On Makar Sankranti, scores of Nautanki lovers head to a town in U.P. to celebrate the birth anniversary of Nathaaram Gaur

As the sunlight peeled away the blanket of mist on a cold January morning, nakkara drumbeats vibrated through the nondescript town of Hathras. This was the centre from where Nautanki, to which the nakkara is indispensible, traversed the Yamuna-Ganga belt, multiplying and diversifying itself, while leaving its imprint in the hearts of the millions who reside in this vast expanse. Essentially a narrative set to music, Nautanki has its origins in Swang, a rustic improvised performance that incorporated singing and storytelling. The credit for evolving a distinct performative style of Nautanki goes to Nathaaram Gaur, whose 139th birth anniversary was celebrated on Makar Sankranti in Hathras.

It was a simple affair and the usual fanfare that is so characteristic of such occasions was conspicuous by its absence. No politician graced the occasion. Hence, there were no speeches or rhetoric about the moral significance of the event. It would have been superfluous, as the family keeps an open house on this day and people who wish to remember him come largely on their own initiative. This could imply actors from as far as Mumbai, Allahabad, Delhi and Mathura, and some from the city itself. Most of the tributes were in the nature of verse, a lot of it was extempore — not necessarily always about the man, but dedicated to him and his memory.

Each bit was a performance and thus most appropriate, for Nathaaram himself is reputed to have been a vibrant and charismatic actor. His troupe travelled to Karachi and Male and it is commonly accepted that it was his regular presence in Kanpur that provoked the city to innovate and create its own version of Nautanki. However, his most significant contribution is that he created the narratives and musical framework of over 200 texts that have been performed innumerable times for over a century. “Laila Majnu”, which was recently produced by the National School of Drama repertory company, was based on the original script by Nathaaram, as was “Bhakt Puranmal”, which was brought to the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi by veteran actor Krishna Mathur of Firozabad. The family gets to know of these happenings from newspaper reviews. Of the other performances that percolate in this region, there is no record though Natharaam’s writing forms the backbone of the work of most Nautanki groups in this region. And thus like the stars in the sky, keeping count of the shows would be impossible. In this cultural terrain there never have been issues of copyright or expectation of royalty. The printing press that had been set up to provide the texts at nominal cost has taken note of the recent drop in sales and has moved on to other projects. Most are passed on orally by senior actors to their juniors. Interestingly, many actors may not have gone to school, yet they remember many plays and can recite them offhand. They can take on any role from the popular texts at an hour’s notice.

The Hathras Nautanki is known for the nuanced and elaborate singing of its actors, and yet the actor feels indebted to the word of the playwright, as that is the source of inspiration for the music to take form. The word is indicative of a moment, and its mood and intensity then flourishes through the actor’s voice. The metre of the writing also defines the rhythm and basic tune. This guides the actor as he/she explores an individual style. It was this relationship that had brought many actors to be part of this gathering.

Chunnilal, who is almost a hundred years old, arrived fairly early. He is probably the only actor who can boast of having worked directly with Nathaaram. He has performed Nautanki at its peak. Famous for his lucidity and command of language, Chunnilal now lives in a dingy house in the bylanes of Hathras. For months he has not received the pension due to him. His health too needs care, which with the scarce means at his disposal is not easy. “I was a kid singing on my own when I was picked up for the stage,” he recalled. He contains the experience of a century within him which deserves to be acknowledged. Though frail, he made it to his mentor’s house, “for this threshold has given me a lot.”

The gratitude is mutual, as is the bond between playwright and actor. Perhaps that is why each year an actor is honoured in memory of Nathaaram. It is the actor that gives life to the playwright’s word, it is his creativity that stretches a legacy into a zone greater than the finite existence of a writer alone. The award for 2013 was given to Hotilal, an actor of great composure and promise. His full-throated voice evokes both emotion and admiration. He saw Nautanki and was drawn to it. He knows that an actor gets very little to live by, but “as the heart refuses to be anywhere else,” the choice was made for him. His decision ensures the longevity of the form and practice of Nautanki. On his own he has mastered 22 texts; he played an important role in “Bhakt Puranmal” and in “Satyavan Savitri” that was played in a courtyard that day.

The artistes came by bus and within minutes were ready for the show. Some of them had not rehearsed together earlier, but were ready with individual parts. Most were middle-aged. The music was flawless, and the impromptu acting gave an edginess bordering the rawness of a game. The audience sifted between the extremes and remained connected to the music.

The vigour and energy of the actors was infectious. It is indeed astonishing that without much financial support or facility for rehearsals they manage to put together a show. Despite hardships, they have kept Nautanki alive. The sheer survival of this performing tradition in the midst of adversity is a celebration of its innate strength and vitality. The performance then is both a tribute to the past and an experiment in the present. By its very nature it cannot claim posterity. And yet there is no reason for it to be devoid of a future.

(The author is a noted theatre director and teaches at the National School of Drama)