Bhavai is as much a form of entertainment as it is a kind of ritual offering made to the goddess Amba. According to scholars, the term Bhavai is composed of two words – Bhava and Aai. Bhava means universe and Aai is mother; together they signify the mother of the universe, Amba. Another interesting definition comes from the fact that the three letters of Bha-va-I symbolize the Past, Present and Future. Thus, through Bhavai the performers try to interpret the present based on learning from the past while depicting future scenarios.
When the Bhavai theatre came down to the village square from the temples, it became a highly popular form of entertainment for the rural communities. The looseness of the structure of the Bhavai gives tremendous latitude to the performers to improvise situations and dialogues incorporating materials from current events and literature. A Bhavai performance at any particular time tends to become a mirror of the prevailing society. A particular incident is transformed into a Vesha. As the performance goes on improvising according to the age and audience, the Vesha continues expanding and transforming itself. Thus, the Bhavai, over and above being a religious offering and a theatre activity for entertainment, is also a medium for transmitting information from village to village.
In the fourteenth century, a Brahman, Asaita Thakar, who was a kathakara (narrator of Puranic stories, familiar with dance and music), began writing plays with prose dialogue. He is said to have written 360 scripts called vesha literally meaning `dress`. In later days it came to be known as Bhavai, and plays similar to the ones he wrote came to be performed.
Bhavai is mainly performed by the Targala community also known as Bhavaya; they hail from both the Hindu and Muslim communities. Three clans – Janoya, Maratha and Turki – exist among them, of which Janoyas are Hindu Bhavayas while Marathas and Turkis are Muslim Bhavayas.
Bhavai troupes travel in small groups of 15-20 from one place to another to perform. The leader of the group is known as Nayak. Bhavai plays in Gujarat also convey social messages that reflect on social stigmas like injustice, caste differences or any topic of concern, through the medium of humour.
Famous twentieth century Bhavai entertainers included Muljibhai Nayak, Pransukh Nayak and Chimanlal Naik. Two pioneering endeavors also acquired all India fame – (i) Rasiklal Parikh`s Menu Gurjari (i.e. Mena of Gujarat) in 1953, which used elements of Bhavai dance and music; and C. C. Mehta`s Hoholika in 1956, which incorporated typical Bhavai clow