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Bamphalar: the theatre tradition of Jowai

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By Emihun- I Pakma

SHILLONG, July 8: In Meghalaya, the word ‘theatre’ might not capture much attention or spark the imagination of many. It might even be seen as a relic of the past. However, for half of the population in Jowai, theatre is a cherished and integral part of their cultural life. In this town, theatrical art is not just entertainment; it’s a tradition deeply significant to eight local communities. Despite being overlooked by much of the state, these communities eagerly anticipate their annual theatrical performances, which take place during the months of May, June, and July, keeping the spirit of live performance alive and thriving.
The tradition in is known as Bamphalar, which roughly translates to “having a feast” in Pnar. Alwinson Laloo, who has been working as a theatre artist working since 1971, as a scriptwriter, actor and director, mentioned that there are no clear indications of when this tradition started; however said that there are indications of this being started by the king of Jaintiapur.
Earlier, many localities participated as this practice is something that raises funds for the community. It is through these funds that the community can grow bigger, said Laloo.
This culture is now alive among the localities of Panaliar, Loomiongkjam, Loompyrdi Iongpiah, Loomkyrwiang, Dulong, Chilliangraij, Tpep Pale, and Umshangiar, while it started in huts in some localities.
The tradition, however, remains relatively unknown outside its local context, possibly because the live performances are conducted in the Pnar language, making them less accessible to those unfamiliar with it. However, for those who have the chance to witness this remarkable tradition, it is a peak artistic experience.
Typically a three-day affair, Bamphalar culminates in a communal feast held in the respective community halls of the first five localities. The first two days of Bamphalar are dedicated to theatrical performances, while the final day is reserved for a communal feast. Tpep Pale, however, only participates in the entertainment part of the celebration.
During these two days, community members engage in two distinct drama sets. The first day typically features comedy, whilst the second day focuses on romance or tragedy.
Original scores are usually mandatory, with “Kper Syntu,” a couple dance among well-decorated stages in these originally composed songs, being the highlight of the drama. These songs are usually composed for a particular play and performed by the characters.
Speaking about the significance of the practice in today’s world, Laloo, mentioned that “It is a gathering for the people of the community to meet up and catch up once a year, as well as it would be a proud moment for friends and family members of actors who will get to see someone they know perform on stage.”
On being asked if people are still willing to participate, he mentioned that now it is getting easier as they willingly volunteer, unlike before, when finding actresses was the most difficult part.
“Ka lymban hei jrong I hok” is one of the most well-known dramas that was directed in 1975.
In comedy, role-play is a major part, and men dressing up as women are common and entertaining for the audience, reminiscent of any other Shakespearean comedy. While talking to scriptwriter, director, and actor in many comedy plays, Dikil Pohchen, walked us through the preparation process and said that there are usually no dialogues and a lot of what happens on stage is impromptu, as that has more comic effect and it works wonders.
Renowned writer and lyricist Riquoma Rq Laloo, who represents the Panaliar locality and has been part of this since 1987, spoke about Bamphalar in very high esteem: “It shows the love and respect among the community members and was taught to us by our ancestors. In this cultural practice, there are no differences within us; everyone is family, every hardship disappears, and the feast is also done from one pot with no hesitations or rejection,” he stated.
This art, according to him, will still be very prevalent as long as the localities are still there.
Bamphalar is like a summer activity that people actually look forward to during the months of heavy monsoon in Meghalaya. People coming to dress up and enjoy the three days is another form of going out and dressing up to party, mixed with a cultural twist.
Despite the passage of time and the changing dynamics of modern life, this tradition continues to thrive, offering a unique blend of theatrical artistry, music, and dance.

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