My father’s childhood tales were an integral part of my growing up years. Every weekend after lunch I would lie on his tummy, and listen to these tales which were occasionally filled with funny Bhaona anecdotes. Growing up in a village, my father’s family was intimately involved with Bhaona (a play based on mythological events and staged in villages usually). All my uncles and aunts took part in it during their childhood, with the exception of my youngest uncle who continued to act in it till he was thirty-five.
One of my aunts played ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and her moustache fell off during the act; a student playing ‘Rama’ took full advantage of the chance to beat up a mathematics tutor, who played the ‘Ravana’; and many more. My father once played ‘Krishna’ and his elder brother played ‘Balaram’. When the time of their entry into stage came, ‘Balaram’ was missing and even after a frantic search backstage they couldn’t find him. Without further delay, only ‘Krishna’ entered the stage and while mouthing the dialogues his eyes suddenly fell on his mother (my grandmother) sitting in the audience. My eldest uncle, who was playing ‘Balaram’, was sitting in my grandmother’s lap and nonchalantly chewing ‘chanaa’ while still wearing ‘Balaram’s costume!! He evidently felt bored and decided not to act at the last minute! Such goof-ups, wrong or forgotten dialogues, and funny wardrobe malfunctions made these locally staged plays totally entertaining.
My father’s native village is in Teok, and every year we would make it a point to attend the Bhaonas held there. My youngest uncle was very much into acting in theatrical plays and every Bhaona season he was flooded with offers to act in it. He was always happy to oblige. He often ended up enacting roles of ‘Asuras’ or demons, owing to his 6’2” height and bulging muscles! He played ‘Kansa’ (during Raas Leela), ‘Hiranyakashipur’ (in ‘Bhakt Prahlad’), ‘Ravana’ (in ‘Ramayan’), ‘Duryodhan’ (in ‘Mahabharat’) etc. How he relished portraying these evil characters! Creating terror in the audience, nearly making the kids pee out of fright!
As the Bhaona night drew near, my excitement knew no bounds. Every night I would sit with my uncle while he rehearsed his lines in that deep baritone voice of his; looking smug at having such an enthusiastic supporter near! My mother dreaded the approach of the Bhaona season because it would mean the sacrifice of an expensive sari from her wardrobe. My uncle would ‘borrow’ a sari to wear it as a dhoti, as Bhaonas are famous for gaudy attire. He would sheepishly return it the next day with tears and cuts that were usually beyond repair, much to my mother’s dismay.
And then the day of the Bhaona arrives. I would see off my uncle in the evening with a thousand “All the best” wishes. At around 7pm the whole extended family would miraculously fit into two cars and drive off to the Bhaona venue. We would endure a two hour drive sitting in the most awkward poses to free up space to squeeze as many individuals in the car! There would be a stop over at a road side Dhaba (a food stall) to eat delicious ‘tandoori’ food. Post dinner we would pile into the car again and indulged in a mellow conversation; the effect of a tummy filled with delicious food.
A huge tent would be erected at the Bhaona venue; a central stage around which the crowd, seating on the ground, happily jostled for space. The atmosphere was replete with laughter and conversation, and the anticipation was palpable. The lights would dim; artificial smoke filled the stage; sound of drums (Dhol) announced the entry of the ‘sutradhaar’, welcomed with hearty applause. Then for the next hour or two the audience remained mesmerized as the drama enfolded. Collective shouts of joy greeted the entry of the ‘hero’ (Rama, Krishna, and Prahlad etc; depending on the play) and collective gasps of fear marked my uncle’s entry! It was indeed a fearful sight; the painted face, the long-haired wig, the huge moustache, the heavy costume, the weapons he carried (even though fake), the careful lighting and the dramatic sounds of ‘Dhol’ and ‘Taal’ made my uncle look scarier beyond belief. His entry was cue for the little kids, including my sister, to hide their faces in their mothers’ laps. The fights were funny with psychedelic red light portraying flow of blood and the costumes were amateur; but the dialogues were riveting, and the acting good. The audience was thrown into laughing fits when the ‘ladies‘ entered, because very few females participated in Bhaona and the ‘heroines’ were mostly reed-thin, slightly effeminate men dressed as females.
During the intermission I had special access to the actors green room backstage because my uncle always kept the Bhaona organizers informed that his family might visit. A family friend once went to visit my uncle backstage. The organizers inquired his identity and he replied, “I’m Kansa’s brother, let me go” (“Moi Kansa’r bhaiyek, muk jaabo diyok”); and the organizers burst out laughing at this weird identification!! My initial euphoria of a peep into the Bhaona backstage died when I saw the actors, in their frightening costumes, towering over me. The actors with heavily painted faces, wearing ladies costume and leisurely puffing a cigarette looked more frightening than those playing the demons. Surrounded by ‘Hanuman’, ‘Sita’ and ‘Surpanakha’ sharing a smoke; ‘Ravana’ and ‘Rama’ in an animated discussion, backslapping each other; ‘Vibhisana’ quietly eating pakoras at a corner; it was one surreal experience to go backstage in a Bhaona. The Bhaona would go into the wee hours of morning, and the sleepy but happy audience would give the actors a standing ovation at the end. And then it was dozing back in the car for us on the way back home, and waking up at noon the next day.
Gradually things that had been an integral part of my growing up years and had brought me so much happiness are slipping away. It’s been nearly a decade since I last saw a Bhaona. My uncle doesn’t act any more; the families that happily piled into the car have scattered all over India; and things just aren’t the same any more. But the memories of Bhaona are still in vivid in my mind with its endearing eccentricities.
Photos: Of my uncle during his Bhaona performances.