A form of musical theatre performed in the Malda district of West Bengal, gambhira involves dances accompanied by folk songs and satirical skits. Gambhira performances originally took place between April and June as a part of Chaitra Sankranti celebrations, though today they take place throughout the year.
Gambhira is believed to have evolved from the song, dance and performance forms of the Koch people residing in the Malda region. It is connected to local agricultural traditions, especially mango cultivation, and to the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. Its musical repertoire is influenced by an earlier tradition known as Bolbahi or Bolbhai, consisting of songs and skits with enactments of local events, characters and scandals.
In preparation for a gambhira performance, an idol of Shiva is installed in an open hut. The performances themselves typically consist of five parts. All roles in these performances, even those of female characters and goddesses, are enacted by men. The first part is referred to as bondolan, wherein performers sing and dance together to invoke Shiva. An actor portraying the god, costumed with matted hair and tiger skin, then listens to the troubles of the audience. The next part consists of solo dance performances, with dancers wearing masks, makeup and costumes to represent deities such as Kali, Chamunda, Shiva or individuals from Puranic literature. Accompanied by strong percussion beats, the dancers are believed to undergo a transformation into the deity. Featuring a duet between a male and a female character, songs in gambhira performances are generally in the local dialect, with their subject matter derived from folklore and sometimes from Puranic themes. The lyrics of the folk songs performed are often composed by local artists in troupes and follow the written verses. Instruments such as the dhak (cylindrical drum), dholak (hand drum) and cymbals are used to provide music, and performers also wear nati (ankle bells) on their feet.
The third part of the performance, charyari, is a skit performed by four actors, with the subject matter changing between scenes. The acting is often accompanied by gestures, comical body movements, and music to heighten the comedy. The music is often adapted from popular songs from Bengali and Hindi cinema to match the tone of the skits. The dialogues do not follow a set script, and tend to be improvised around an overarching theme. The skit is followed by a performance featuring satirical comments and sociopolitical critique through song and dialogue. A brief musical interlude known as toppathungri is then performed before the final part of the performance. Called “reporting”, this involves actors playing the role of media persons reporting on current issues in the area.
Earlier iterations of gambhira have been compared to the festival of Gajan which also focused on Shiva worship. Gambhira festivals initially took place over four to five days. The performative aspects occurred on the second and third days. They were referred to as Choto Tamasha, in which children would perform masked dances, and Bado Tamasha, where adults would enact skits. The form underwent a substantial change from the early twentieth century when it was recognised as a public forum for villagers to present their concerns to deities such as Shiva, considered an ally of the people. It has since retained much of its popularity and relevance by emphasising local issues through public satirical skits.
Gambhira continues to be performed by troupes today in the regions of Dinajpur, Rangpur and Rajshahi in Bangladesh – where the form uses figures of a maternal grandfather and his grandson to critique sociopolitical issues – as well as in the Malda and Murshidabad districts of West Bengal.
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