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The Nineteenth Century Renaissance in India and Lakshminath Bezbaruwa of Assam (1864-1938)
বেজবৰুৱাৰ স্মৃতিৰ মৌ সৰা কথা
Lakshminath Bezbaroa as a Writer of Farces
Nationalism in Bezboroasque literature and 19th Century Assam
বেজবৰুৱাৰ পদুম কুঁৱৰী : এক অৱলোকন
চুটি গল্প আৰু বেজবৰুৱাৰ ' পাটমুগী '
Lakshminath Bezbaroa as a Writer of Farces

Gobinda Prasad Sarma

The farces by Lakshminath Bezbaroa published in book-form so far are five in number. His earliest farce which happens also to be his first piece of writing to appear in book-form was first published in that epoch-making monthly magazine Jonaki in 1889-1890. It was Litikai which was published as a book in 1901. Then after a long lull of twenty-four years came out his second farce Nomal (1913). The same year saw the publication of his third and fourth plays of the same nature, Pachani and Chikarpati Nikarpati. It is only after the publication of these funny plays that Bezbaroa wrote and published his three serious plays all of which are historical. This fact seems to indicate that he took to farce-writing as a preparation for writing serious drama. This does not imply, however, that his farces are all immature. Neither does it indicate that the writer of these four farces did not attempt any play with light-heartedness after the publication of his three serious plays in 1915. Rather in his farces, too, in spite of the fact that they are only farces and not comedies proper, we see the glimmerings of a talent and the seriousness of a writer with a purpose. And besides, we find him writing and publishing small comic plays even after the publication of his three history plays. Of course the small funny plays written after his history plays were not labelled by Bezbaroa 'funny plays' as he did his earlier four farces. These later small plays differ, indeed, in technique from his earlier farces and thus they were dubbed by the writer himself 'drawing-room plays'. All these 'drawing-room plays' of Bezbaroa were published in his self-edited magazine Bahi and none of them was published in book-form in Bezbaroa's life-time. One such 'drawing-room play' has been published independently as a book only recently in 1966. This is Gadadhar Raja which was first published in Bahi in 1918.

Coming to the merits of these farces, we see that in so far as Bezbaroa attempted farces only and not comedies proper, he was quite successful. All the four farces, Litikai, Nomal, Pachani and Chikarpati Nikarpati are without any well-knit plot, full of incoherent episodes and incidents, and packed with exaggerated idiosyncrasies and laughter-provoking dialogue.

In Litikai, for example, we find seven brothers, all of whom are downright fools. In their foolishness they fight against the mosquitoes with staves in hand and swim across a field full of hard, sun-dried clods taking it for a pool of water breaking waves. Then each of them counts themselves in turn and finds one less for the funny reason that none of the reckoners reckons himself. At this time a brahman meets them, comes to know their problem and solves this insurmountable problem for them. In gratitude these silly fellows offer themselves to be servants in his house. The brahman accepts their offer; and the result is all but happy as we can very well expect. They make a mess of all their errands and create only more and more troubles for the brahman. This reaches its climax when one day they carry home large bundles of harvested paddy and ask the old mother of the brahman where to keep them. The old woman is infuriated and asks them to keep those on her own head. The fools obey the old woman literally and the consequence is the instantaneous death of the poor woman. The brahman who has been harassed much by these fools so long cannot bear their foolishness any longer and he now wants a tooth for a tooth. He makes a gruesome plot to murder all of them but succeeds in killing only six. He sends the surviving fool Titai to the house of the brahman's brother-in-law with a sealed letter instructing therein his brother-in-law to kill the bearer of the letter as soon as he reaches there. The fool who has learnt a lot from his recent bitter experiences in the brahman's house suspects some mischief, opens the letter and reads it on his way. Knowing all about the brahman's plot in this way, he writes another letter in the name of his master, the brahman, instructing the brahman's brother-in-law to get the bearer of the letter married with their sister-in-law. The fool with this trick proves himself to be more a knave than a fool and marries his master's sister-in-law, the play ending thus in an anti-climax.

In his second farce Nomal, we meet one man Nahar-phutuka who is quite illiterate and ignorant. This man in his declining age has had a new-born son after the death of all his five sons born earlier. His wife in her anxiety to save this youngest son by all means asks her husband to go to the sattra (Vaishnava monastery) to get for their new-born son blessings and a name. The husband obliges her and with a lot of troubles at the entrance of the Vaishnava sattra gets inside it. He receives what he wanted from the sattradhikar (the Head of the monastery); but on his way home this simpleton forgets the real name given to his son at the sattra, and retains in his memory only a distorted form of it. In his attempt to retain this distorted name in his weak memory Nahar-phutuka faces troubles after troubles on his way back. When he reaches home at last, he finds that he has forgotten even that distorted form of the name. However, his wife has to utter incidentally that word which is the distorted form of his son's name whereupon he can disclose the name to his wife.

In the third play, Pachani, again, we meet another man in a peculiar humour. This man, a Pachani (an apostle of the Assamese Vaishnava religion) has developed the queer habit of not taking his meals in the absence of a guest to take meals with him. His wife cannot tolerate this habit of her religious-minded husband and she steers clear of the guests brought by her husband to the house with a series of ingenious devices. One day, failing to have a guest to take meals with him the Pachani declares to his wife that he would not take his meals. The wife then points out to a cat mowing in search of food and explains to him that the cat is also a guest since she, too, has a soul. The Pachani is convinced and is thus cured of his humour.

In his fourth farce, Chikarpati Nikarpari, we meet a branded thief of extraordinary skill. This thief, Chikarpati, is known by all because of it. Even the king is appraised of his unparalleled tricks in stealing. Taking a fancy for this arch-thief of his kingdom, the king challenges Chikarpati to steal the ring in his finger. The thief does this also one night excellently well. The king is then so pleased with him that besides declaring him an arch thief, requests him to find out a bridegroom for his marriageable daughter. Chikarpati then leaves for another kingdom and after many a feat of thefts in that kingdom captures the young king and then returns to his own kingdom with him. The king of his own kingdom is then full of gratitude to this thief and he solemnizes the marriage of his daughter with this young king. When we come after this to his fifth farce, Gadadhar Raja, published three years after the Publication of his serious plays, we see that Bezbaroa has already mastered the art of writing comic plays. This small play of one scene only which has been claimed as the first modern Assamese One-Act Play presents two sisters, Kamala and Vimala, in a small village-town family. Their father is out to meet Prince Gadapani, the heir apparent to the Ahom throne who has fled away for fear of the reigning tyrannical usurper, La'ra Raja. La'ra Raja has engaged men to arrest the real heir to the throne, Gadapani who is loved by all. The two sisters, like their father are full of sympathy for the underground Prince; but the younger one is found rather impatient to do something for the succour of the Prince. The elder sister, Kamala, pacifies her saying that Gadadhar Raja is reported to be wandering in disguise; and thus he may even come to their house at any moment when they would have the opportunity to come to his help. Just then an uneducated, unsophisticated villager named Gendhela comes to their house with the intention of delivering a letter to them from their father. But Gendhela, quite keen in his mission, fails to find the letter out. The sisters in their zeal to receive the disguised prince mistake the tunic tar the kins ant! make elaborate preparations to give them their best hospitality. The villager, unaccustomed to such reception meant for sophisticated men only, is puzzled, and he wants to get out of it. But the more he wants to get out of the situation the more he is enmeshed in it. Suddenly he finds the letter sent by the father of the two sisters and delivers it-to them. It is only then that the two sisters are convinced that the villager is not the prince in disguise, and they let him go.

It is to be noted that these improbable stories except that of Gadadhar Raja were borrowed by Bezbaroa from folk-tales either of Assam or of some other states or countries. The story of Litikai is based on an Assamse folk-tale and so is the story of Nomal. The main story of Chikarpati Nikarpati also is in its basis an Assamese folk-tale though the sub-story of Khudman and Rangai has been traced to its source in a Persian tale by Raihan Shah. The story of Pachani has been based most likely on a South Indian folk-tale according to Dr Praphulladatta Goswami. It will not be out of place to mention in his connection that Lakshminath Bezbaroa took keen interest in folk-lore also; and he collected many of the folk-tales of Assam under the title Buqihi /iir Sfidhu and published them in the same year in which he published his Nomal, Pahani, and Chikarpari Nikarpari. The introduction to this collection is an erudite piece of writing by Bezbaroa on folk-lore.

But though the stories in these farces are not the inventions of Bezbaroa, the poignant situations, incongruous scenes and episodes, ludicrous rencontres, exaggerated personal peculiarities and laughter-provoking dialogue are all Bezbaroa's own. We have already seen how absurd these stories in these plays are so that they can easily evoke laughter. We shall now see how the looseness and incoherence of the plots and the incongruous and incredible episodes created by Bezbaroa are potent with mirth and bulfoonery.

In Litikai, the seven brothers are complaining themselves about the troubles they have faced after the loss of their parents. Just then a mosquito bites the eldest brother, Nitai. When they try to kill the mosquito, it flies away. All the seven brothers then go out in an expedition to exterminate the whole genus of mosquitoes with staves in their hands. In a damp river-side jungle when the seven brothers try to kill the mosquitoes with staves and sticks, they only beat and wound one another. After this, we see them coming across a field full of hard, sun-dried clods. The seven clodpoles take it for a pool of water breaking waves and they take immense pains in swimming across it. Next to this comes the counting scene where they find in their counting one always falling short of the total. After the brahman meets and helps them here, the plot becomes a little coherent and well-knitted. But then the scenes from here onwards are only a series of crudity, violence, revenge and all that as it has been noted earlier.

About the plot and scenes of Nomal, too, we may speak the same thing. The old husband Nahar-phutuka's forgetfulness has been exaggerated to a point of improbability while the two scenes on his way home where he is ruthlessly beaten simply for misunderstandings on the part of those who beat him, are only horse-plays, pure and simple.

In Pachani, too, the hero's habit of not taking his meals in the absence of a guest is a fantastic exaggeration while his wife's devices of driving away the guests from the house are crude and ludicrous. When the Pachani brings two guests to the house in the evening and leaving them to the care of his wife, he goes to the shop, the wife shows to the guests the large and long wooden tooth of the family lever for cleaning and pounding rice. She tells them that her husband's yearnings for guests in the night is only his trap for thrashing them with this tooth of the lever. It is ludicrous to note that the two guests are convinced of this and they soon run away from the house. In another scene, too, the Pachani brings a guest to the house in the evening and, as before, leaving him to the care of his wife, goes to the shop. The wife this time brings a cub of a cat outside and starts bathing her. When the guest sees this unusual incident, he asks why she does it and the wife replies that they would feed their guest with the meat of the cat that night since they could not arrange anything better. This guest also believes it and he, too, is scared away as the earlier ones.

In Chikarpati Nikarpati Chikarpati's adventures are incredible and the incidents in the play are heterogeneous. The relevant scenes of the main plot here are only a few; and a number of irrelevant, incongruous scenes are making this play of fourteen scenes (in one Act) the second largest farce of Bezbaroa- the first being Litikai which is in five Acts. These irrelevant, incongruous scenes provoke mirth but contribute little to the development of the plot. There is, for example, a scene in the court (Scene ii) where the pleaders and petition-writers are debating informally about a ludicrous subject, viz., whether the Sanskrit prevalent in Varanasi is correct or that prevalent in Cape Comorin. Another subject of their hot informal debate is whether Ramanuja is the guru of Sahkaracharya or vice versa. One character Sutuli Gohai, in the same scene delights in fancying himself to be sick in health and prides in spending too much for living.

Compared to these plots and scenes, the plot and scene of Gaadhar Raja is decidedly improved though the method of creating humour is still crude. This crudity is revealed when the two sisters offer to the unsophisticated villager curd to take; and the villager, unaccustomed to take it with proper care- gulps it hastily. The moustache of the villager is plastered with the curd and the black moustache plastered with white curd looks odd. Then again when there is an uproar in the road, the two sisters with a view to giving safety to him drags him to the family loom, puts him under the bench of the loom and covers him with an Edi chadar which drove the poor man to near suffocation.

All these crudities, incongruities and exaggerations cannot, of course be regarded here as defects. Bezbaroa was, after all, writing farces which he called 'funny plays' and 'drawing-room plays', and not comedies proper. But in spite of that it is a real credit of Bezbaroa that even in these farces there are certain distinctive qualities which we can hardly expect in ordinary farces.

In this respect we may mention certain situations and dialogues which are very natural and subtle and which create genuine humour. For example, in Litikai, the seven brothers are trying to ascertain the date of their mother's annual rites. One brother, Manai, suggests that the date is nearing because the rain-water gathered in the field is gradually approaching the jack-fruit tree in their backyard. He claims that he can recall clearly that it was in such a time their mother died. In Nomal, when the old husband Nahar-phutuka is leaving for the sattra, he, a farmer, firmly tied to his domesticities and his farmyard does not forget to remind his wife even at this point of his pilgrimage to bring home the cows in the evening, to keep on the bamboo-shelf a rope made newly by him for binding cows, and not to forget to bring home at sunset the plums spread in sun in a bamboo-platter for drying. In Pachani, when the hero is in search of guests at his gate for the night, a stranger passes along the road. The Pachani beseeches him to be his guest for the night. The man, however, cannot stay; he has lost that evening his cow and he must needs find her out. In the next scene of the same play, the Pachani is scraping out a wooden tooth for their family lever for cleaning rice at the request of his wife and the wife is standing nearby and talking. All these are vividly familiar, common rural Assamese household scenes in depicting which Bezbaroa was a past master as is borne out in his other types of writing.

This art of creating humour out of common, habitual scenes is certainly the mark of an adept writer only. And this is to be noted that Bezbaroa could show this admirable gift in his second and third farces more than in his first. From this point of view, his Nomal and Pachani are improvements upon Litikai. Development of Bezbaroa in this respect is, however, not in an ascending order. For example, Chikarpari Nikarpati which follows Pachani marks an ebb in Bezbaroa's art as a farce-writer. The former is full of ludicrous, incoherent scenes, lacking in subtle, humorous touches. We must, however, mention here that though in creating humour by treating familiar, day-to-day household scenes Bezbaroa can claim a higher place in his farces Nomal and Pachani, yet as a dramatic artist Bezbaroa is at his best in his first farce Litikai as has been rightly pointed out by Dr Maheswar Neog. In Litikai, there is a clearly marked development of plot. We observe here even the development of the two main characters-the brahman. and the fool, Titai who survives his other six brothers. Such kind of development of plot and characters is absent from Nomal. It is as if a plain tale told by a funny, old grandfather. In Pachani, the hero may be said to have realised himself at the end. But that change in the mind of the hero is very abrupt and is thrust from outside. The play that comes after this is only a jumbling of many farcical scenes. Then in his fifth farce, Gadadhar Raja, there is again a mastery in the handling of the plot. This one-Act play comprising a single scene only is free from any heterogeneous and incoherent incident and the plot develops here logically. Moreover, here is a singleness of purpose and a unity of impression. It is for these characteristics that this play has been claimed as the first modern Assamese one-Act play by Phani Talukdar under whose editorship this play was published as a book for the first time in 1966. Atulchandra Hazarika, however, has claimed Pachani as the first modern Assamese one-Act play. Pachani, of course, was published five years earlier than Gadadhar Raja and has the unity of impression and the singleness of purpose. But the plot of Pachani is not so compact as a faultless one-Act play demands.

Besides these, there are certain other rare qualities which have given Bezbaroa distinctive place even as a writer of farces. One such quality revealed in these farces is Bezbaroa's preoccupation with the problems of ignorance and illiteracy in the Assamese society of his time. The leit motif of Litikai seems to be to reveal the curse of ignorance and illiteracy. Six of the seven fools die pitiably there because of their ignorance; and the remaining one, Titai, survives because it is only he, as Dr Dilip Kumar Barua has pointed out, who can somehow read and write. In this respect, we should note that the first issue of the magazine, Jonaki in which this farce was published, bore the pledge: "We are coming out to fight against darkness. Our aim is the progress of the State". In Nomal too, the same motive seems to be prominent. There also the hero is subjected to humiliation and suffering because of his ignorance.

Another distinguishing feature of these farces is the writer's intolerance with the meaningless, age-old customs of the society. The imperious, authoritarian and corrupt practices of the Assamese Vaishnava sattras of Bezbaroa's time have been criticised expressly in Nomal through the mouth of one character, Sadhuram in the scene inside the sattra (scene iii). The two sattra scenes (scene ii and scene iii) in this play satirise corrupt Vaishnava sattras of the time.

Bezbaroa's hatred for the Hindu caste-system is also revealed indirectly in these plays. In Nomal, the sattra scenes (scene ii and scene iii) show how the Assamese Hindus of the time were deeply ridden with caste. As Nahar-phutuka enters into the sattra, some tips are demanded from him by those who are guarding the passage to the sattra. Nahar- phutuka, having no spare sum of money to give them, offers the packet of rice-powder he had brought with him for his tiflin. But the guards refuse it saying bluntly that none will accept any such offering from him, he being a man of a very low caste! And the low-caste old man puts up with the insult silently. Inside the sattra, also, the sattradhikara upholds the caste-system vehemently, quoting spuriously from sastras. In the play, Pachani, again, when the two guests are coming to the house of the Pachani they declare their caste frankly and gratuitously. In Chikarpati-Nikarpati the arch-thief Chikarpati has approached the attendant tmaid of the king, Rangdai (scene v). The jovial maid Rangdai has offered Chikarpati a plate of frumenty she has prepared herself. The thief before taking it does not forget to enquire about her caste; the maid, however, humorously castigates him saying that with those two hands she has fed so many people belonging even to the highest caste.

Another noteworthy aspect of these plays is the playwright's satire of the middle class society that was emerging newly and expanding rapidly under the British rule. This is best revealed in the court scenes of Chikarpari Nikarpari. The British way of judgment in the court, the lawyers' scrambling for their fees, the itching palms of the judges or magistrates, and the troubles the illiterate men face in the midst of these educated middle class people—all these are shown very well in a satirical vein. The character of Sutuli Gohai - the Westemized upper middle class type-has also been the object of biting ridicule there.

Another aspect of the then Assamese society which has been the object of Bezbaroa's ruthless satire is that of the so-called men of culture. Assamese language, literature and culture were in the grip of Bengali language, literature and culture at that time. Many enlightened Assamese people blindly devoted themselvs to Bengali culture discarding their own. Bezbaroa's satire of these pillars of Assamese culture has come to the surface in scene iii of Nome-I where the sattradhikara himself of the Assamese Vaishnava sattra has turned his back to the traditional Assamese Vaishnava bhaonas (religious plays in one Act of the Vaishnava writers) and is shown as writing himself religious plays with pride in faulty Bengali and inducing his disciples to enact those in the sattra.

Of course, here we cannot but mention that though Bezbaroa could not tolerate any blind imitation of Western ways or of Bengali culture, he always wanted the Assamese people to accept all that is best in the West as well as in Bengal or elsewhere if there is any genuine need of it. This can be realised if we read the other writings of Bezbaroa.

After pointing out all these serious aspects of Bezbaroa, we cannot help mentioning that even without these his farces would have stood out as good farces. But these qualities are there; and we should not forget that Bezbaroa was a writer with a two-fold purpose, viz., the purpose of enriching Assamese literature in all its modern aspects and the purpose of bringing about all round development of the Assamese society of his time. The more we read Bezbaroa the more it appears that he was in accord with Bernard Shaw's famous pronouncement that for art's sake alone he would never face the toil of writing even a single line. Of course, in these plays this reformative zeal was not the basic motivating force of Bezbaroa. Bezbaroa's main purpose in these plays seems to be to provide entertainment without any other axe to grind. The serious aspects mentioned above seem to enter into these plays only occasionally. But it is on such occasions that Bezbaroa is most himself. Thus is Bezbaroa- very light-hearted, very funny, very mirthful- and yet so serious, so ardent and so well-meaning. It is not that Bezbaroa was the first farce-writer in modern Assamese literature nor was he the solitary one in his own time. But whereas Hemchandra Barua, his predecessor, and Padmanath Gohain Barua, his contemporary, in this line were manifestly serious as they were satirical, Bezbaroa superimposed his seriousness upon his unparalleled power of finding joy in life.

Gobinda Prasad Sarma is a well known critic, short story writer, former HOD, Dept of English, Gauhati University
(Article Source: Lakshminath Bezbaroa, The Sahityarathi of Assam, Edited by Maheswar Neog Edition I, August 1972)