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The Kushan folk theatre is a Ramayan-based folk drama which probably originated in the erstwhile Koch kingdom, an area that presently spans the northern parts of West Bengal, Assam and northern Bangladesh (former Greater Rangpur district). Though originally animist, the Koches, during their rule, embraced Hinduism, with a liberal mix of Vaishnavism and Shaivism and scholars believe that they adopted the Hindu Kshatriya title of Rajbongshi ("of royal lineage") to signify their royal status. 

The Kushan folk theatre is a Ramayan-based folk drama which probably originated in the erstwhile Koch kingdom, an area that presently spans the northern parts of West Bengal, Assam and northern Bangladesh (former Greater Rangpur district). Though originally animist, the Koches, during their rule, embraced Hinduism, with a liberal mix of Vaishnavism and Shaivism and scholars believe that they adopted the Hindu Kshatriya title of Rajbongshi ("of royal lineage") to signify their royal status.  
The  Kushan tradition which existed over a large area, was adopted by many ethnic groups such as the Rajbongshi, Hajong, and the Koch. However, it is particularly associated with the Rajbongshi people, an ethnic community of mixed Dravidian, Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ancestry. Today the Kushan tradition, though diminished in the main, can still be seen in Cooch Behar and to a lesser extent, Jalpaiguri in North Bengal, parts of Assam and Bangladesh. In Cooch Behar, in particular, the tradition was once so strong, that it permeated down to even other communities who have lived in the region for numerous generations. The absence of primary literary sources prevents us from determining the exact time of origin of this folk form, but according to oral sources and collective memory, Kushan has been an unbroken tradition since at least, the last five hundred years. 
Kushan performance on stage
Kushan folk theatre, also known as Bena-Kushan, was based on a local form of the Ramayana,  the Shaptakando Ramayan (though Mahabharat based narrations were also introduced later). Shaptakando Ramayana is the 14th century Assamese version of the Ramayana attributed to the poet Madhava Kandali. It is considered to be the first translation from the Sanskrit to a modern regional Indo-Aryan language. A particular feature of this work is the non-heroic portrayal of Rama, Sita, and other characters, which rendered the work unsuitable for religious purposes.

Thus, there are no religious associations with Kushan and its performance is purely a form of entertainment.  Kushan is traditionally performed seasonally, between September-October (Durga Puja) and March-April (Choitra Parab). 

There are several schools of thought with regard to the etymology of the term Kushan.  According to most popular version, one day, Sita, in the ashram of hermit Valmiki, had gone for a bath, leaving her young son, Lav, in the hermit`s care. After a while, Valmiki noticed with consternation that the child was missing.  Mortified at his own carelessness, he quickly created a boy in Lav`s image out of straw or "Kush" (Bengali) and infused life into it.  Meanwhile, Sita returned from her bath, with Lav in tow and quickly assessing the situation, decided to keep both the boys. From then on,  Sita had two sons- Lav and Kush.  

Legend has it that Lav and Kush went around singing and playing the bena to narrate stories from the Ramayan. The Kushan folk tradition too comprises the narration of the Ramayan. It is for this reason that the chief singer and narrator in a Kushan performance always holds the primitive bena (root: Beena/veena), made of bamboo. It has a social significance and determines the geedal’s position in the hierarchy of the performers in Kushan theatre.   

Traditionally, stories were related in the interactive "pala-gaan" style, through song and dialogue in the local dialect, accompanied by music and dance. The performance would go on all night for several nights at a stretch, until the entire narration of the Ramayan was completed.  Later, the Shaptokando Ramayan was divided into episodes and an all night performance comprised the enactment of a single episode.  

Kushan performance in a courtyardThe Mool or Geedal, is the chief performer and the Doari, the jester-cum-commentator  and a bridge between the audience and the Geedal. The Geedal narrates, sings and acts the parts of the various characters, aided by the Doari who interjects and interrupts with comments, jokes and often breaks into song  that has nothing to do with the theme of the drama. The Geedal always sings or narrates in Bengali, while the Doari uses the local dialect, Rajbongshi or Rangpuri to interact with the audience. 

All of this is punctuated by dance interludes by the Chhokra or Sokra -  originally male dancers dressed as women - who have now been replaced by women or Chhukri/Sukri.  While the Geedal always plays the Bena folk instrument  to accompany himself, the background music is provided by the musicians in the troupe, the Baiin. The backing vocalists are the Paail or chorus.

There are a number of instruments which may be used in the Kushan. In the olden days, it is said that there was just the khol and the bena. With time, numerous other instruments were added : aar banshi (bamboo flute) and a number of percussion instruments , principally the akhrai (e.g., dholak) and mondira. The Sarinja which was also used was later replaced with the violin or the harmonium, both western instruments. 

The geedal would always be simply clothed in a dhoti and punjabi (kurta), while the doari would always be clothed in a vest and dhoti with a gamchha (towel) thrown over his shoulder. The chhokras would be dressed colourfully. 

In the past, Kushan folk dramas would take place in an open space under a canopy of leaves, framed by bamboo and illuminated by flaming torches, and later hurricane lanterns followed by petromax. The musicians sat in the middle, encircled by the performers, around whom the audience sat. With time, the performance space gradually started moving to the stage and by the nineties, the shift was permanent. 

As with all pala gaan performances, the entire Kushan pala comprises primarily musical verse, interspersed with acting and dance. There are two distinctive parts: the invocation and the main body of the performance. The main performance adheres to the format typical of all rural folk theatre  - songs in the Lachari, Poyar, Dhua and Khosha mode interpolated with dialogue and dance. 

The Lachari/Nachari is a folk rhythmic structure suitable for dancing (root word lach or nach, meaning dance;  literally, songs accompanied by dance). It is the tune sung in the Lachari mode  that typifies Kushan.  

All through the performance, there are musical interventions called Dhua songs, which may not have any relation at all to the main theme, but in which the main Kushan tune is held. Dhua songs are refrains or choral songs. This is usually a single line, a couplet, or a few lines. Dhua is an abbreviation of the word Dhruvapada - which means refrain or chorus.  Thus the lyrics of the Dhua songs could vary from performance to performance, but the tune remains the same. The Lachari lyrics on the other hand, do not change, since they hold the main theme or narrative. 

Interpolated  with the narrative and chosen so that they fit into the theme of the preceding dialogue are the songs called Poyar. Poyar is a medieval 14 syllable prosodic metre which developed in the 13th century and was popularized in the Mangal Kavyas. However, among the rural Kushan artists, the term refers to functionality rather than metre.  The poyar songs sung here belong to the folk genres of the region and are usually bhawaiya tunes but may be kirtan based too. 

A third kind of intervention involves singing popular folk songs or enacting short comic breaks, musical or otherwise, initiated by the doari. These  songs are Khosha. The purpose of a Khosha was originally to provide some light hearted relief, when the interest of the audience is seen to be flagging. A Khosha could be a popular song or about a recent local event. The pace of the Khosha songs is usually quick and the mood, playful and humorous. Such songs are usually from the Chotka or Chalan genre of songs. The Khosha, though automatically incorporated into the performance these days, invariably lifts the mood of the audience and the main narrative then continues. 

Present day Kushan performers in Cooch Behar do not seem to be familiar with terms like lachari and while all agreed on the role of Khosha, there seemed to be no one opinion on what a Dhua and Poyar was. A typical Kushan performance begins with a Bandona or Ashor Bandona.  This is usually an invocation to Lord Ram or sometimes, the goddess Saraswati and is considered to give the space and performance an auspicious start. Everyone in the group participates and this is traditionally performed with the players and musicians seated.  

The bandona is followed by the main introductory narrative in the Lachari mode.  This is an introduction to the Shaptokando Ramayan through song and dialogue by the geedal and doari. Earlier, each book (kando) would be described in some detail with the doari interjecting for the sake of the audience. These days however, it is only an abbreviated musical narration of the Shaptokando Ramayan that is presented.

Once the overview of the Ramayan has been shared with the audience, it is time for a specific episode to be enacted - the pala of the day. This narrative too is related through song in the Lachari mode, interspersed with dialogue and acting by the geedal and doari and accompanied by dancing. On occasion, if the story requires it, and a third character is required, then a member from the paail  fills in.  All through, the doari offers cues to the geedal, or questions him, or emphasizes a word or phrase he has sung,  all of which helps the audience understand better.  

Woven in and out of the main narrative are the Dhua, Poyar and Khosha songs, to keep the pace going and whose functions have been explained above. Accompanying the songs, the chhokras or chhukris dance in rhythmic patterns. The dances are graceful and require the dancers to perform difficult steps with dexterity. 

Accompanying the songs, the chhokras or chhukris dance in rhythmic patterns. The dances are graceful and requires the chokras to perform difficult steps with dexterity. The ‘adaai pyaanch’ is one such movement in which the dancer performs a half rotation clock wise, then anti clockwise immediately followed by a half rotation clock wise, after which he/she sinks to the floor. 

A particularly interesting feature of the Kushan pala is the Narok gaan. Narok is a competition between 2 rival groups of Kushan players who are performing a short distance away from each other, on perhaps a large field. Since the greater the size of the audience meant the greater victory, "spies" from each group would be assigned the charge of weaning away audiences. They did this by surreptitiously throwing a "magic" powder in the air, near the rival`s audience, which would immediately have the desired effect, it is said. 

As with all other rural folk forms, the main threat to Kushan has been socio-economic change. According to oral sources, the rate of Kushan performances declined after the Independence. This was a result of the shifting modes of entertainment, rapid structural changes in rural society and the changing patterns of public interaction. The change has deepened in the last few decades. Attitudes and lifestyles have changed, borders between urban and rural have blurred and in the face of urbanization and globalisation, interest in traditional knowledge systems sparse.

Thus, when Jatra troupes came visiting from Kolkata with their loud, colourful, dazzling shows, the simple, rural  Kushan format proved no match for such an adversary.  Fighting to survive, some troupes began to introduce jatra elements while others simply withdrew from the art. But even in emulating the jatra, they could not hope to compare, because of the paucity of funds. Where there was residual interest, passion even, among the few remaining masters, there was no encouragement offered by the only available sponsor - the government.  Added to their woes was of course ready-made entertainment from television. The final blow was the younger generation`s lack of awareness and an absence of ownership or pride in their  cultural heritage. 

Another significant change was that traditionally Kushan was performed solely for the love of the form. It was never considered to be a means of income as long as basic costs were covered by the organizer. From the 1970s, many geedals started practicing it as their profession and began to receive remunerations. This period also marked the beginning of the process through which traditional Kushan, caving in to changing tastes and popular demand, metamorphosed to Kushan Jatra.

The Kushan jatra fuses the Kushan and Jatra folk drama formats - usually an introductory piece in the simple Kushan format gives over to the dazzle, flamboyance and melodrama of a jatra performance on perhaps the same theme or maybe even something  completely different.   The Kushan pala gaan presentation has become practically extinct in West Bengal. 

But even with Kushan Jatra, with practically no sustainable income from the form for its practitioners, who necessarily have to depend upon alternative employment, it certainly does not attract students from the younger generation. Besides, a Kushan group usually comprises 15 or 20 people. The entertainment they provide thus does not come cheap. This too impacts the demand and thus many groups have been forced to disband.  

Further, governmental measures to "support" folk arts has unfortunately given rise to a class of "artists" who have jumped on to the bandwagon, without the relevant background/knowledge. This lends an additional threat to  the propagation of the authentic form. 

Renowned geedals of the past include Jhampura Geedal and Lalit Kushani. Today, there are just a handful of geedals in Cooch Behar and for the last decade or so, a few women geedalis have also started performing Kushan jatra.

Documentation for this feature was made possible by a grant from the Ministry of Culture, Govt of India, under their Scheme for “Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Diverse Cultural Traditions of India”,  2014-15.