exponent of Bhavai, oversaw the training of students and innovation in playwriting (Brandon & Banham 1993).
Contemporary uses of Bhavai
Cashing on its popularity and familiarity with rural crowds, several non-governmental organisations are known to organise Bhavai performances in villages to create and raise awareness on issues of social importance. Skits are especially scripted to make use of humour, dance, and drama to discuss topics which are considered ‘preachy’ or ‘boring’ by audiences. Commonly discussed topics are malnutrition, open defecation, vaccinating children, substance abuse, dowry, female foeticide and infanticide, illiteracy, gambling, etc. (TNN, 2002).
Bhavai has also been used by companies to advertise consumer products. The vivacity and richness of Bhavai is employed to unveil mundane, regular products in an exciting and eye-grabbing manner. Withdrawing the elements of humour, satire, and dance-drama; Bhavai is appropriated to suit the urban palate (Times of India 2001).
Bhavai receives acclaim from professional artists for being a versatile and flexible form of theatre. It allows the performers considerable scope for improvisation. In the last few decades, scholarly attempts have been made to analyse and codify techniques in Bhavai. However, it still remains largely a popular form, with significant variations from region to region.
In the early 20th century, Bhavai faced allegations of being vulgar and brazen. Chief Judge at the Presidency Small Causes Court and renowned author Diwan Bahadur Krishnalal Jhaveri (1868–1957) notes in his book Further Milestones in Gujarati Literature:
Bhavai’s distinguishing features are 'gross vulgarity, open indecency, public obscenity, now and then tempered by some home truths' … probably owes its origin to the sinister side of the cult of the Devi (Shaktamath) which rejoices in the drinking of wine, eating of flesh, using of foul language and deriving pleasure from lewdness. (Jhaveri 1924)
It lost favour with influential playwrights of the time and encountered a period of stagnation. It underwent a revival in the post-Independence era through the epic musicals Mena Gurjari (1975) and Sati Jasma Odan (1976) by theatre stalwarts Dina Gandhi and Shanta Gandhi. These were followed by another epic Bhavni Bhavai (1980) by Ketan Desai which brought the folk form to mainstream attention.
Bhavai is considered lowbrow entertainment due to its stereotypical image of exaggerated acting and brazen humour. Despite attempts by theatre groups to popularise Bhavai in urban centres by staging street plays, as the entertainment of choice it is still restricted to rural areas.
The present form of Bhavai also draws criticism from purists who insist on allowing only male actors of Bhavaiyya castes to perform Bhavai. Women and non-Bhavaiyya performers are frowned upon.
Bhavai, an ancient form of Gujarati folk-theatre, functioned as a counter-voice in a society marked by caste and class distinctions, by subverting the social norms of the cultural elite (Sebastian 2014). It acted as a medium of entertainment and information presented in a vernacular form. With the many social and economic changes in the society, Bhavai finds itself increasingly outdated and obsolete. Efforts are being made to safeguard it, but in the absence of a major movement towards its genuine revival, Bhavai appears as ‘a cultural relic of a bygone era’ (Sebastian 2014).
KALASRISHTI ART FOUNDATION IS COMMITTED TO REVIVE THIS RARE FOLK TRADITION.