Social Justice Matters: What Ramachandra Manjhi tells us about caste, art
When Ramachandra Manjhi walked into Rashtrapati Bhavan on October 9, he was carrying on his shoulders the aspirations of his community.
The 96-year-old man from Chapra in western Bihar had become the first artist from the Naach tradition in eastern India to be conferred the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour. The recognition, long due for the popular artform that is best known for 20th century’s tallest Bhojpuri writer, Bhikari Thakur, can also change the landscape for art practised by marginalised communities.
Dressed in a cream kurta, a pair of dhotis and a black jacket, Manjhi gingerly walked up to President Ram Nath Kovind — who had conferred him the Sangeet Natak Akademi lifetime award in 2018. While the President pinned the Padma medal on his chest, Manjhi leaned forward and told the President to attend one of his shows. “I told him that sir, you have now honoured me twice. Please give me the honour of performing in front of you,” he said later, grinning.
Manjhi is the best-known exponent of the Naach, a form of theatre filled with singing and dancing loosely bound by a story that usually takes on social issues such as migration, dowry, the emancipation of women and oppression of marginalised communities. It is a narrative art that binds together parody, satir, entertainment and social commentary.
Like many other forms of popular operatic theatre — think Jatra in Bengal and Nautanki in Uttar Pradesh — Naach involved men dressing up as women for female characters. Of course, this female impersonation was rooted in the social mores of earlier centuries where acting was considered a disreputable profession and women were barred from performing with troupes or playing a character on stage.
Even at 96, Manjhi’s trembling hands steady themselves while draping a sari around himself. He does his eyes and face largely by himself, his long-time associates helping whenever they can. His zeal for performing remains unchanged — he has been doing this since 12 — and even north India’s smoggy cold can’t deter him from his famous all-night performances, switching from singing to dialogue with ease.
Plenty has been written about female impersonators, their play with gender — women on stage and men off it — and how they navigate these multiple realities. The legendary Jatra artist, Chapal Bhaduri, for example, makes a clear distinction between femininity and being a woman, and in his performances, talks about how he doesn’t need to identify as a woman to understand the essence of femininity. Manjhi, too, is clear about identity and performance.
But what makes his triumph more remarkable is the burden of caste he carries. Manjhi is Dalit, and Naach is an art form patronised by Dalits and lower-caste communities in the heartland. It is also an indictment of the unfortunate link between caste and respectability in Indian arts that thrives even today.
Naach has long been stigmatised by upper-caste commentators as not worthy and vulgar. Jainendra Kumar Dost, a researcher from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Naach performer, writes about how the art form would exclusively be referred to as “Launda Naach”, a reference to men impersonating women on stage, and not deemed worthy of any scholarly attention because of the people performing and watching it. Senior performers such as Manjhi, despite their popularity with the masses, were ignored by the academy because Naach didn’t fit casted notions of what good art is supposed to look like. This is why, Dost explains, it was important for Manjhi’s name to be associated with respect and honour.
Of course, this isn’t new. There are volumes written about the impact of caste on art (think of Bharatanatyam) and how high-caste performers and critics, by dint of their social power and control over cultural forms of productions, have dictated what artforms will be considered respectable and what not. This, unfortunately, later influenced decisions on state patronage of the arts and painted forms practised by lower-caste communities as not worthy of investment, attention or research.
The arc for Naach was particularly sharp. In his lifetime, Bhikari Thakur was known as the Shakespeare of Bihar and his plays were a sensation. Manjhi, a longtime associate of Thakur, remembers how people would climb on trees to watch him perform because shows would always be sold out. The troupes were a regular feature of political rallies because local audiences identified with the art form.
Yet by the turn of the century, Naach performers were increasingly starved of institutional patronage and economic security — even today, an 18-member troupe can perform for as little as ₹20,000. This coincided with a decrease in the prestige of the language it was performed in, Bhojpuri, which, despite its distinct literature, grammar and history, was considered only a dialect of Hindi.
Manjhi’s recognition can change the fate of Naach performers, but just as importantly, it can challenge the influence of caste in determining what good art is. It can show commentators that Naach plays such as Bidesiya — the most famous of Thakur’s compositions — and Beti Bechwa tackle urgent issues like migration, economic precarity, dowry and peasant exploitation, and therefore deserve the respect and patronage that any art form in India receives. It can reverse decades of neglect and insult driven by caste attitudes, and showcase Dalit artists who are, in no way, inferior to their higher-caste peers. It’s a tall ask but if Manjhi’s 84 years on the stage is any indication, he’s up to the task.
The views expressed are personal