Assam has a long and strong tradition of dance, drama and music. Ankiya Bhaona, Oja Pali, Dhuliya-bhaoriya, Khuliya-bhaoriya, Putala-nach and Kushan Gan are a variety of dramatic forms that enrich the performing arts tradition of the state. Among these age-old theatrical genres of the region Bhari Gan holds a distinctive place. Bhari Gan is basically a musical play where a group of performers recite songs accompanied with some dramatic representations, mainly narrating episodes from the Ramayana and also from the Mahabharata. This folk drama tradition is practised mainly by the Rabha community, particularly by its Pati-Rabha faction.
The state of Assam is a land with a multicultural and multilingual population; a colourful mosaic of a variety of communities with different racial backgrounds and distinctive cultural identities. The Rabhas are one of the important constituents of this multicoloured tapestry woven with the contributions of a variety of communities. They are a scheduled tribe of Assam and are racially an Indo-Mongoloid group. The main concentration of the Rabhas are found in the districts of Goalpara, Kamrup and Darrang of Assam and the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. The tribes of Assam are divided into some sub-groups like Rangdani, Maitory, Pati, Dahuri and so on, based on their language and other distinctive cultural traits. Although the Rabhas come under the Tibeto-Burman language family, some of them, like the Pati-Rabhas, speak a local parlance of the Assamese language. Bhari Gan is considered to be one of the most significant performing arts that is found among the Rabhas.
A Bhari Gan troupe generally comprises of around 35 members. This folk genre is marked by the presence of a chief performer called mul, who not only performs in the lead role but also controls and supervises the entire course of the play. The other constituents of the choral group are the bains (drum players), tal or jhalie (cymbals) players, the palies (associates singers) and the performers who enact the character roles. The palies are associates of the mul and are generally eight to ten in number. While the mul leads the recitation with a suanr (whisk) in hand, the group of palies sits on the ground and repeats the verses initiated by their leader. The mul often sings in stylised footsteps and body movements in the forward position and the remaining members sit behind and support the chorus. Only two types of musical instruments are used in this choral singing—one is the khol, a kind of double-headed long drum and the other is the jhalie (also known as tal) i.e., the cymbal. Those who are in charge of playing the khol are called bain, and in a Bhari Gan performance generally two bains play khol at a time. In some portions of the performance, one out of the two bains plays khol with to and fro rhythmic footsteps along with the dancing mul. In a Bhari Gan performance the rendition of the songs continues narrating the sequences of the play. The various characters of the play appear as per the narration, a majority of whom make their appearance in masks. Some important scenes of the narrative are portrayed with characters dancing to the tune of the music.
The subject matter of Bhari Gan plays is mainly the different episodes from the great epic Ramayana. The episodes that are usually performed by different Bhari Gan troupes are: Raban Badh, Lakhmanrar Saktisel, Mahi Raban Badh, Sitar Agniparikha Aru Raban Badh and Meghnath Badh. While all these plays are based on stories from the Ramayana, Dadhi Mathan, the childhood story of Gopal (Lord Krishna), is the only play based on one of the episodes from the Mahabharata.
Bhari Gan is mainly performed as part of the different traditional worship rituals and ceremonies of the Rabhas. In a full-fledged occasion of such traditional worship, known as Bhar Puja, both the Dadhi Mathan and a Ramayana-based play are performed. On such occasions, the Dadhi Mathan play is performed during the day, and the play based on the Ramayana is performed at night. The play performed in the night continues overnight until dawn. This division of time for performance of Bhari Gan between day and night is quite distinctive and the Ramayana-based plays that are performed in the night are sometimes also called Ratir Gan, which means ‘the play of the night’.
It is difficult to ascertain the period of origin of Bhari Gan. Even the performers of the plays seem to have no clear idea about its origin and development. The art form has been handed down from one generation to the next and is devoid of any specific record regarding its actual time of origin. However, most of the Bhari Gan troupes that are covered under the study were found to be at least more than a hundred years old. Despite scant records, the age of the art form may be assumed with further study of certain features of the tradition. This may lead to some indications in this direction and has to be done separately, and with a more analytical approach.
The meaning of the phrase ‘Bhari Gan’ suggests that the term ‘Bhari’ might have been derived from Bhau or Bhauria where Bhau means acting and Bhauria means actor. Thus it seems that the term Bhari implies the nature of the play that depicts stories with acting. On the other hand, the term ‘Gan’ simply means songs. But it has an extended meaning which stands for the performances that are presented by singing. Therefore, the term ‘Bhari Gan’ implies the kind of performances that are sung with acting.
Another interesting explanation for the term ‘Bhari Gan’ goes like this: in earlier days the troupes had to move from place to place for their performances. During their movements, the troupe members had to carry the heavy masks and other ancillaries of the play in a typical carrying system called Bhaar. As the troupe had to move with Bhaar the art form came to be known as Bhari Gan. This account regarding its name is prevalent among some of the bearers of the tradition.
Yet another description states that the subject matter of this kind of play is Bhari meaning heavy. As the theme of the plays are religious in nature and have deep meaning, they can be said to be weighty in the sense that they are serious in nature. Thus the term Bhari here means heavy, something that has more weight. Therefore the art form is called Bhari Gan, a performance with heavy meaning.
It is found that the Bhari Gan troupes use handwritten scripts for their plays. The scripts used by the performing groups are preserved only in their custody. Only recently a few such scripts have been published in the form of books. The language of the Bhari Gan plays seems to be a mixture of the dialects used in the locality and the language of the neighbouring state of Bengal. Although the impact of the language of the neighbouring state seems to be prominent, there is every possibility that the language of the plays is a separate mixture language like the Brajabuli, the artificial language used in the Ankiya Nat of Assam. In some portions of the dialogue a kind of broken Hindi is also found in use.
In addition to the primary plays, Bhari Gan troupes also perform some secondary farce plays. These humorous performances are known as Nakal and they are actually some humorous scenes or short comic dramas. The term Nakal literally means imitation or copy, and such performances are full of comic elements like mimicry, parody and joker- like characters. The Nakal performances are enacted in between the main plays giving a break to the chorus singing.
The main objective of these farce plays seems to be the entertainment of the audience and at the same time it also gives some rest to the Mul who has to be active throughout the main play. Although Nakal are not a core part of the play, yet they are an integral and inseparable part of the Bhari Gan performances. As such Nakal are always seen in the Bhari Gan performances when performed in their actual social context.
There may be more than one Nakal performance in a single play depending upon the availability of time. The themes for such performances may be varied in nature starting from the subject matters revolving around their day-to-day life to the emerging new situations. The local parlance is used as the language for such farce plays. There is no written script for such comedy scenes and hence there are no fixed dialogues for the conversations. The artistes may improvise them depending upon the situation. Songs and dances are also common in such humorous plays. The audience-performer relation is closer in such farces than in the primary plays.
The costumes of the Bhari Gan performances are simple. Except for the demon king Ravana, who is the only character that wears royal attire, the others use clothes of day- to-day use as costumes. The dress of the Mul is generally found to be a bit distinctive, since this leading performer usually wears a long shirt as an upper garment, a Gamocha on the shoulder, a long Gamucha or Dhoti (usually white) as a lower garment apart from rattling anklets, or Nupur, on the legs. The Mul of some troupes also wears a headgear.
Bhari Gan is only performed by the menfolk and even women characters are enacted by male members. While the royal female characters like Sita and Mandodori wear Sari and Kiriti (crown), characters of common women wear the regular female dresses of the locality. There is also no use of elaborate ornaments.
There is no need of a specific type of stage, stagecraft or raised platform to organise the Bhari Gan performances. It can be performed in any open space. Therefore, its adaptation for a modern proscenium theatre is found to be much easier. In their traditional environment, the Bhari Gan performances are organised in the shrines of various deities called Than.
The Bhar Gani is a ritual play and it is customary to perform this musical play on many religious occasions of the Rabha Community. Thus the performance of Bhari Gan is indispensably associated with the Rabha society. In various Rabha villages they organise traditional annual festivals and as a ritual a Bhari Gan performance is a must for such events. No other performance can replace Bhari Gan for such occasions. Some such rituals and festivals are Lakhar Thakur Puja, Banabasi Thakurani Puja, Ma Kali Puja, Burha Buri Than Puja, Ai Than Mela, among others. Some of the other events where Bhari Gan teams are invited for performances are Thakurani Puja (Bhagawati Puja), Kali Puja, Hamnang Puja, Durga Puja, Rasmela, Sibaratri and Douljatra.
There is no doubt that down the ages the great Indian epic, Ramayana, has had a far-reaching influence on the life and culture of the people. Although situated geographically in a distant location, Assam has been well connected to mainland India in terms of its socio-cultural milieu since long. The Ramayana traditions are a strong testimony to this cultural proximity. The story of the Ramayana or its various episodes are found scattered among various communities of the State in a variety forms in multiple locations. The Bhari Gan is one such tradition that is unique in its own right and at the same time is a part of a great pan-Indian tradition.