It was well past midnight when the farmer said he was fed up with the way things were going. He could not take it any more, he told us. A farmer's life was not worth living. It was pretty cold by this time. Yet no one budged and you could feel the tension in the air. The play is called atma hatya (suicide) and we were part of an audience of 6,000 watching transfixed at that late hour. Theatre may be struggling to survive in the metros, but here in rural Vidharbha, it thrives. This is the season of jhadi patti rang bhoomi. Which loosely translates as "theatre of the jungle belt."
Everybody is part of it. "We have farmers, tailors, painters and vendors in our plays," says Ghulam Sufi of the Venkatesh natya mandali that is staging Atma Hatya. "That's one reason why it resonates so much with ordinary people." Mr. Sufi plays tabla for the 60-member troupe. We watched him do that ? and saw him dash off in between to don make up and do a swift cameo in the play. The main carpenter of the troupe whom we had seen at work earlier also made an appearance on the rotating stage he had set up that afternoon.
Jhadi patti is quite different from the mainline Marathi theatre of Mumbai and Pune. Nor is it part of the folk theatre of other parts of Maharashtra. It is rooted in just four districts of eastern Vidharbha, all of them forested. Jhadi patti has a history of over a century. "See our audiences," says a proud Sadanand Borkar in Nawagaon, Chandrapur district. That's where the play is now being staged. Nawagaon alone has three seasoned troupes. The region has hundreds. Mr. Borkar is the author, director and also an actor in Atma Hatya. "Our troupe, the Venkatesh natya mandali, is 110 years old this year." And his family were its founders.
Earlier in the day, we watched people pour in from other villages to buy tickets. A striking feature of jhadi patti is the absence of sponsors. No boards announcing the generosity of a cola. No thanks to kind corporate patrons. The plays begin around 9.30 p.m. Atma Hatya will end only around 2 a.m. Others go on till even later.
"We exist because of the people," says Mr. Borkar. "Our plays are from their lives. They have high standards. `Faltu natak' or excessive vulgarity won't pass. Two years ago, angry people smashed one outside group's pandal on this count." In its first phase, jhadi patti had mythological themes. Then came period plays. During this time, scripts written in Mumbai and Pune were simply performed locally by visiting troupes. Now stage actors from Mumbai and Pune figure in plays written here. Mostly, the outside actors are women. "Not so many women have taken to acting here as yet," says Mr. Borkar.
Atma Hatya has two outside professionals. The vastly experienced Rajini Bhatt from Pune. And Kanchan Mitkar, a bright young professional based in Nashik. Both speak highly of jhadi patti's discipline and uniqueness and above all, its audiences. "If you work here you have the confidence to work anywhere else," says Ms. Bhatt. The costliest ticket is Rs. 60 and entitles you to a chair. The lowest, Rs. 20 or less.
There may be no sponsors (and no one seems to be looking for any), but jhadi patti is a thriving small industry. "It has no government support either," says Mr. Borkar who is also the Principal of a local Fine Arts college. Jhadi patti's calendar ties in well with the agricultural cycle. "Around or just after harvest when people have some money in hand and time to relax. That's when we function. We begin around diwali and wind up the season by April."
This uniquely eastern Vidharbha theatre gives full-time work to some the year round. And employment for thousands each season. Its turnover is a few crores of rupees. During the off-agriculture season, it earns a livelihood for labourers, tailors, carpenters and the like. It costs up to Rs. 80,000 to stage a play at big centres. And about half that in the smaller villages. The nearby town of Wadsa boasts a whole poster and pamphlet sector based on theatre work. It also supplies troupes on demand to the villages. Professionals from Mumbai or Pune could earn up to Rs. 3,000 a night acting in jhadi patti.
People have come to see Atma Hatya from within a 100-km radius. There is a further social side to it, too. "They might come from 15 villages," says Mr. Borkar. "There will meetings, contacts, and match-making. Weddings could be fixed here tonight." Atma Hatya's perspective on farm suicides is from east Vidharbha and thus from outside the dismal cotton belt. But it does see debt as a driving factor. And it also captures other stresses. Such as the inner-family drama linked to changing lifestyles and interests as some members move away from farming. The family is crucial to jhadi patti.
The play's message is positive. Suicide is no solution. Fight the idea in your homes. An earlier Borkar play that broke records - I killed my husband - fought superstition. Some villages have used a play's proceeds to give soft loans to farmers. Others to get some work done locally. For the last two decades, jhadi patti has taken on social and political themes with a strong accent on justice. (Election year has local politicians scrambling to be seen on stage.) Now the region's farm suicides are under the spotlight.
"This is Maharashtra's most unique theatre form," says Professor Pramod Mungate of the St. Francis de Sales college in Nagpur. Professor Mungate, who heads the Marathi department there, is studying jhadi patti on a University Grants Commission project. "In Nagpur, only big names draw us to a play. In eastern Vidharbha, there will be nine plays held at Kurud village on February 9 simultaneously. They will all have big audiences for mostly part-time actors. Jhadi patti's appeal has not shrunk despite the coming of multiple television channels. It's truly a people's movement, rooted in their lives. No sponsors or commercial patrons. This has audience. This has response. This is theatre."