Lok Natya Samaroh brought to the urban audience the folk forms of Nautanki, Nacha and Bidesiya

The diverse and myriad folk theatre forms produced by the collective genius of the Indian people are a reservoir of creative energy. These forms have inspired pioneers like Habib Tanvir, Bhanu Bharti and Bansi Kaul, who synthesised these forms with modern theatrical technique to evolve an idiom for Indian theatre. The four-day Lok Natya Samaroh organised by Sahitya Kala Parishad, Delhi, at Shri Ram Centre in the Capital last week afforded theatre lovers the joy of watching three folk forms remarkable for their vigour and vitality. The tremendous response of the audience to these forms — Nautanki, Nacha and Bidesiya — showed the urban audience’s fascination for the folk culture of different regions.

The festival ended with the presentation of Bhikari Thakur’s “Beti Bechwa” in Bhojpuri. Known as the ‘Shakespeare of Bhojpuri’, Bhikari was a poet, singer and actor who could captivate thousands of villagers through the night. The style of presentation he evolved for his kind of theatre came to be known as Bidesiya. He exposed social evils and focused on the plight of women who were left behind to struggle for survival by their husbands who had to migrate to cities in search of livelihood. To him migration was the root of misery. That’s the reason his style became popular as Bidesiya.

Satish Anand worked in Bihar for years to adapt this form to the modern theatrical idiom. Sanjay Upadhyay further explored the vitality of this form.

The play was presented by Qutubpur Bhikhari Thakur under the direction of Ram Das Rahi. The professional troupe is based in Bhikari’s village and the performers have worked under the direction of Bhikari Thakur, who died in 1971. “Beti Bechwa” brought to the fore the agony of a little girl who is sold by her parents in a marriage to a man much older than her father. It began with the entire group singing in ballad style. It had melodrama, comedy and a strong element of poetry rendered by the actor-singers in a high pitch. Pathos was the dominant mood. The lamentation of the little girl expressed through music was heart-rending. True to its folk character, the female roles were played by the male cast.

The stories by Vijaydan Detha, an immensely popular folk story writer of Rajasthan, have been fascinating stage directors. Recently Ranjit Kapur adapted and directed a few of his stories for the Repertory Company of National School of Drama. Yogendra Chaube, an NSD graduate based in Chattisgarh, brought to this festival another story of Detha, titled “Pakhandi Baba”, presenting it in the Nacha style. It was an experimental theatrical piece aimed at conveying a contemporary sensibility through the dynamic folk form. While retaining the earthy humour and dynamic flow of action of the original, the director indicted the existing political class. The basic theme was about a cunning young man who manages to fool the people and declares himself a saint. Emboldened by the unprecedented success of his roguery, he decides to join the ranks of politicians to amass money.

Director Jamil Khan is a professional artist. For three generations his family has been nurturing Nautanki, a most popular folk form of Uttar Pradesh, and his son is continuing in this form as an actor, a young flag-bearer of the Nautanki. Jamil Khan and Party presented at the festival “Pukar”, which highlights the moral authority of emperor Jahangir as the upholder of justice. A blend of fiction and fact, the dramatic conflict in the play is caused by family feuds of the Rajput clan working at the court of Jahangir. Two murders are committed by a young Rajput in self-defence. Since the accused cannot defend himself Jahangir passes the death sentence to be true to his sense of justice. He rejects the mercy appeal by the father of the convict. The empress also joins the parents to appeal to the emperor once again. There are twists and turns to the climactic scene.

However it was the music that thrilled the audience. It followed the Hathras school of Nautanki with its emphasis on classical music. The forceful dialogue in Urdu was another attraction. Some dialogues appeared to have been borrowed from Aga Hshr Kashmiri’s “Yahudi Ki Beti” for greater effect.

This is theatre that could form the basis of a truly modern Indian opera. The director claimed that the script was written 100 years ago by Yaseen Sahab. Munna Khan in the role of Jahangir, Tahira Bano as empress Nurjahan and Ghulam Ahmed as the father of the convict gave a brilliant account of themselves as actors as well as singers.

Adapted by Mudrarakshas from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector”, “Ala Afsar” in the Nautanki style was the opening piece of the festival. The Nautanki belonged to the Kanpur school, which differs from the Hathras school, in terms of the ragas used in the music score. “Ala Afsar” is a popular comedy on the Hindi stage and is presented in different styles. The present version under review was directed by Atamjeet Singh for Vinod Rastogi Smriti Sanstahan, Allahabad. Earlier, the script was staged in Bhopal under the direction of Bansi Kaul in 1977 and subsequently brought to Delhi, where Mudrarakshas also played one of the cameo roles. Director Atamjeet Singh was also associated with Kaul’s production, and in his production he tried to capture the comic rhythm of the earlier production and the beauty of its music score.

The play was a powerful comic expose of corruption that prevails among the state functionaries while the poor keep on rotting in miseries and privations. Written in 1836, the play mirrored the corrupt society in Russia. The comedy, though, has striking relevance to present day India sinking deeper in the morass of corruption. Two performers — Ajay Mukherjee as the cunning young man impersonating the government inspector, and Abhilash Narayan as the corrupt chairman of the town who heads the corrupt administrative machinery — made the production lively and entertaining.