Forgotten pages of history

The region of present-day Bihar has a glorious past and was home to scholars, poets, dancers and artisans. Noted dancer Shovana Narayan highlights Bihar’s kathak link

A board displays the address of the primary school located in ‘Kathak Bigha’ village in Amas Prakhand, Gaya district
A board displays the address of the primary school located in ‘Kathak Bigha’ village in Amas Prakhand, Gaya district

NATURAL calamities are nothing new to Bihar. Buddha, too, is said to have made a comment on this. Yet, it is this very region that has been an important limb of India’s civilisation. It has given the world its first-known republic of Vaishali. It was also the seat of learning with the first large-scale universities of Nalanda and Vikramshila established here. Nalanda housed more than 6,000 scholars. Its alumni encompasses a large canvas of luminaries, including grammarian Panini and Chinese scholar-travellers Hiuen-Tsang, Fa-Hien and Itsing. The contributions of Bihar to India’s rich heritage are many. It has gifted the gayatri mantra to the country and scholars such as Yagyavalkya, author of Shukla Yajur Veda and the Yagyavalkyasmriti, Kautilya (Arthashastra), mathematician-astronomer Aryabhatta, as well as women scholars such as Gargi and Bharati, wife of Mandan Mishra, among others.

In the current scenario of tragedies and Bihari labour being targeted in different parts of the country, the fact that this area was once a pulsating centre of classical music and dance festivals, comes as a surprise to many. Other than a few old-timers, very few remember the whole night music and dance festivals held at various chaurastas and maidans in Patna and other towns of Bihar for 10 days during Dussehra festivities and for another five days during Basant Panchmi celebrations. It was a century-old tradition that featured stalwarts of the Indian classical music and dance. Late Pandit Godai Maharaj had said that the 10-day classical music and dance festivals held in Bihar on the occasion of Dussehra earned him a major part of his annual income.

This is not surprising as this area had been a cradle of arts, besides philosophy, mathematics and science. Bihar boasts of several legendary dancers such as Amrapali, Salvati, Kosha, and Padmavati, whose ancestry can be traced to the sixth century BC. Nalanda University’s curriculum included courses on fine arts inclusive of performing arts and handicrafts along with courses on social, religious and political texts. The treatise on hand gestures — Sri Hastamuktavali — written by the Mithila ruler Maharaja Shubhankar (1516-1607) of the Kharaoire dynasty, Vaidyapati padavali by legendary poet Vidyapati and the Varna Ratnakar by Jyotishwar Thakur, are some of the gems that form a part of the vast cultural canvas of the state. All these indicated a high degree of interest and high level of proficiency in literature and performing arts. The importance given to these by the state proves beyond any doubt the existence of a highly cultured and learned society.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), seized of the rich cultural tradition of Bihar, entrusted the task of documentation to Prof Prem Lata Sharma. However, the task remained unfinished due to her demise. With support from the akademi and Secretary, Culture, Bihar, in the mid-1990s, I, along with Sanskrit scholar Dr K.K.Mishra, embarked on the mission.

This led to the accidental discovery of a fourth century BC Prakrit inscription in Asokan Brahmi script from the dusty forgotten archives of Manuscript Library of Kameshwar Singh Darbhanga Sanskrit University. The script threw a new light on the dance scene in the Gangetic belt.

The verse is as follows:

"maggasirasuddhapakkhe nakkhhate varanaseeye nayareeye
uttarpuratthime diseebhage gangaye mahanadeeye tate
savvokathako bhingarnatenam teese stuti kayam
yehi raya adinaho bhavenam passayi"

Preceding the Natyashastra, this fourth century BC inscription describes the devotional dance of the kathaks at Varanasi that pleased Lord Adinatha. It corroborates the hypothesis of A.B Keith that the dance form kathak belonged to the ‘dharaka’ stream of kathaks. A few years ago, I was taken aback at the mention of the existence of a kathak village near Gaya. Beset with an insatiable curiosity to see for myself the village that had been mentioned to me by a journalist when I was performing at the Bodh Gaya Festival, I, along with Dr Kamal Kishor Mishra, went to Gaya in 2005. Our first task was to locate the journalist who had mentioned it. But despite all efforts, he could not be located. We then decided to conduct the search ourselves — a task that was nothing less than looking for a needle in a haystack. But we finally struck gold — finding not one — but two kathak villages (Kathak Bigha and Kathak Gram). Later a third village, Kathak Jagir was also ‘discovered’. With the help of the district administration and Secretary, Culture, Bihar Government, land records pertaining to these three villages could be located. In addition, work on deciphering the ancient text on the base of a recently discovered Shivalinga, near Vaishali, stated to be more than 2,000 years old, is in progress. These villages came into existence at different points of time in history, with one stated to be about 900-year-old, and the other two being of more recent origin.

At the entrance of the oldest village, situated close to the GT Road, near Gaya, is a small primary school. The board of the school proclaims the address to be: "Prathmik Vidyalaya, Kathak Bigha, Aamas, Gaya district".

The Maharaja of Tekari is credited to have founded the second kathak village for the artistes some 350 years ago. A large number of plaques in this village once again give the address as Kathak Gram. Kathak Jagir is stated to be only about 150-year-old. These villages, once inhabitated by kathaks who practised music and dance, were abandoned due to the lack of patronage.

The documentation team facilitated by the SNA has recorded an interesting interview with the villagers wherein it was mentioned by the new occupants that ghunghuroos had been found buried in the village. Another thing that emerged from this search was the presence of Sun Temples all over the region. Of course, Dakshinaark Sun Temple is the most well-known. One can understand now as to why Bihar is the only place having a living sun-worship tradition — the Chhat festival — celebrated in the shukla paksha of the month of Kartika. Such a living tradition is totally absent in Gujarat and Orissa that have magnificent structures dedicated to the Sun god. In the Gaya area, the worship of Sun god is related to curing leprosy. Myths and legends state that Saam, son of Lord Krishna, who was afflicted with leprosy, had been cured here after severe penance and worship of the Sun god. These findings, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows which other jewels lie hidden under the forgotten pages of Bihar’s history. Shrouded under the dusty cover of the apathy and bias of the people of India, Bihar is waiting to be discovered.