Rural Bengal entered into the popular psyche of Bengali intelligentsia primarily through literature. Often negotiated, modified form of rural folk culture even influenced the urban intellectual elite cultural practice of Bengal. Popular novelists to name a few like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay painted the rural Bengal, which became the main food for the city intellectuals since post-Independent India. Time passed by, the post globalized world always highlighted and glorified a one sided encounter of culture, where the rest of it has gone into the dark side of indifference by the civil society. Following the graph of sustenance of the many folk cultural forms, it can be inferred that only those cultural forms that could be modified to fit the urban elite tastes remained alive, while the rest were left to their own fate. For example, ‘Jatra’, the very popular Bengali folk theatrical form was adapted by the city artists to communicate urban subjects, while many of its varieties and derivations suffered apathyto reach the situation of almost oblivion.
Alkap is one such theatrical derivative of the ‘Jatra’ form of rural folk theaters of Bengal. It was popular in the Murshidabad, Malda, Birbhumdistricts of Bengal. This is essentially a musical theater, where ballads are sung along with dialogues and dance. The theater group is composed of ten to twelve members. This form came into a brief limelight when a famous novelist Syed Mustafa Siraj composed his narratives around this form. He himself was an Alkap artiste from Murshidabad district of West Bengal.
A narrator called the Sarkar or Guru leads the Alkap performance. The main distinctiveness of Alkap as a form is that a few boys were cross dressed as women and they play the woman characters. The tonality of this theatrical form is sarcasm and the presentation is in the form of a spoof to represent social injustices, mythological tales etc. Even this form has undergone many adaptations and negotiations with time. It is now a history when Alkap used to be an impromptu performance, which grew spontaneously with audience participation. This overnight theatrical performance form used to enjoy the leniency, while the performers could caricature their local powers like the local kings or the zamindars. The witty, rustic sexual intonations have always been the entertainment element in Alkap performance. It’s a community performance form, involves the entire village for mere entertainment. Moral values or the actual social, political and economic realities are set aside to take off to another reality lifting everyone, including the power holders, to a such a mindscape that everyone makes fun of themselves and thereby life goes smoothly without many aberrations.
This entire form of musical theater, Alkap, has lost its populist relevance, as a form of entertainment, while electronic media and the film industry is now the main source of entertainment. The present Alkap artistes have become vulnerable and think the only way to save their form is to enter the urban sector and find a means to present this form as a museum piece for the globalized urban minds. Karunakanta Hazra, a very famous Alkap writer, performer and director, laments that he doesn’t have any other options than wading through the urban sophisticated cultural tastes and the Victorian Puritanism when he is asked to design and perform in the Government sponsored programmes, the initiatives were taken by the Government of West Bengal to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of Bengal.
Mystery, sarcasm and pain surround the male performers called “Chhokras” who play the woman characters in Alkap. Reality or truth regarding their sexual identity goes through a transformation, as they join Alkap at a very tender age. They go through the emotional and physical training process to become a true artist to aptly showcase the character of a woman. They start identifying themselves as good actresses. They take pride if they are not recognized as men in the role of women. The present time though is not playing fair with their transformed performance-sexual identity. A very senior artist of Karuna Kanta Hazra’s group who has been performing the woman characters through out his career, secretly gulps out in pain that the women are coming to perform Alkap now in front of urban audiences, while artists like him are suffering a nonidentical psychological turmoil. The main distinctiveness of the Alkap performances like the sexual references and the men performing as women are the targets of disturbance. Either Alkap as a form to survive, has to discard the sexually charged up dialogues and body movements to suit the city aesthetics, or they have to divulge that erotica in cheap entertainment forms in local rural taverns and casinos to earn bread and butter.
Alkap had always been a reference to low culture for the urban elites. The original form of Alkap, with its distinction, is almost on the verge of extinction. The mass appeal of this form though is still luminescent and is tapped by many corporate and the Government for social awareness means. It is only learned people like Karuna Kanta Hazra and his team, who are still fighting with keeping this legacy alive. They still argue with their whole heart when anyone says, “Alkap is dead”. Karuna Kanta Hazra participates in academic sessions of University departments where he argues that a folk form cannot die, it just transforms. The one sided view of the urban intelligentsia looking at the rural has to be altered. It is only then probably Alkap can be preserved along with its process of going through transformations.