It is nearly a truism that Mithila, the Maithili speaking region in Bihar, embodies a rich cultural tradition in Bihar. A lot of platitudes, and thereof pride and prejudices, determines the contemporary Maithili conscience. This is not an eccentricity for a cultural region. For, the drum beat of proud supremacy is heard in every cultural part of the Indian whole. The need of the hour is however to run the cultural performances through litmus test and diagnose it ruthlessly, else cultural body will fester and decay with cancerous germs of corruption. In this context, it is but natural to cast a critical glance on the Maithili culture in Bihar. It is very much normal to seek for a fair representation of the cultural richness in a festival, which claims to celebrate Maithili culture. The Ministry of Tourism of the Government of Bihar sponsored a cultural festival ‘Ugratara Sanskritik Mahotsav’ on 6 and 7 October, 2013, at a village Mahishi in the district of Saharsa. Mahishi, along with other villages in the vicinity such as Chainpur, Kandaha and Bangaon, are renowned for historical significance. These cluster of villages are on the map of the archeological survey of India with statues and remains pertaining to the Pala dynasty. However, Mahishi excels in history and mythology owing to the presence of the deity Ugratara, a goddess whose existence blends Hindu and Bauddha dharma. The village is often perceived in association with the renowned Mimansa scholar Mandan Mishra. It is believed that Pundit Mandan Mishra and the propounder of Advaitism Shankar had a debate in Mahishi which confirmed the validity of the philosophy of non-dualism. Besides, Mahishi is home of rich folklore, cultural and social manifestation of the Vaidik and Tantrik traditions. Given the rich posterity of Mahishi, the first ever cultural and intellectual celebration took place in 1970. Intellectually active local youth, scholars, and lay residents strived to resume the annual cultural celebration to highlight the heritage embedded in Mahishi. After a long trail of persuasion, the Government of Bihar agreed to sponsor the annual cultural celebration in 2012. The Ugratara Trust is supposed to receive a grant from the government through the local district administration to organize the festival. The Trust is involved only for the namesake and most of the budgetary expenses are managed by the local administration with excessive involvement of the district secretariat. The 2013 episode of the festival was a grand success like the one last year according to the official assessment as well as the proactive youth leaders of Mahishi. However, there are issues emerging from the festival, which warrant timely attention.
The author of this article was an eyewitness to an unfolding evidence of irony in the face of Maithili cultural pride on 7 October, the first day of the Ugratara Sanskritik Mahotsav- 2013. The inaugural ceremony of the festival was unabashedly an irritating theater of politics by the representatives of the incumbent government. The overdose of politics on the stage was shamelessly disclosed in a long drawn and deadening political ritual. A large number of khadi-clad politicians, including a Member of Parliament, a cabinet minister, a huge number of insignificant cadres, along with the district administrators, on the stage had nothing to relate to the cultural festival. Except stating a hyperbole- this government is the only protector of the cultural pride, whatever that means, of Mithila! Each after the other popped up to name the same string of the people present on the stage, and since they were many on the stage the very act of naming took fifteen minutes every time. After parroting the names each said- thank you for being the savior of Maithili cultural pride! One wished they had an iota of imagination in making their politics a little subtle and nuanced. An anchor by mistake, as she seemed to have reached a cultural festival though she was planning to go for a television serial audition, was jarring in her Hindi pronunciation and baffling with innumerable names. None tried speaking in Maithili language in a festival, which claims to promote and celebrate Maithili culture. The district administrators seemed to please their political bosses for known and unknown reasons. The four-hour long inauguration ended with a promise of a cultural program in the evening on the same day. The key attraction of the evening performance was a popular entertainer Kalpana Patwari. The evening performance had audience reveling to the peppy jigs of Kalpana which included a few new-age bhajan such as ‘hey ganesh ke papa’ and many lewd songs in Bhojpuri for which Kalpana is notorious in Bihar. Ironically enough, the event in the heart of Mithila, for ‘Maithili cultural pride’, had no interest in Maithili songs whatsoever. The political leadership, district administrators, and influential local folks sat in the front row and sent money on each performance of Kalpana. It did seem to be only a slightly modified version of the feudal entertainment by courtesans for power to be. Maithili culture was conspicuous by absence in the cultural festival of Mithila.
Upon empathetic enquiry the author of this article arrived at a biting realization. The festival is thoroughly controlled by the district administration to implement the bare minimum design of the Government of Bihar. The local class of intellectuals and youth activists from Mahishi have little say in the decision making process. There has been a unanimous concern about the way Government of Bihar sanctions fund for the cultural festival, to be organized in close consultation with the Ugratara Trust and the interested locals. But then, year after year the district administration has been unilateral in making several decisions at odds with the local aspirations. The administration took a conscious decision to allow the inaugural function to be a naked political show, and to reduce the cultural program into a veritable live show of television based lewd-and-loud program. It makes the program popular, opined an official. On the other hand, some of the local activists have also indicated that in the background of the culturally impoverished ‘cultural festival’ there is also a possibility of corrupt malpractices. The administration must have embezzled fund in the name of the festival, suggested a youth activist in Mahishi. Nobody really knows as to how much was spent and in what account! There is no documentation of the festival of the bygone year; there won’t possibly be one for this year either. It is quite for the convenience of the district official to have the event non-documented. For, a documented event will become a vivid site of contestation. The district administration is intolerant to any kind of youthful questioning and has also threatened- if there are critical voices, the Government of Bihar will not release fund for the event anymore.
Amid the vulgar politics of heritage in Mithila there lies a throbbing culture of the ordinary folks. It is visible in Mahishi too where children learn to recite mellifluously the ‘Vedic richas’, where green foliage hum in tune with the wind coming from the Koshi river, where a syncretic religious life weakens the caste hierarchy. The culture of Mahishi is beyond the politics of heritage, and thus it is an invitation to a visitor for a foray into the realm of ideals.