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Nautanki - An Art Form

There was a princes in Punjab called Nautanki whose beauty was talked of far and wide. A young man, Phool Singh, knocking persistently at the door of her home, was taunted by his sister-in-law, “You haven’t wed the princess that you are in such a hurry.” Offended, Phool Singh took up the challenge and with the help of her gardener, he married Princess Nautanki and brought her home. This tale forms the content of a popular folk theatre of northern India – Nautanki, named after the princess.

Some people are of the opinion that the Nautanki originated in Pubjab but there is no trace of the Punjabi language in this folk theatre, which is Hindustani. It is difficult to trace the history of a dynamic art form like Nautanki, which has developed according to the changing needs of the large masses of people who live in the villages of north India. There are references to the Bhagativyas (very similar to Nautanki) in Abul Fazl’s Ain-I-Akbari, the biography of Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. But it is almost certain that the Nautanki has been entertaining the lower and middle classes for many hundred years spelling doom for the Sanskrit theatre. And that too without court patronage.

The two main places where Nautanki took root and grew are Hathras and Kanpur. Two schools of this musical drama came to be established here. While the content of the dramas and the meter of the stanzas is more of less similar the musical quality and quantity of the Hathras school is far superior to that of the Kanpur school, where the emphasis is on dramatic dialogues and gestures. Like Ramleela, Nautanki performance begins around midnight and carries on till daybreak.

Nautanki is also called Bhagat but there is a slight difference between the two. As the name suggests, Bhagat has a religious base and is performed by resident members of an akhada (gymnasium) under the guidance of a guru. The lighting of a lamp to the goddess is followed by Ganesh worship. The Vandana or invocation in Nautanki is merely a convention. The players just remove their shoes and begin the show. The Bhagat akhadas depend onwards from patrons, while the Nautanki is a commercial venture and employs paid actors and actresses.

After the 1857 army revolt against the British, the then government made use of the masss appeal of the Bhagat by bribing the gurus to write salacious dramas to divert the people’s minds from revolutionary and patriotic activities. Bhagwati Prasad of Mathura it is said was paid Rs. 10000/- for writing a lewd love story, Sabspari. Other Bhagat akhadas began to write and perform such plays, and gradually the Bhagat remained religious only in name. According to some people, Nautanki is the commercialized offspring of the Bhagat. The Bhagat akhadas of Mathura and Agara perform the same plays as the Nautanki mandlis, (group) but organizationally they retain their non-commercial and residential base.

Nautanki is staged in courtyards and maidans. The music is not exactly classical or even folk but has a pattern of its own, which does not vary much from drama to drama. The poetry is written in various metrical patterns and sung according to a special convention. The prominent musical instrument is the nagada (a single-faced kettle drum) which, in fact heralds a Nautanki performance. The sarangi and harmonium are also used. The dholak (drum) provides the rhythm.

The basic verse pattern is divided into three portions. The first is doha which is sung free, without a beat; the second is choubola which forms the main stanza, and last of all is daur or chalti or udhan, and as the name signifies, it is sung at a great speed, which becomes very slow at the end. The nagada is played after each portion. There are various ways in which these are sung, depending on the school of Nautanki and the proficiency of the singer. Some innovations are often made, like the introduction of a short verse called kada between the three stanzas. Other metrical patterns popularly used are behartabeel, sauratha, alha, lavani, jhoolna, dadra, gazal, qawali, and of late, film tunes. The lavani and jhoolna singers have their own akhadas at Khurja in Uttar Pradesh.

The fame and popularity of the Nautanki artiste depends on thepower of his voice, the meanings he can draw out from the written verse, and the expressions he can give to it.

The language in which the Nautanki is written is Hindustani with a spattering of the dialect of the area in which it is played. While the Braj Nautankis are mostly in verse, the Kanpur ones have Urdu poetry and plenty of straight prose dialogue. The Nautanki contains certain aspects of the Sanskrit theatre, both in the choice of stories and in the sequence wise unraveling of the plot. The effect of the Parsi theatre is also visible in the style of enactment, particularly in the Kanpur school.

The Nautanki writer is not bound by any limitations of time and space. His imagination crosses the barriers of recognizable reality, and creates insights into relations in possible realities within the boundaries of a unified theatrical truth. The story and incidents are presented in a familiar suggestive idiom, so that a direct contact with the audience can be established. Music is also used to discover and expose various layers of meaning and provide a new dimension to theatrical reality. Satire, an important element of Nautanki, is also used for the same purpose.

Over the years, Nautanki has absorbed a number of influences, from the Parsi theatre to films. A certain raw earthiness is a natural ingredient of this folk art.

Most of the Nautanki artistes belong to families who have been in the profession for generations. They are largely illiterate, though a number of professional singers have also joined Nautanki mandlis. A recent attempt made by the Braj Lok Manch is quite promising. Under the guidance of Shri Radheysham ‘Pragalbh’, a determined effort was made to eradicate the practice of announcing awards to Nautanki singers during a performance. In a recent shoe at Ballabhgarh the actors were able to hold the audience by the sheer power of their singing and acting.

The formal elements of Nautanki – dance, music, unlimited scope for improvisation etc. are today being explored for their relevance in contemporary themes. This search for a contemporary theatre in living traditions is a national movement which began to gain momentum a decade and a half ago with important plays written in Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, Manipuri etc.

Unlike many traditional theatre forms, Nautanki has always been an open and secular dramatic form. Whilst many directors are using the form to create theatre, playwrights are writing in the idiom. One of the most successful Nautanki plays written in recent times in Sarweshwar Dayal Saxena’s Bakri (goat). A blistering social satire, theplay has been performed hundreds of times all over the country in the original Hindi and in translation.

Today, the nagada beats in a different cultural ethos but it still pulsates with vibrancy. For Nautanki did not have to be ‘resurrected’. It was always there, waxing and waning, waiting to be given its due place in Indian theatre.