A glimpse into an old unique form of folk theatre

by Aditya Nag

Have you ever witnessed the ‘Mughal Tamasha’? ‘No’ would be the likely answer. Have you heard of it? ‘Probably not’ would be the answer. Indian folk theatre has one of the widest variety of forms found anywhere in the world. For thousands of years invaders, outsiders and indigenous people have left their influence which has combined to give shape to various forms of theatre. One such gem of a form of theatre or satirical plays that was widely popular, but barely known today is ‘Mughal Tamasha’ which evolved in Bhadrak during the Mughal rule, some 350 years ago.

Folk drama of Odisha consists of different types of theatrical performances that are meant to entertain rural audiences. Suanga, Leela, Mughal Tamasha, Jatra, Danda Nata, Sakhi Nata, Dhanu Yatra etc. are the various types in Odisha. ‘Tamasha’ refers to a show or theatrical entertainment, in Persian. However, its adaptation and usage in Hindi, Urdu and Marathi, ranges from ‘fun’ and ‘play’ to ‘commotion’.

Mughal Tamasha is testimony to the impact of Mughal rule in Odisha on its people, customs, traditions etc., in the 18th century. Mughals like all other rulers before them always understood the importance of Odisha and the strategic need to capture it if they wanted to strengthen their roots in South Asia. By the 18th century the Mughal rule had spread over much of modern day Bengal & Bangladesh along with Odisha. The coastal regions of Balasore, Bhadrak and Cuttack after years of war once again became important centres of trading and maritime commerce. These cities flourished under the Mughal influence becoming focal points of administration. Interestingly this same pattern was to be later followed by the Marathas and the British. Let’s talk about Mughal Tamasha and why is it a unique form of folk theatre which needs to be preserved. Mughal Tamasha uses words from Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali and Oriya, which shows us how the Mughal cultural influence helped create a new lingua franca for its subjects in the eastern reaches of its Empire. Some of these words are still used in Odia.

It is said that Late Bansiballav Goswami had initiated the Mughal Tamasha in 1728 A.D to entertain the audience. It is divided into two parts, i.e., ‘Badasahi’ and ‘Soudagari’ Tamasha. Nowadays only the Badasahi Mughal Tamasha script is available and being staged. Most of them have been lost since they were all recorded in the form of palm leaf manuscripts.

It is a folk play and the dialogue is in a hybrid language of Odia mixed with Urdu and Persian making it simple and easy to understand. The vi ewe r s ranging from Ge ne r a l s of Turkic o r i g i n , or the Jat g u a r d s f o r t h e Mu g h a l police force to local Odia or Bengali landlords understood the satirical connotations and innuendos with ease.

The Violin, Pakhavaj, Jodinagara and Kubji (Gini) were the main instruments used in the Mughal Tamasha. The Tamasha begins with a prayer to the Almighty and is followed by a group dance. There is also an innocent parody of Muslim rulers in these plays which went a long way to establish communal harmony. Bhadrak is the only district where the performance of Mughal Tamasha has been maintained for the last two hundred years as it has thrived in the villages of Sangat, Banka, Gardpur, K u a n s a , Mirzapur, Chhada ka, Mahala, Santhia, Sapur, Jhauganja, Agarpada and Charampa villages.

The main theme of this Tamasha is very much exciting, thought provoking and downright funny till the end. It begins with Chopdar and ends with Doodhawali ( Milkmaid). Other day to day characters used are the Sebayat (the person who renders personal service), Vestiwalla (waterman), Jhaduwalla (sweeper), Farras (person arranging beds), Hukawalla (person who arranges huka for smoking), Pankhawalla (one who fans), Bhatta (person who praises the Mirza) , Nanaksahi (follower of Guru Naank), Daftari (peon), Khansama (cook), Zamindar (land lord) , Gumasta(manager of the land lord) , Bhandari (hair dressers). All these characters enter to the stage one by one, singing songs to introduce themselves and their professions with farcical and humourous gestures enthralling the audience and making them burst into fits of laughter. It was the Monty Python of the 1700’s and it was a huge hit.

Unlike, other folk theatres, the costumes are very significant in a Mughal Tamasha. Mirza Sahibs costumes are royal style which is decorative and gorgeous. The Chopdar, Vestiwalla, Farras are dressed with Muslim tradition. Zamindars dress is very plain jane like that of a priest. The costume of the milkmaid, who is everyone’s attraction, is very typical and simple, giving us a glimpse into the prevalent fashion during those times. . For a modern viewer it takes us back to that era and the stage seems transformed to that era. The basic premise of the Mughal Tamasha is a satirical play made to make you laugh. The overlord or the governor of the province comes to collect the annual taxes owed by the Odisha territory and the governor also looks into the general administration by taking stock of the issues posed by the local overlords.

He holds court and takes stock of the socio-economic problems faced by the people of the province and yes in the middle of it he falls for a beautiful Odia girl who is a milkmaid by profession. Later on, he learns about the sudden death of his wife and is forced to leave for Delhi. They speak in prose and dialogues which are written with a mix of Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali language. Only Zamindars and Doodhwali speak the Odia language. At the end of Tamasha every character asks for Baksish (tip) from Mirza Sahib. While they exit the characters ask the leader of orchestra what is the commotion all about. To which the leader replies the festival of Lord Shiva is being celebrated. Then he starts singing in praise of Lord Shiva and departs. Mughals came late to the party of conquest and empire building in these parts but their influence through art and culture will remain intertwined with Odia culture for eternity.

The play promotes Hindu- Muslim unity and provides a staple amount of entertainment keeping both people and administrators alike in good humour fostering inter-religious unity. By allowing the play to take a dig at the chaos and mismanagement of administration in a comical way it also helps in pointing out the mistakes of Mughal administration and shows how tolerant the government was at that point of time.

Sadly there were many troupes in Bhadrak and Balasore area which used to perform Mughal Tamasha and there were many variants of this theatre. Some of the last troupes survived till the 1960’s but today only 3 or 4 troupes remain. Mughal Tamasha is not folk theatre but something which is used to provide employment to artists and at one point of time had a small industry around it. Similar to the Palas and Jatras that happen in Odisha this form of folk theatre provides immense dosage of laughter, entertainment and creativity.

With growing adoption of the Western Culture and its propagation through various forms of Media, Lack of research in preservation and integration of Mughal Tamasha into the modern fold has caused an existential crisis for the artists, who interestingly are from both Muslim and Hindu communities.

The ‘Odisha Sangeet Natak Academy’ is doing its best to save the art with support from the Union ministry of culture and various other organizations. The dramatized version bore ample testimony to the fact that both communities coexisted peacefully. Odisha, then a part of the Bengal-Bihar province was rich in indigenous culture and free from communal tension. Mughal Tamasha brings to spotlight the influence of Muslim rule in Odia culture. The dresses, ornaments, food habits, art and culture of the Odia people were deeply influenced by the introduction of the Islamic culture.

Mughal Tamasha is a unique form of theatre which has all the potential to become quite a rave even in these modern times. This art form is a bright example of how communalism and religious bigotry can be destroyed through freedom of expression and togetherness.

We hope people take interest in this form of folk theatre and it again gains the levels of popularity that it enjoyed earlier if not greater. Mughal Tamasha is an integral part of Odia culture which needs to be preserved, conserved and infused with new creativity to be in sync with the modern world. So let’ hope for the best that the new era of theatres & artists, the so called millennial generation picks up this form of theatre and does something unique for it. So that the legacy continues forward as all great forms of art should and wonder what “Mirza sahib” would do.

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