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 havent 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 Fazls 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
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 peoples 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
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,
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 Saxenas
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.