Agra, March 28 (IANS) 'Mere Babul Ka Beejna', a powerful theatrical presentation in the genre of old Bhagat singing peculiar to Agra region, was the climax of the 10-day Taj Mahotsav here.
Enacted by the Rang Leela group, the musical drama was a culmination of four years of hard work to revive a folk medium that had virtually become extinct in the place of its birth.
Khalifa Phool Singh, the 94-year-old veteran of the unique artistic tradition, led the group Monday night through his masterly use of the harmonium, as a dozen young stars tutored in the medieval tradition gave a powerful presentation of a contemporary theme.
The plot had all the ingredients: politician-criminal nexus, corruption in police, social taboos, all depicted through poetry backed by nagada, dholak, katori and harmonium.
For the first time, girls were inducted in the team.
Rang Leela director Anil Shukla told IANS: 'We have taken a very contemporary theme of a teenage village girl gang-raped by goons of a politician. Through the central characters, we made very touching and poignant comments that touch the core of the heart.'
He added: 'It is our tribute to the old folk lore of Braj region.'
Indeed, in a social revolution of sorts, women have been inducted for the first time in the singing troupes presenting Bhagat, a 400-year-old musical tradition.
'This form flourished and ruled the cultural domain in the 19th century and during the freedom movement. But after independence it had few patrons,' said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.
'But thanks to the dedication and sustained efforts of some passionate khalifas, the genre is assured of a fresh lease of life.'
The tradition, which finds mention in Ain-i-Akbari, historical record of Mughal emperor Akbar's court, was initially a dramatised form of kirtan (devotional songs) with a rudimentary plot.
According to scholars, Bhagat is a derivative of the word 'bhakt' or devotee, has a religious fervour and orientation, and found full expression during the Vaishanavite movement.
In later years, more chivalrous and historical plots were added to the performances.
The Bhagat akharas mushroomed in Mathura, Agra, Vrindavan and Hathras, which was then the flourishing centre for 'nautanki' (folk theatre).
The administrator of a troupe is called khalifa, who inducts new members after careful screening and an elaborate process that includes presentation of a turban to the guru and distribution of prasad.
The language used is a mixture of Hindi, Urdu and Braj Bhasha.
Nagada, harmonium and dholak are the chief accompanying instruments. The performances last till the early hours of the morning. Old timers recall that Bhagats were very popular during the British days.
Agra was the chief centre of singing, with akhadas of repute holding periodic contests in Belanganj, Moti Katra and Loha Mandi areas.
Veteran khalifa Phool Singh sees new hope for the art.
'Not just in India, but in foreign lands too this art form will now find supporters and patrons,' he said.
Bhagat fan Anil Shukla said Agra's identity was not just based on Taj Mahal but also its rich cultural heritage.
'Luckily, the patrons, from old-time khalifas to the modern-day theatre artists, have come together to save this dying tradition,' he said.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at email@example.com)
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