Bhavai: The Folk Theatre of Gujarat

Folk theatre is a reflection of native culture because it indicates local identity and social values. This Indian art form is blended with a fusion of elements from music, dance, pantomime, versification, religion and festival peasantry. Theatre as an old form of communication is a deep-rooted tradition in India’s vibrant culture.

The origin of the word ‘Bhavai’ came from ‘Bhaav-Shiv/ भाव-शिव and ‘Bhaav Sutradhar / भाव-सत्रधार’.  Later on people introduced simpler term for Bhavai word . BHAV means emotion and VAHINI means carrier, combination of both the words leads us to the art form which is a carrier of emotion from storyteller to the story listener. Bhavai is an extraordinary and unparalleled example of performing art in Gujarat. It is rich with history of 700 years, acting, dramatic inspiration and humour. It has power of imagination and sharp writing  that focuses on important lessons of life. 

Originally Bhavai was started for the mass awareness and entertainment purpose. It has very simple storylines and exaggerated acting with open-air setting. One night of performance needs several skits performed as a part of it and these small skits are called VESHA. Highlights of any Bhavai vesha are music, dance, and vernacular humour.

(Source: Google)

In the context of Bhavai and its traditional staging, it is very crucial to mention the Bhavaiyya community. Also known as Vyas or Nayak in different parts of Gujarat, the Bhavaiyya community has historical claim to the art and tradition of Bhavai. While actors of different backgrounds learn and perform Bhavai today, it was the male members of the Bhavaiyya community who were the sole performers of Bhavai for most of its history.

The Bhavai acts would either be based on religious beliefs or pointing a finger towards the burning social issues of the era.

Important aspects of Bhavai acts,

 1) Episodes of religious significance

 2) Events related to the youthful days of Lord Rama or Krishna

 3) Acts of miracle

 4) Social problems

5) Romantic stories

6) Tales of bravado or Daayro

7) Horror stories

While discussing about the plot of the Bhavai, it is important to note that, dialogues are the key to the success of Bhavai performances. Interaction between characters are often conducted in everyday language using simple and short dialogues, not verbose or emotionally titillating.

The chief of the Bhavai troupe is called the Nayak. He first marks the performing arena, then offers kumkum to the oil-torch or earthen lamp which is a symbol of goddess Amba and sings prayer songs in her praise. Then actor enters covering his face with a plate, he is Lord Ganesha the remover of obstacles. Goddess Kali is the next to enter and after she departs comes the Brahmana.

The Vesha actually starts only after these preliminary appearances. The Nayak and the jester always remain on stage and direct the course of action with their commentary and intervention. The story unfolds through songs, dialogues and speeches in prose as well as verse. There is lot of dancing and singing in Bhavai. Female characters are acted by men.

Balance Dance in Bhavai (Source: Google)

Some forms of dances in Bhavai include Laadbhamari, Antiyapo, Dodhiyu, Bahesho, Khareriyo etc. In various dances of Bhavai, one can see elements of gymnastics and body balancing. Dance movements include balancing on swords, Nakta, Chattarmotinakta, mirror balance dance, climbing on a ladder made of daggers, dancing while holding a puppet on a bow balanced on the teeth, doing raas steps while balancing seven clay pots on head, lifting handkerchief with tongue, grooming oneself while dancing, displaying gymnastics, throwing shotput, needling a garland, stringing pearls using tongue etc.

Bhavai is an ancient art form of Gujarat, it has humour with the many social and economic changes in the society. It also shows the inclusion of different people with different backgrounds and thoughts as they come together and present incredible theatre art also acted in a vernacular form so that everyone in the society can relate it with their own lives. But Bhavai finds itself increasingly outdated and obsolete. As an audience we should give light towards our roots of theatre. Gujarati people must take the responsibility of promoting Bhavai as everything cannot be depended on the players and the State Government. Also Bhavai itself demands innovations for its survival in the modern times. It is a form that demands novelty in themes, treatment and performance in order to suit the modern claims of its contemporaries. Therefore, new Bhavai plays must be written on the modern themes and must be performed by the players to attract the generation of today.

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