The National School of Drama Repertory presented a touching Nautanki production

A heart-rending love story told through songs set to semi-classical ragas of Hindustani music rendered by actor-singers offered a thrilling theatrical experience. The event was the staging of “Nautanki: Laila Majnu” by the National School of Drama Repertory Company at Abhimanch auditorium this past week. Remarkable for its slickness, the opera contains no dialogue, no superficial dance sequences and no melodrama.

The music score, design and direction is by Anil Chaudhary, an NSD graduate, now based in Mumbai. As a youngster, he was exposed to performances of Nautanki in his hometown, Mathura, which ran about eight hours. Nautanki has a rich and varied repertoire. “Laila Majnu” is one of the popular plays of the repertoire. The original script was written by Natha Ram Gaur more than 60 years ago.

Nautanki, the traditional theatre form, is an important reservoir of creative energy. With the changed socio-economic situation, the form is now on the verge of extinction. Serious theatre practitioners are trying to preserve this art in two ways — to use its vibrant form with fresh content to reflect contemporary sensibility or to prune the original that contains crude elements to be in tune with aesthetic tastes of the urban modern audience. Anil has followed the second method.

There are two schools of Nautanki — Hathras and Kanpur. The Hathras school is famous for its strong base of classical music while the Kanpur school is known for its emphasis on dialogue and melodrama. Anil has followed the Hathras style. So music is the soul of this opera. Choreography is by Kathak guru Munna Shukla. There is not much scope for choreography in this opera. However, Guru Munna’s signature as a fine choreographer is evident in the opening invocatory sequence as well as the belly-dance sequence in the marriage celebration scene which is full of vigour, exuding a sense of joie de vivre.

Orchestra is a vital element in the staging of Nautanki which comprises mainly nakkara, dholak and harmonium. Here in this production the orchestra is played by a traditional Nautanki group from Bharatpur headed by Guru Kishan Swaroop Pachouri. The instrumental music evokes the right mood and heightens dramatic conflict. The instruments are placed upstage on a raised platform in the shape of a nakkara.

The set is imaginatively designed by Robin Das, a senior faculty member of NSD. It has multilevel platforms, stairs, ramps and a balcony. There are several exit and entry points which enable the shifting of locales from one place to another rhythmically. The use of properties is minimal. The chorus consists of three female singers who keep on changing position from one locale to another to carry forward the storyline. The balcony is used in scenes where Laila watches Majnu wandering the streets, searching for his beloved Laila as if he were in a delirium. The sparing use of multimedia projects the vastness of the desert as a backdrop against which the tragic story is unfolded.

As a horse rider tells Majnu about the marriage of Laila to a noble living in Dilli, Majnu follows the rider. Both the rider and Majnu come down from the stage and pass through the auditorium making the interaction between the audience and performer intimate. The sword-fighting scene is enacted with finesse.

Though the performers are not trained singers, they are able to impress the audience with their singing. Anamika, Bharti and Kamini Dubey as members of the chorus sing beautifully, narrating to the audience the doomed fate of the lovers. Ipshita Chakraborty as Laila and Ashutosh Mishra as Majnu are fine singers and sensitive performers who create tragic portraits of true lovers. The audience deeply empathises with them. Ajit Singh Palawat as Laila’s cruel and stubborn father, Naveen Singh Thakur as Majnu’s worried father and Anoop Trivedi as Naufil who fights for the cause of Majnu bring their characters alive. Savitha B. Sajida as the maid imparts comic sparkle to her scene.