Indian Agrarian Crisis now moved to

Farmer-the most endangered species

How Vidarbha bonds with ‘jungle’ theatre

Posted by Ramoo on January 24, 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 20:56 IST

Jaideep Hardikar

NAVARGAON, CHANDRAPUR: While farmer suicides continue to haunt Vidarbha’s western cotton-growing districts, a self-sustaining, rich and indigenous theatre tradition in its eastern paddy cultivating districts is reinforcing the social fabric and strengthening village bonds, thereby acting as a catalyst for social awakening and enlightenment.

Connoisseurs describe is as the theatre of the jungle. In local parlance, it’s known as ‘Jhadipatti Rang-Bhoomi’. But, according to many, it is eastern Vidarbha’s best-kept secret. At least over a hundred and fifty years old, Jhadipatti Rangbhoomi (the theatre of the jungle belt) is an unparalleled mass movement sustained by the agrarian class of the forest-rich districts of Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Bhandara and Gondia.

Every year, hundreds of villages host the shows of plays in the season starting immediately after Diwali and ending late March or April. Over 300 local groups, some which of are a hundred years old, and tens of artists, engage themselves in what is unarguably the only movement of its kind in India. Importantly, not a single rupee comes from the government kitty or through private sponsorships.

As scholar and researcher Pramod Munghate puts it: “While the commercial Marathi theatre is in crisis, this stage is remarkably surviving the onslaught of television and thriving on the money pooled in by poor agrarian masses.”

Last year, he points out, the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Natya Sammelan, an apex body of theatre artists, passed a resolution asking the government to give an aid of Rs 10,000 to Marathi Proscenium, the classical form of drama. Jhadipatti has never sought any government or private help and is therefore truly a theatre of the masses and by the masses. “It is original, and an integral part of their lives.”

Says 34-year-old Sadanand Borkar, a well known director-writer-producer-actor of this stage, “We don’t work for money, but an inexplicable happiness.”

Sadanand, who has grown in the echelons of Jhadipatti and is a much-refined actor, says the artists go on a certain high when they hear the packed audience applauding their performance. Sadanand represents the fourth generation of 110-year-old Shri Vyankatesh Natya Mandal, Navargaon. This group is known for its theatrical ingenuity in the region and themes that reflect upon the relevant social issues of this belt. “Last year, for instance, one of our plays ‘Majha kunku meech pusla’ (I killed my husband), based on a true story of our village, commented on a prevailing superstition among villagers. It ran full-house for all 75 shows,” he informs. This year too the play is in demand.

Sadanand wrote a new play this year, which is set to make waves in Jhadipatti. “I chose to comment on the sad trend of suicides among farmers of Vidarbha, because it was – and is – the most burning issue of our region. The play conveys a message to farmers that suicide is not a solution to problems; that you need to reform your lives. ‘Atmahatya’ (suicide) premiered on the historic Navargaon stage with a full-house, with about 7000 people watching it,” he says. “It’s astonishing that this theatre debates mass issues,” says Rajani Bhatt, a senior actor from Pune who comes every year to perform on this stage like several other well-known actors. “If you succeed here, you can perform on any stage,” she says. “I am awestruck by this tradition,” remarks Rajani, who plays an old, debt-ridden farmer’s wife in this play. “Even small hamlets are keeping the movement alive.”

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