The Nautanki Theater was the Indian melting pot of Parsi and Hindu traditions. Now it resumes

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A A form of popular folk theater that combines music, dance, dialogue and storytelling, nautanki originated and became popular in Uttar Pradesh in the 19th century. Nautanki may come from bhagat, a form of dramatized religious song. It also shares similarities with Naqal of Punjab, Tamasha of Maharashtra, khyal by Marvar, maach of Madhya Pradesh and jatra of Bengal.

The etymology of the term is debated; while some scholars suggest the term derives from Sanskrit nataka, meaning “drama”, others suggest it originated from the folklore of Princess Nautanki of Multan, which formed the basis of some of the earliest poems and plays written for this form of theatre. Before the popularity of the Princess Nautanki story lent her name to the form around the 1920s, she was widely called svang (stuffing) and continues to be known by this name in the Hathras and Braj regions of l ‘Uttar Pradesh.

Nautanki is primarily a form of entertainment, with stories and themes largely derived from secular sources, including North Indian legends and folktales; Arabic and Persian novels; folk epics from Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh; stories of saints, kings, heroes and contemporary incidents; and themes of social inequality and gender-based violence.

Hathras and Kanpur became the two main centers of nautanki at the end of the 19th century. The Hathras school grew out of a series of svangs produced in an akhara (a male-dominated space for practicing music, poetry, drama and wrestling) established by the poet Indarman in the 1890s. This style emphasized the emphasis on music, beginning with a dhrupad and incorporating classical Hindustani compositions and songs. During the 1910s, Kanpur became an important center of nautanki, developing a style distinct from Hathras and influenced by the growing popularity of Parsi theater, with the inclusion of a stage and curtains to performances as well as an emphasis on dialogue, expression, staging and scenography.

Nautanki’s performances frequently attracted royal patronage, notably from Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Lucknow (r. 1847-1856). His reign saw an increase in the use of Islamic themes in local theater plot, costume, speech, musical composition and scenery: this is generally attributed to the popularity of the play Indarsabha, written by Agha Hasan Amanat. Urdu terms also began to appear more frequently and stories such as Syahposh, Benazir, Badremunir and Laila Majnun began to be adapted into plays. In Kanpur, the akharas of Lalman Numberdar and Shri Krishan Pahlwan became important centers. Following the social turmoil caused by the Indian Revolt of 1857, the royal patronage of the Nawab ended and nautanki began to grow through the efforts of individuals and troops.


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Nautanki became a commercially viable form from the 1930s, emerging as an important means of anti-colonial assertion through plays such as Manoharlal Shukla’s Rashtriya Saangit Julmi Dayar (1922), which depicted the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; Gandhi Harass (1932) by Lal Babu, who supported civil disobedience; and Balia Balidan of Munindra Nath Goswami, who promoted Hindu-Muslim unity. Another play that emerged during the Quit India movement was Aurat ka Pyaar (1942), which was performed by Tirmohan Lal’s company in Phool Bagh, Kanpur. The play included a scene of a woman slapping a British policeman, which was applauded by the audience and led to anti-British slogans when it was first performed in 1942.

The script for a svang or nautanki performance is known as sangit, which means “music” or “musical drama”. Nautanki employs Hindi poetic conventions such as doha and chaubola and the Urdu prose types of sher, qawwali and ghazal, combined with regional genres such as dadra, thumri, savan, mand and lavani, among others. The music follows a rudimentary raga structure through metrical cycles and rhythmic inflections in repetitions of three known as tihai. A typical nautanki performance alternates between sung verses and instrumental segments that employ nagara (kettle), shahnai (clarinet), and harmonium. The performance begins with a prayer, followed by an introduction of the theme by a sutradhar, which repeated its lines on every corner of the open stage for the audience. The drama would be interspersed with comedic breaks by a “joker” (a term borrowed from the circus).

Nautanki’s troops were made up of artists from diverse backgrounds, castes and different religions. While initially only men were allowed to join nautanki troupes, in the 1920s women began to enter the scene. These actors usually belonged to families or communities of courtesans such as the Kalbeliyas, Bedias and Nats. Natanki actresses became popular in the 1950s and 1960s, with some starting their own businesses. Gulab Bai, a well-known nautanki actor, established the Great Gulab Theater Company; another actor, Krishna Bai, created the Krishna Nautanki Company.

The advent of cinema had a huge impact on nautanki, leading to a decline in public interest in the form. Today it persists in rural areas of Hathras, Mathura, Unnao and Beeghapur in Uttar Pradesh. Interest in nautanki is also gradually increasing in metropolitan cities of India and within the Indian diaspora, with mainstream theater also adapting the genre. Nautanki also had a significant impact on popular music, with labels such as His Master’s Voice (HMV) releasing records of nautanki music sung by Gulab Jan in 1969. Songs composed for nautanki plays have also been used in many famous hindi cinema songs. The form was also featured in drama festivals organized by Andhra Pradesh Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2001 and Delhi Hindi Akademi Nautanki fest in 2004, where Krishna Kumari Mathur and Company performed Amar Singh Rathore. The Great Gulab Theater Company also occasionally performs plays on demand, such as their performance of Sultana Daaku at the India Habitat Center in New Delhi in 2010.

Practitioners such as Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma and Devendra Sharma and directors such as Habib Tanvir, Sarvesh Dayal Saxena, Atul Yaduvanshi and Urmil Kumar Thapliyal have used nautanki techniques in their work. Nautanki performers Shrikrishna Pehelwan and Gulab Bai received Sangeet Natak Akademi awards in 1968 and 1990, respectively. Today nautanki is used as a popular form of social outreach by governmental and non-governmental agencies. Nautanki performances take place at cultural festivals and tourist spots such as the annual Surajkund International Handicrafts Fair, held in Faridabad, Haryana, and are incorporated into collegiate theater productions.

This excerpt is taken from MAP Academy’s “Encyclopedia of Art” with permission.

The MAP Academy is a non-profit online platform – consisting of an encyclopedia, courses and a blog – that encourages knowledge acquisition and engagement with the region’s visual arts.

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