If Alice in Wonderland were to be rewritten, the author should be compelled to send the Mad Hatter into the jungles bordering the Maharashtrian city of Nagpur, to experience the ancient Adivasi tradition of Zhadipatti theatre. The villages, about 200 km from Nagpur, are surrounded by dense forests where villagers are said to be easy prey for prowling tigers. They are also within breathing distance of several Naxalite hideouts, and the militants are often known to satiate their artistic cravings by surreptitiously watching Zhadipatti plays.
Knowing we would be crossing prohibited jungles, this writer was apprehensive to begin a recent journey to these villages at 11 pm. In the middle of the night, after hours in a crowded jeep and still more walking down a narrow path, we suddenly came to a clearing, where thousands of people had congregated – makeshift kiosks selling hot chai and paan were everywhere. People huddled together around small fires, smoking bidis or downing glasses of the local arrack. Leaving them to their socialising, we walked towards the first huge tent, from which loud music, cheering and an occasional sound like a thunderclap could be heard.
Sticking our heads under the tent wall, we came face to face with a scene seemingly cut from a fairy tale. At first, perhaps, the performers seemed garish and loud, particularly for an urban-bred spectator who was used to the polished performances of city theatre. (Though the language used is predominantly a local dialect of Marathi, the influence of cinema and television had made the speech patterns more urbanised.) The stage was designed to replicate a two-storey house; the actors, though dressed and appropriately made up for their roles, indulged in highly melodramatic delivery and exaggerated body movements. To highlight any point of suspense or drama, the music would swell suddenly.
Either way, the actors held the audience spellbound. In this particular act, a distraught damsel had barged into the house of her beau, who was caught unawares, having just come out of the bath with just a towel around his waist. The crowd’s reaction was uproarious. As the man talked about how it was improper of the woman to come in unexpectedly, she attempted to explain how urgent it was for her to meet him. Serious talks were on at home to get her married off, after all, and she was trying to get him to proclaim his love for her – but in his frustration, he could hear none of her hints. As this went on – she trying to cajole him into saying the three golden words, and he becoming increasingly irate over her barging into his house – the crowd became restless, until a man in the front row finally got up, obviously agitated, and bellowed to the actress, “Go on, tell him, ‘I love you’!” This again sent the audience into raptures.
Back outside, in the next tent was being staged an entirely different sequence, though again to rapt attention. This was based on an incident that had earlier created a furore in the area, that of a woman who had faced trial for allegedly driving her husband to his death. In general, the traditional topics for these plays are religious, mythological or historic; of late, however, serious issues such as farmer suicides, dowry deaths, and locals caught in the crossfire between the police and Naxalites have also taken centre stage. In this story, a happily married woman’s husband one day begins to show signs of being irritable, distraught and even violent, including towards his close family members. Regular visits to the hospitals diagnose him with schizophrenia. The village folk find it difficult to understand the medical jargon and need for long-term treatment, however, and the wife, though educated and understanding the consequences, is eventually pressured into seeking help from the local mystic. This leads to misery for the patient and family, until the man eventually dies – and the wife is pulled into court and blamed for the death. The play’s tense moments were evident in the faces of the viewers, and the overall production was a deliberate critique of the superstitious beliefs of the locals.
Zhadipatti is theatre that is defined by its location: zhadi means jungle, while patti simply means piece of land. It is a unique feature of the Vidharba region of Maharashtra, especially the districts of Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Bhandara and Gondia, the area inhabited by around a dozen Adivasi groups, including the Kosti, Gond and Wanjari. Though agriculture remains these communities’ main source of income, they retain a tremendous traditional passion for theatre, with some troupes having been around for more than 100 years. Performances take place from October until the end of February, a post-harvest time when farming families have little money. Thereafter, the actors go back to farming or engage in petty jobs, while the playwrights sit down to write new scripts for the next year – which, importantly, have to pass the state censor board before they can be performed. Interestingly, despite most families being fairly orthodox, women are allowed to act in Zhadipatti plays, learning the business as they go. Until recently, rehearsals were uncommon, thanks to the presence of a band of ‘prompters’; now, however, the artists meet every Sunday during the theatre season to practice.
There is a well-defined system to initiate Zhadipatti performances, with responsibility resting with the local panchayat to book shows well in advance, sometimes a year before the date. Half the payment is given at the time of booking, and the rest is handed over between the break in the two acts of the performance – failing which, shows have been known to be suddenly shut down halfway through. The day before the show, advertisements are placed at prominent places in the villages, while news also spreads by word of mouth. Simultaneously, the annual Shankarpat bullock race takes place in this area. Eager to join the festivities after months of toil, villagers from the surrounding areas throng the races venue; it is the duty of the locals to play host to them. After racing their animals throughout the day, it is dangerous to travel home at night. Unable to find sleeping quarters for such an influx, the Zhadipatti performances subsequently start around 11 pm and run through the night, keeping the visitors awake till they can depart in the morning.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the absence of any other form of entertainment but a genuine interest in theatre that attracts people to these plays. While many households today have televisions for run-of-the-mill fare, nothing can keep away the crowds away from the Zhadipatti performances. This is compounded by the fact that the actors, being local, are well known to the audience members, making the performances akin to a large family gathering. Such has been the overwhelming response over the years that more than forty agents have now opened offices in Wadasa, in Gadchiroli District, the common hangout for the 10,000-odd registered artistes looking for theatre work.
Until 1970, talented actors, directors, playwrights, technicians and musicians could be found in abundance in individual villages, and they would willingly come together to stage plays. In turn, businessmen, landlords, moneylenders and other influential residents would support these activities, and as such the locals did not need to pay to watch the shows. As socio-political and economic equations changed, however, tickets began to be sold. Today, no one is allowed in without purchasing a ticket, ranging from as low as 20 rupees to sit on the floor to 100 to sit in a chair. Even village elders and other prominent figures, though given the privilege of front seats, pay for the viewing. On any given day, a pre-announced village hosts anywhere from three to 12 plays, with the selections running simultaneously. These draw anywhere from five to 10,000 people per show, taking in up to INR 400,000 for a single performance. The turnover for the five-month season has been estimated at a staggering INR 250 million.
To promote Zhadipatti theatre, the Shri Vyankatesh Natya Mandal, in Navargaon, has recently erected a permanent auditorium at a cost of some INR 5 million. Here, on 16 and 17 January each year, a theatre festival takes place – a ritual of a kind that has been faithfully observed in the most trying of situations. Even in 1977, when the Emergency was declared and all artistes from the village were behind bars, the show went on as, with the permission of the jailor, the actors erected a small stage and staged two evergreen Marathi plays, Ithe Oshalala Mrutyu (on the death of Shambhaji Maharaj, brother of the Maratha warrior king Shivaji, at the hands of the Mughal sardar Afsalkhan) and Duritanche Timir Jao, a family drama. Reportedly, the performances were met with loud cheers from the inmates and gathered officials alike. Three decades later, at the SAARC theatre festival in Trichur, Kerala, in December 2008, Zhadipatti theatre, represented by the play Atmahatya (Suicide), was seen for the first time outside of its jungle domain. May there be many more such viewings in the future.
~ Ajay Joshi is a theatre critic based in Nagpur.