If we look at the history of contemporary theatre, we find that many dramatists have made sincere efforts to create an indigenous national theatre and in doing so have created everlasting Indian plays, thus gaining recognition for Indian theatre. This was done by incorporating various elements from traditional drama forms into universal contexts. For example, Chandrashekhar Khambar presented Jokumarswami by taking elements from Bayalata, a folk theatre form of North Karnataka. Habib Tanvir created Charandas Chor, Ponga Pandit, etc. by utilising the folk form Naach, while Girish Karnad created Hayavadana by incorporating elements from Yakshagana. Vijay Tendulkar made Ghashiram Kotwal applying elements from folk drama called Khele. Thus, by making use of traditional drama forms, some eternally memorable dramas have been created.
Gujarati playwrights from the reformation era to the modern and even postmodern era have also creatively applied internal and external elements of Gujarati traditional/folk forms to Gujarati drama literature and made important contributions to the cause of Indian drama. Representative play scripts incorporating creative elements of Bhavai from various eras of Gujarati literature can be classified as follows:
Reformation Era (1845-1886)
Tulji Vaidhavyachitra (तुळजी वैधव्यचित्र) by Narmad
Mithyabhiman (मिथ्याभिमान) (1870) by Dalpatram
Mena Popat (मेना पोपट) by C.C. Mehta
Mena Gurjari (मेना गुर्जरी) by R.C. Parikh
Hoholika (होहोलिका) by C.C. Mehta
Modern and Postmodern Era
Jalaka (जालका) by Chinu Modi
Kem, Makanji Kyan Chalya? (केम, मकनजी क्या चाल्या) by Sitanshu Yashchandra
Rai no Darpanray (राइनो दर्पणराय) by Hasmukh Baradi
Hathiraja (हाथीराजा) by Pravin Pandya
The influence of the European dramatic style on Gujarati professional theatre was felt during the reformation era. However, we find that writers such as Dalpatram and Narmad remained aloof from these current trends by focussing on social reform as their primary aim along with saving Bhavai from its descent towards vulgarity. This era in Gujarati literature is known as the reformation era. Due to their contribution to Gujarati literature, this era is also known as Dalpat-Narmad era. Essentially, the poets, Dalpat and Narmad created Mithyabhiman and Tulaji Vaidhavyachitra by applying elements from Bhavai.
If we look at the perspective of that time, scant attention was paid to these plays. Dalpatram wrote Mithyabhiman in 1870; however it was first staged only in 1955. On investigating the reasons, it is understood that there was a greater preference at the time towards Western style plays by playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere. Also, the condemnation of Bhavai by elite audiences due to seemingly obscene and vulgar elements in Bhavai also contributed to its lack of popularity.
Literary figures like Ranchhodbhai Udayram expressed their dislike for Bhavai by writing classic plays of high literary merit. It is speculated that if he would have not shown this defamatory approach at that time, Bhavai might not have earned a bad reputation. The inherent energy in Bhavai which attracts the audience could have been utilised more appropriately.
It is apparent that Dalpatram and Narmad wrote these plays not with posterity in mind, but because there was no alternative folk tradition. The influence of Bhavai is seen in their plays because only Bhavai was available as a reference. If we look back at history, we realise that the seed for the indigenous theatre that we are looking for was sown unknowingly by Dalpatram and Narmad. Later on, literary persons like C.C. Mehta and R.C. Parikh built on this foundation by more consciously by applying elements of Bhavai and raising their voices for indigenous Gujarati theatre.
After 1920, we find a distinctive literariness in Gujarati plays. Viewership increased as audiences started appreciating and considering drama as a reflection of society rather than merely entertainment. Demand for ‘honourable literature’ increased, which led to Ramanbhai Nilkanth producing Rai No Parvat (राइ नो पर्वत). It was influenced by couplets of the 500-year old Bhavai vesh Lalaji Maniar: ‘साईं या से सब कुछ हॉत है, मुज बंदे से कुछ नाहीं, राइ कु परबत करे, परबत बागेज माहीं!’ C.C. Mehta, a well-known figure of Gujarati theatre, wrote plays which incorporated elements of literature and popular tastes, which gained the appreciation of a cross-sectional audience, from the elite to the hoi-polloi. He also wrote virtuous plays like Mena Popat (मेना पोपट) and Hoholika (होहोलिका) by studying the experiences of the people and utilising Bhavai elements in order to remove misconceptions about Bhavai.
Rasiklal Chhotalal Parikh, classmate and contemporary of C.C. Mehta, wrote Mena Gurjari (मेना गुर्जरी) with the intent of reducing the influence of Western dramas and to bring about traditional originality through folk culture and songs. Thus both these personalities wrote plays not keeping in view the prevalent norms of professional Gujarati theatre but the poetic sentiments of the audience. They achieved this by incorporating original songs and verses reflecting social problems and expressions of individual conflicts in the plays. Modern and postmodern playwrights such as Chinu Modi, Hasmukh Baradi, Sitanshu Yashashchandra and Pravin Pandya carried forward this tradition.
The play Mithyabhiman in its eight acts and 15 scenes gives voice to the problems of mismatched couples, rigid social customs, traditions, etc. Simultaneously, it also throws light on the role of an individual in the society and evaluates it in reference to the society.
In Kem Makanaji Kyan Chalya? Sitanshu Yashashchandra documents the human search for truth and happiness at a universal level. Chinu Modi talks about the dignity of women in Jalaka. Narmad in his play Tulaji Vaidhavyachitra talks about a society which looks at women as an object for enjoyment, the limited role of women in society and about prevalent attitudes towards women through the character of Tulaji. Later, R.C. Parikh, the playwright of the Gandhian era, through the story of Mena Gurjari, presents a vision of a respectable status for women.
In Bhavai, the audience is kept alert effortlessly. In the play Hathiraja, the playwright Pravin Pandya brings Bhavai as a character on the stage, who creates a mass agitation due to which the king Kanaknandan gets defeated. Giving a form to the imaginary subject, the play itself carries out the action of finding a solution instead of making the audience think on the situation presented. Thus, an altogether novel approach is seen in this play.
Talking about the creative elements in dramatic subjects, Jalaka and Rai no Darpanray are based on Mahipatram Nilkanth’s well-known play Rai no Parvat which was based on a poetic verse from Lalaji Maniar no Vesh. In ‘Makanaji...’, Sitanshu Yashshchandra has made an attempt to place a mythological tale in a contemporary context. The experimental attitude has become stronger in modern and neo-modern playwrights.
Experiments with character, form and poetics
The ranglo of traditional Bhavai has relations with all the characters. By giving voice to the inner soul of the characters, he impartially comments on every subject and situation. But in Narmad’s play, the ranglo plays dual roles. He is seen as sutradhar (narrator) as well as traditional ranglo, or jester. Even in the play Mithyabhiman, the writer has synthesised the two traditional stock characters—the sutradhar of Sanskritic tradition and the ranglo of traditional Bhavai. The sutradhar uses various shlokas and poetic verses in his typical style as a part of the summary of the scene. Narmad has incorporated traditional mourning folk songs sung at the time of death in various scenes as required. This way, both writers are determined to preserve the heritage of our poetic culture. Both these plays have used the spoken language giving their plays a regional flavour instead of a literary language.
This type of attitude was adopted by literary personalities of the reformation era in their creations. In Mithyabhiman, influences of Sanskrit theatre, English plays and traditional Bhavai can be seen. At the beginning, during the invocation of the deity at the commencement of works like Nandi, the character of the sutradhar, Vishkambhak, narrates incidents not exhibited on stage. Similarly, in Bharat Vakya, elements of Sanskrit theatre are used at the end of the play by the sutradhar through words of welfare for the audience. Here its purpose is not to support the drama but to maintain the tradition.
In these plays the format of ank (अंक) and pravesh (प्रवेश) are scripted similar to that of act and scene respectively in English plays. Here, acts are changed when the locale is changed and a new scene is opened when a new character enters.
In the plays belonging to the Gandhian era, there is greater emphasis on a social approach rather than a reformatory one. Therefore, subjects like the ugly sides of society, extramarital affairs and so on are treated in the plays. Dalpataram creates Mithyabhiman by taking two main aspects of Bhavai, namely social farce and plentiful acting. Similarly, being aware of the stage, Mena Gurjari is created to preserve literature and theatre both by borrowing and mixing their basic features—the repeating strains of ‘ता...ता...थै...थै...’, using minimum stage property and creating any locale through acting. In the plays Mena Popat and Hoholika, C.C. Mehta exposes human weaknesses by making use of farce.
Against the plays of the Gandhian era and prior to it, dramatic techniques of modern plays have become more attention seeking. For example, in the play Kem Makanaji Kyan Chalya, Makanaji’s inner mind is presented through the technique of invisible frightened and calm voices projecting the uncertainty of Makanaji. Through Makanaji’s realistic vision and practical approach, the playwright attempts to direct the audience towards a deeper understanding of spiritual philosophy.
In the play Rai no Darpanray, while depicting the mental conflict of Rai, the technique of presenting Rai 1 and Rai 2 is arranged. Neomodern playwright Pravin Pandya in his play Hathiraja shows the three monkeys of Gandhiji with a totally different interpretation to present the deteriorated democratic situation of India and exposes the poor mentality and selfishness of the present society.
A live chorus and poetic songs have also been used in plays with a specific purpose. Narmad and Dalpat have made use of the chorus only as a singing group in their plays Tulaji Vaidhavyachitra and Mithyabhiman. Here, suiting the situation, traditional mourning songs are used as per the scene in the play Tulaji Vaidhavyachitra, whereas satirical songs are used in both the plays. In Mithyabhiman, Sanskrit verses are used by the chorus as per the situation. In the plays belonging to the Gandhian and post-Gandhian eras, the chorus is according to the traditional Bhavai form.
In Mena Popat, the characters enter singing and dancing. In Hoholika, Holaguru prepares the plot for the play using Bhavai characteristics. In the same play after every verdict by the judge, Holaguru comments: ‘न्याय तो कज्जल काजी का’, ‘न्याय तो कंबल काजी का’, ‘न्याय तो बंडल काजी का’, to show the extent of corruption in our judicial system. In the beginning of the play Mena Gurjari, prayers predicting the future and seasonal songs represent the emotions of Reva and Hiraji. The folk dance raas which is performed to express enjoyment is used to convey contradicting emotions. Mena’s brother-in-law, who has brought Anu, plays raas along with the youngsters of Mandavgadh. On the other side, unaware that their women have been imprisoned by the emperor, the people of Gadhgokul play raas to pass the time while waiting for the women to return.
This way in the plays of the Gandhian era, poetic songs are used to protect traditions and folk games as well as for conveying plot compilation and character’s conflicts.
In modern and postmodern plays, the chorus is used according to the dramatic need. In Jalaka, Kem Makanaji... and Hathiraja, the chorus is used as per the Bhavai tradition to arrange for the aavanu (arrival) of the main characters. In Jalaka to advance the plot, the death of Parvatray is presented through the chorus. In this play Parvatray’s inferiority is shown by a song ‘अजब गजबनो जादू...’ which also shows Jalaka’s love for her son and queen Lilavati’s obsessive attraction for the young Parvatray.
To bring out the political attitude in Rai no Darpanray, the writer has shown a spectator chorus and Darpanpanthi as original characters on the stage. These characters through flashback technique show past events in the present by eliminating the time-place barrier. They also make an analysis of the prevailing situation by discussing amongst each other. In Makaaji…, the theatre troupe on entering the stage plays various characters. To show the wandering of Makanaji in search of Amathabhai, the chorus song ‘Kacha Paka Saranama…’ is used which acts as a Brechtian tool for alienation. In Hathiraja, raas is used differently from the way it is in Mena Gurjari. Here, raas is used to present human behaviour.
There is similar usage of colloquial words and language in the plays of the Gandhian and post-Gandhian era to the way these were used in traditional Bhavai. C.C. Mehta, believing that the names of the characters should be according to their roles in the play, has given them animal names in Mena Popat. He also calls the residence of the main character Hathibhai Ghoda ‘आलिशान तबेलो’ (grand stable). This way of presentation is to develop a conscious sense in the audience that whatever they are seeing on the stage is a drama. On seeing that human values have become joke in the present times, the playwright in Hoholika has used English words very indicatively. Thus, people through this play also get idea that our theatre has become further enriched by two different languages.
Similar to the way in which we find impressions of an Urdu-Gujarati language mix in Bhavai, R.C. Parikh has used a mix of Urdu and Hindi known as ‘Rekhta’ in Mena Gurjari during arguments between Mena and the Mughal emperor which adds different colour to the drama presentation. In Jalaka, Chinu Modi creates a royal atmosphere and in Makanaji…, we come across dialogues which are light and appropriate to the Bhavai style. Thus the playwrights of this time had a knack for arranging language in a manner appropriate to the subject which is natural, easy, and sharp.
Thus, looking to the journey of Gujarati theatre from earlier times to the present scenario, we conclude that today’s plays employ a creative attitude towards subject, production, tricks, techniques and dramatic language. Rai no Darpanray and Kem, Makanaji Kyan Chalya? take care of both literary and staging aspects, and have also been translated into other languages. However, although Gujarati plays have spread in their geographical reach and subjects have become more varied, very little has been done in response to the appeal for further evolving and establishing indigenous theatre.