Of the 15 odd localities in the town there are 7 localities (known as Dong) in Jowai, which still organize the annual Bamphalar festivals. Bamphalar is a theatrical festival organized by the localities in Jowai namely; Tpep-pale, Dulong, Iongpiah Loompyrdi, Panaliar, Loomiongkjam, Chilliang-raij and Loomkyrwiang and each locality stages a minimum of two dramas in the two months long festival. The festival which is always organized in the months of April and May of the year is like the Cannes of dramas for the theatre-loving people of the town. The only difference is that it goes on for two months and there is neither red carpet nor award ceremony which goes to be part of the festival.
During the festival, week after week theater-lovers of the town hop from one Yungwalieh (community hall) to another to feast their eyes and their soul. Each of the 7 localities chose a week from the eight weeks time to organize their respective show. Traditionally, locality stage their dramas during the evening of Musiang (market day in Jowai) and continue for another one or two days; depend on the numbers of dramas the Clubs decided to produce in the year. Earlier, since most of the people of the town are farmers, labourer, tailors and traders; it is convenient to start the festival on the market which is also the pay day in the town. It is also interesting to note that traditionally the Pnars too rest for two days of the eight days’ a week traditional calendar. They rest on the market day to enable them to do their weekly shopping and they took a day off on Muchai the day after; purely for leisure.
Even the people in the state of Meghalaya know very little about the rich artistic traditions of the ancestors of the Pnars in Jaintia hills. Apart from their unique traditional dance and festivals and erecting of monoliths which is common among the Khasi Pnar tribe, their arts also includes sculpture of different shapes and sizes carved on stones and rocks in different parts of the District, infact Jaintia has the largest collection of Monolith in the entire State. Of the Khasi Pnar stock, perhaps it is only the Pnars which have their own unique tradition of making earthen pots and the only pottery village in the District is known as Lyrnai. Pnar’s art also includes weaving their traditional dress like the Muka, the Thoh-saru, Ryndia-tlem and Khyrwang, goldsmith, various cane and bamboo crafts, music with their own folk instruments and smelting of iron to make tools.
Of the arts practice by the people of the District, dramas is said to be of a recent origin. It may be mentioned that Jaintia Hills District was also part of the erstwhile Jaintia Kingdom which extended to the plain of now Bangladesh. In one of my interview with one of the elder of Jowai town woh Chaimon Pyrbot, he told me that the Pnars learn the theatrical art from their counterpart in (Shilot) Sylhet during the day when the trade between the Pnars of the hills and the Bengalese in the plain was at its peak. Since then the Pnars of certain elaka carry on the theatrical tradition, the theatrical festival is also part of the Chad Sukra festival in the village like Mihmyntdu, Khliehtyrchi, Sabah and Tuber. Nongtalang village also still carry this theatrical tradition and in some villages in the War Jaintia the theatre was included as a part of the festival called ‘Rong Khusi.’
The word Bamphalar is a combination of two words; Bam and Phalar and the festivals derived its name from the last part of this festival when the entire community joins together to share community feast. It is a common practice followed by almost all the localities that after the two or three day’s dramatic extravaganza, the locality end the festival with a feast (Bamdoh).
Typical drama stage by any locality also contain usual popular Bollywood blockbuster masala, a bit of gyrating dance, a bit of action and a lot of romance in the air. There are times when the locality would also stage a play on a historical and legendary figure of the community, like that of Kiang Nangbah, Lo Ryndi, Suna Raja and many other legendary figure of the area. To add flavor to the drama some locality spice up the dramas by inserting some comedy scene in the dramas, while some locality has an evening entirely for a comedy show. For the convenient of the local daily labourers, the drama normally started at 8 (eight) o’clock in the evening and goes on till 12 in the midnight.
Bamphalar is not only an opportunity for the local artist to showcase their talent, but it is also a great fund raising event for the locality and the neighborhood uses the fund for variety of welfare programmes of the community. It may also be interesting to know that even though all the actors, dramatist, comedian, dancers and helpers spend their time and energy to present to the audience the best drama that they can, yet they did it all for free. The troupe spend weeks to practice the different dramas but they all did it voluntarily and for the love of their locality and of course the art making a drama. Bamphalar is not only unifying factor of the locality, it is also a great leveler of the community. The comedy I watch few weeks back was organized by the dong Tpep-pale and it has in its list of actors (comedian to be precise), a doctor, an engineer, a peon, a student and other people belonging to other profession, they all took their role seriously irrespective of the position they held in the society.
Now that filmmaking is a thriving business in the District, Bamphalar is becoming an opportunity for the artist to display their talent and it is also like a springboard for budding artist to try their hands in the new medium. It is also noteworthy that Filmmaking in Jaintia hills known as Jollywood has produced more movies than its counterpart in Shillong. This is because the theatrical tradition is already part and parcel of the society and Bamphalar is like a training ground for artist to get into acting.
The scripts of the dramas are wealth of literary treasure of Pnar dialect one wonder what happen to these hundreds of dramas? If each drama is published into a book, Pnar literature would be richer by a minimum of 14 plays a year. Add to the dramas there are also songs that goes to be part of a drama to make it similar to a perfect Bollywood hit. The theatrical festival also generates another secondary art like the art of making paper flowers and painting. Huge screen of approximately 12 by 10 feet in diameter are used to divide the stage as curtain, these shutters were used to divide the act in the play and they are always beautifully painted like murals of famous painters. The paper flowers are used to decorate the stage particularly the romantic scene when the hero and the heroin dance in a particular scene known as ‘chad-kper-syntu.’ A drama is incomplete without ‘chad-kper-syntu’ which literarily translates to dancing in the garden and all the flowers in the garden were handmade.
Earlier; apart from the 7 localities, old dongs of Jowai also took part in the drama festival, dong Tympang Iawmusiang also used to organize Bamphalar, but stopped doing so sometime in the later part of seventies. Nothing is known whether Chutwakhu locality and Lion or Mission Compound organize similar dramatic festival or not, but the other localities of Jowai town are new township which came into being in the later part of the seventies and the earlier part of the eighties hence they have no Bamphalar tradition.
Bamphalar is another tradition that the Pnar has kept since time immemorial and this is one practice that is not only alive and thriving but it is improves and evolves as time goes by. Bamphalar can also be another event that can attract tourist if the concern authority promotes it properly. If the Cannes is for cinema, Bamphalar of Jowai is for dramas (at least in Meghalaya) it only needs proper packaging and product promotion. The Shillong Times 20 June 2011.