The story of Swadeshi Alkap
The northern region of Bangladesh has two entertaining folk forms called 'Gambhira' and 'Alkap'. Through lighthearted banter, songs and dances, and at times crude fun and jokes the characters of these folk forms point out the reality and often the absurdity of various aspects of our rural life. A particularly interesting feature of these forms is the quaint regional dialect in which the participants conduct their bantering repartee. This, however, is impossible to convey in English translation. But when one witnesses these performances, no one can miss it.
About three years ago we had been to Puthia during Baishakhi Purnima (a religious festival of the Buddhists) on an invitation from the Puthia Theatre group. We had the opportunity of watching the folk theatres of Gambhira and Alkap on two consecutive evenings. Sitting there in front of the Puthia king's palace , as I watched the two performances side by side it occured to me that these two distinctive forms of our folk theatre are in fact complementary to each other.
On the first night Gambhira was presented. It was a dialogue between a grandfather and a grandson, full of songs, witty bantering and playful raillery. However, through teasing and chaffing the characters brought out the many contemporary problems of the society. In these days of media culture our traditional Bengali culture, our ways of life, our talks, our songs and dances, our dresses are often found to have become absurd and alien under the influence of dish antennae. This theme was presented in the Gambhira through fun and frolicking. Beneath the surface of light bantering, one could discern the rural bard's concern with the underlying truths and lies of the society.
On the other hand, 'Alkap' which was presented on the second night dealt mainly with the problems of the family. Whereas in Gambhira the themes treated are the entire society, and even the state, in Alkap we find that it is mainly the 'family as a single social unit that is presented on the stage. On the second evening we watched a 'pala' or a folk drama presented by Ananda Mohan Bagchi's troup “Swadeshi Alkap”. Let me discuss here how this particular 'pala' dealt with various problems of a family.
At the beginning, the instrumental musicians (the orchestra) sat in a circle at the centre of the stage. Some played harmonium, some the flutes, while the others kept beat on the 'mandira' and the 'tabla'. At one point the vocalists joined in creating a magical atmosphere of orchestra and songs. After a while, the leader of the troup, Ananda Mohan Bagchi, stood up and started to pay homage to the audience with a hymn:
With the feet of ten, I weave a garland to wear around my neck
Who are the ten? Oh God, if you believe in one
It's the ten who can spread
Or the ten who can bring our fall
Oh, if the ten were not here, who would we perform for?
Ten is our God, ten our deliverer/saviour
And so here I am,
I sing my hymn for the ten!
After singing the hymn to the audience (the audience in a 'pala gaan' is traditionally called Ashar') in an impassioned way, the leader sat down. Then started the songs and dances of the young girls known as 'Chhukri Nritya'. But in reality, the girls were young boys dressed as girls. One was called Suman Sarder, another Surman Ali and such. The dinstinguishing features of their dance were the slight expressive movements of their hands and chins accompanied by the sweet chiming sound created by the small bells attached to their ankles. The music and the dance created an atmosphere charged with the passionate emotion of first love that touched the hearts of everybody sitting in the 'ashar'. Breaking the magic of this music, the leader stood up again and started the 'pala' in the style of a soliloquy.
I have had my dreams for so long. I had dreamt of a family and of sons. Now I have two sons. My wife died leaving the two infants with me. I raised them with so much love and pain, it wasn't at all easy. Now my sons are grown-ups and I have become old. So, I have got this ferry ('ghat') at Nabiganj which has cost me a lot. Well, I'm going to get my sons run it and see how much money they can make, that's the test I'm going to put them to. Oh my brothers, my elder son's name is Kalu and the younger one is called Bhulu. Let me call Bhulu now.
: Hey, Bhulu, Bhulu re__
Bhulu from behindthe stage answers,
: What's happened?
: Hey, come and listen.
: Listen to what?
: I, your dad.
: What, mad?
: Did you see? What insolence! How sweetly I called that boy, and how he called me mad! All right, let him come to me first, I'll teach him a good lesson. Hey, Bhulu _
This time the father's voice is a scale higher.
: Bhulu re _
: All right, all right, I'm coming.
Before Bhulu enters the stage, the orchestra plays for a while. The father is seen walking restlessly on the stage from one end to the other. In the mean while, Bhulu enters.
: See, I've come in a wink. I've come so quick.
And then without giving his father any chance to talk, he starts,
: You know, I'll sing a song now 'The sons of today order their father for a hookah, calls the mother a scheming old hag and the wife honey- sugar. The parents got the sons married off, Now the daughters-in-law make the parents work, What a shame to the in-laws.'
: Bah, bah! Wonderful! What words he's put in his song!
Well, Bhulu __
: Ah, how polite and well-mannered! I'm really pleased with you. But, where have you been for so long?
: I was waiting to lay the egg.
: Shut up! You insolent boy! What do you mean by 'waiting
to lay the egg'?
: Well, the hen was sitting there on the loft laying eggs. I was waiting for it to lay the egg.
This is how the story of the Alkap started. At one stage, Bhulu goes and brings Kalu in. The two brothers get the charge of the ferry and start plying passengers across the river. Later Kalu gets married. The sister-in-law gives Bhulu the name 'Bhejal' (meaning 'trouble') and that's how he starts being called the same by his brother too.
Then comes the episode of coquetry and cajoling between the sister-in-law and the brother-in-law, a common feature of our rural family life. Using flattery, coaxing and even seduction at times, the brother's wife persuades Bhulu to do a series of things for her.
: Hey, Bhejal, Bhejal re ___ here I am, your sister-in-law.
Charmed by her sweet voice and smile, Bhulu says, dancing and singing,
: Oh, sister-in-law, just once touch my cheeks with your light fingers, before I get married to another. And the sister-in-law, taking advantage of the situation, gets him to buy a number of things from the market.
: There is no salt at home, oh, dear Bhejal. Won't it do, my dear, if I give you the money later?
And listen, get some soap for me, too, won't you? Thus Bhulu is made to do a lot of household chores, but when it comes to getting food, all Bhulu gets is just a little bit of left-over rice soaked in water, that ,too, often with hardly any salt, pepper or onions. So, Bhulu wants to separate from his brother's family and become independent. He entices one of his distant relations, a grandfather, to come and mediate between the two brothers and divide the property. Thus he speaks,
: O dear grandfather, I'll not stay in the joint family any more, no, not I. So, please divide our family property between us two brothers. Let me live separately.
In this story of the Alkap, the problem of a typical family in the rural area has been portrayed through sharp and witty dialogue, songs, dances and acting. Unless one watches the Gambhira and Alkap in person, sitting there in the audience as part of the 'ashar', it is not possible to capture the magical quality of the visual at second hand and auditory charm as well as the insightful sarcasm that characterise the Gambhira and Alkap.
The Alkap presentation discussed above was my first exposure to this particular genre of folk theatre or 'pala gaan'. After this, I had the opportunity to watch two more performances of Alkap. I found that such Alkap presentations have the tradition of being lengthier i.e. they can stretch over a long period of time. These often include musical presentations of a kind of didactic rhyme called 'Kaap'.
It is difficult to give an exact meaning of the word 'Alkap'. Yet, if one attempts to analyse parts of the word, one may come to understand the main character of 'Alkap'. The Bengali word 'Al' has many meanings such as, 1) thorn, 2) the sting of a bee, 3) the demarcation line between plots of land, and 4) the pin or the narrowing bottom on which a top revolves and spins. On the other hand, 'Kap' in Bangla derives from the word 'kapatya', which has various meanings in various contexts such as, disguise or feigning, clowning, jesting etc. Bharat Chandra Ray Gunakar used the word 'kap' in his 'pala' of 'Anandamangal's Shivajatrar Vikkhya Jatra' in the following way:
Some say, there comes Shiva the old 'kap', Some say, Oh, Shiva, show us your snake dance.
'Kap' here means, the jester. Many consider that 'Alkap' is the shortened form of Al-kata-Kap and explain it in the following way. 'Al' means the limit or the boundary line of a plot, and 'kata' means without, thus, 'Alkatakap' means 'kap' without any limit, i.e. limitless jesting or unrestrained fun-making or frolicking. All in all, in 'Alkap' one finds a lot of fun and raillery spinning around a sharp sting-like theme or subject matter. In the traditional 'Alkap', there is a lot of crude comicality which the rural audience would accept with spontaneity and in good humour. For example, the 'Swadeshi Alkap' abounds in somewhat crude comical elements such as, using expressions like 'I was waiting to lay the egg', 'getting wisdom while shitting in bouts', 'who do I ferry, a man or a woman' etc. However, it's the satire and the pinching comments about the familiar problems existing in a family along with the light hearted comicality that attract a huge number of audience to the traditional 'ashars' of Alkap.
Translated by SK
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