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Short on laughs
For decades, Hindi satirists had managed to keep audiences in splits. They could trigger loud guffaws on issues ranging from romance and politics to matrimony and education. The '80s and '90s were the heyday of Hindi satire - it was on television, on radio and at open forums, drawing full houses. The genre actually managed to create stars like the much-loved Surendra Sharma, with his hangdog expression and perpetual state of victimhood. But at the turn of the century, the jokes began falling flat. Hasya kavita had turned a tragic corner.
The reasons are many. By the turn of the century, the Hindi hall of fame lost some of its brightest satirists - Kaka Hathrasi, Sharad Joshi and Shail Chaturvedi, to name a few. K P Saxena and Hullad Moradabadi quit the field for personal reasons.
Doordarshan, which nurtured many of these talents, lost its clout to satellite television. As TV viewership soared, the audience for live hasya kavi sammelans plummeted.
In laughter shows that now dominate many entertainment channels, wit has been replaced by crass humour and canned laughter. If Hindi satire managed to survive it was because of the efforts of old stalwarts such as Ashok Chakradhar, Surendra Sharma, Sarvesh Asthana and Surya Kumar Pandey. Chakradhar smartly uses the internet, the blogosphere and social media to collar the attention of the young.
Most contemporary hasya kavis are critical of TV laughter shows and their so-called humour poetry for being short on taste and finesse. These simply cannot compete with live poetry recitations, they say. "These shows are a mere bundle of mimicry and jokes;devoid of grace and literature, " says Surya Kumar Pandey.
K P Saxena, who quit the stage in 2000, says kavi sammelans have become 'gimmick sammelans'. Poets make jokes and perform antics, which were never considered good form in a hasya kavi sammelan. Ashok Chakradhar who has a large fan following for his understated humour, says a part of the blame has to be shared by the humourists themselves. They stopped writing fresh stuff, he says. "The audiences got bored and started drifting away, " says Chakradhar. Another reason, he says, is that the media no longer focuses on these performances. "Till the time national media, particularly Doordarshan, evinced interest in hasya kavi, they remained popular, " adds Chakradhar, who successfully hosted shows like Phuljhari and Wah Wah on TV.
Hindi humourists always have had the knack of striking a chord with aam aadmi mostly because of their ability to tap the pulse of the generation. Take for instance the lyrical crack made by satirist Sarvesh Asthana about the state of the nation. "Ab kul milakar hamare bete hain chaar - sadachar, shishtachar, atyachar aur bhrashtachar. Sadachar ro raha hai, shishtachar so raha hai, atyachar hai balwan aur bhrastachar hai mahaan (Now we have four sons - ethics, etiquette, atrocity and corruption. Ethics weeps, etiquette sleeps, atrocity is strong and corruption is great). " The common man, a hapless creature of circumstance who could do little to change his world, loved this kind of poetry. It did two things - it told the truth like it is, and did so with humour.
There was a time when satire was recognised as a distinct and difficult art. This was when giants like Kaka Hathrasi ruled the scene. Kaka was such a giant in his field that the Hindi Academy instituted an award in his name. A radio programme called Meethi Meethi Hasiyan that Kaka hosted ran for over a decade.
What really clicks in a good hasya kavi sammelan, says Saxena, is good composition and an effective style of recitation. "The former needs command over literature and the latter calls for originality. If either is missing, people will leave their seats, " he says. Saxena points out that poets such as Kaka Hathrasi, Sharad Joshi, Omprakash Aditya and Shail Chaturvedi were gifted with both these qualities for which they are still remembered by their fans.
Surendra Sharma agrees with this decline in talent. He had became a Doordarshan heartthrob for both his distinct style and content. His trademark look - a woebegone face - and the 'chaar lainan' about his many trials and tribulations as a householder and the tyrannies of his gharwali (wife) kept viewers in splits. In fact, his fans didn't really need to hear him, the sight of his long-suffering face was enough to tickle their funnybone. Says Sharma, "The onus is on the writers. The public does not have any choice, it's up to writers to innovate and offer new compositions. " He rues that in these competitive times and a tough battle for eyeballs, both organisers and poets have turned to buffoonery for survival.
But some old-timers are optimistic. "Everything in life goes through a cycle of ups and downs, the same applies to Hindi poetry, " says Chakradhar, who was a professor in the Hindi department at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. He, though, wants the youth to be connected with Hindi humour. "There was a time when kavi sammelans were regularly organised in the colleges. Now they have been replaced with rock bands. It's important to draw youngsters, " adds the ace wordsmith. While Surendra Sharma says he is no reformer, he is hopeful of a revival. "A time will come when people will get bored with laughter shows and return to hasya kavi. The audience, even abroad, has not lost the taste for good poetry, " Sharma says confidently.
To woo back youngsters, Sarvesh Asthana has been running the 'Poetry to School' campaign in Uttar Pradesh for two years. Under this project, kavi sammelans, featuring reputed poets, are being hosted in schools. Asthana says the response is so heartwarming that he is encouraged to take the show to other states.
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