If you are a witness to a full-throated singing that’s close to folk music but also draws heavily from khayal, thumri, ghazal, qawwali and even lavni, and this is supported by the beats of the naqqara and the soft notes of the clarinet, exaggerated theatrics, stagey dialogue delivery, and the infectiously energetic and saucy dance moves, immortalised by cinema as jhatkas and matkas, then you are watching Nautanki, a folk art form which was famously practiced in the Uttar Pradesh.
Theater plays or drama has been a part of the Indian culture for a very long period of time. Theatre Nautanki is also an ancient art form, initially used to make aware, inform or entertain different groups of society. The history of Nautanki goes back to several hundred years. The art form’s origin lies in the folk performance traditions of Bhagat, Swang and Raasleela of Mathura and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, and Khayal of Rajasthan. Uttar Pradesh has been a home to different artistic activities out of which Nautanki is the most popular one. It was the only medium of entertainment in northern India. Musical compositions and entertaining storylines of this art form had a strong influence on people’s imagination.
“The word Nautanki today has become a generic term for cheap entertainment. But it is a complex music system with its own metres like doha, chaubola and behre-e-tabeel, which takes years of learning and listening to master,” says Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, the Nautanki maestro.
Nautanki is basically a combination of folklore and mythological plays mixed with folk songs and dances. Earlier the themes of Nautankis were picked up from mythologies and folk stories of kings, heroes or warriors. Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra and Bhakt Moradhwaj are famous mythological stories of Nautanki, whereas Indal Haran and Puranmal are folk stories. With changing times modern and relevant themes have also been included in Nautanki such as plays based on the daily struggles of life.
The Nautanki usually starts around midnight and ends with the first daylight. A commonly used musical instrument is the nagada and it is played after each segment or scene is over. Sarangi, dholak and harmonium are also used sometimes for additional music and rhythm.
Hathras and Mathura in western Uttar Pradesh and Kanpur and Lucknow in central Uttar Pradesh became the two biggest centres of Nautanki performance in the 19th century. The Hathras School developed first, and performances by its artists in central Uttar Pradesh stimulated the development of the Kanpur-Lucknow School of Nautanki. With respect to their performative form and technique, both were different. While the Hathrasi School emphasizes on singing more, the Kanpuri School centres more on prose-filled dialogues mixed with singing. This became very famous in pre-independent India as a medium to spread awareness about the freedom struggle.
Nautanki, from the very start, has been a family business and those who continued it continued for generations. In recent times, Nautanki is losing its popularity due to the invasion of Cinema and lack of recognition from the modern theatre establishments. Some artists are still trying hard to keep Nautanki as it was once, the most powerful medium to appeal the masses in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Despite the fact that radio, television and the digital world has captured the audiences but for the rural folk of UP and Bihar, Nautanki is still an entertaining medium. Where the social media is not able to reach out to every nook and corner of the hinterlands of the country, where the politicians have used nautanki as the powerful medium to spread their election agenda.
“Even after the rapid expansion of mass media such as television and radio, a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people can easily gather at Nautanki performances for each show. So in these remote villages like Haldu Khata, a village near Bijnor District, UP, Nautanki is the only powerful tool used as election campaigning here,” says MurlidharJha, a public relations expert for political campaigns.
In the last 40 years, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma and his son Dr Devendra Sharma have written many new themes for Nautankis. These Nautankis are focused on social messages. Nautanki has evolved according to the needs of the masses of India but one thing that never changed is that Nautanki always stayed secular and open-minded.
Today, Nautanki is experiencing a dialectical tension. On one hand, it still holds an important place in people’s imagination, and on the other, it is struggling to deal with changing audience aspirations as cinema and television have taken over. If Nautanki is to survive (if not thrive), they need opportunities to adapt to a changing context.
Abhijeet Mukesh is the founder of Lakshyajeet Theatre Group and a researcher in folk theatre.