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Meet all the king’s men in Prahllad Natak

A more than 100-year-old theatre tradition called Prahllad Natak will die out unless the government steps in and keeps it going

July 08, 2021 10:37 pm | Updated 10:37 pm IST

A scene from Prahllad Natak

A scene from Prahllad Natak

Like its protagonist Prahlad, after whom the theatre tradition is known today, Prahllad Natak was saved from extinction because of a timely intervention more than a century ago. The stories of the survival of Prahlad and Prahllad Natak seem to be curiously similar.

Raja Ramakrishna Chottaray, the last king of Jalantar, a small princely state on the Odisha-Andhra border, was instrumental in the creation of Prahllad Natak, which is locally known as Raja Nata (the dance of the king). It is a unique confluence of elements of Indian classical and folk theatre traditions like Yakshagana of Karnataka or Ankia Bhaona of Assam.

The play that revolves round the story of demon-king Hiranyakashipu, his son Prahlad and Narasimha, the half-lion and half-man incarnation of Vishnu, was written by Gourahari Parichha, a prominent court poet and musician, at the insistence of Raja Ramakrishna.

The king, who ruled for 48 years, was a passionate connoisseur of literature, theatre, music and dance. He played the lead character of Hiranyakashipu himself besides involving his family and associates in the performances. He spent so much wealth on art and culture that he had no money to pay taxes to the British Empire. His kingdom was sold by the British to the King of Vizianagaram in 1905, which brought an end to the dynasty and its theatre tradition.

However, the people of Jalantar decided to keep it alive. For them, it was their pride and cultural identity. They called it Raja Nata, a play about and by a raja. In the process of moving from the royal court to the street, the theatre tradition lost its grandeur and classicality. But it has survived as the most popular folk art tradition of South Odisha till today. It has also got recognition from Sangeet Natak Akademi.

The original manuscript of Prahllad Natak was traced in 1938 and it is preserved at the Madras Oriental Manuscript Library. In the 1980s, John Emigh, a professor from the U.S., researched and documented this art form and brought it to the notice of the world, following which Indian Council for Cultural Relations came forward to present its performances in a number of countries.

Though described as a folk form, Prahllad Natak has plenty of classical elements. It uses 35 ragas, eight talas, 42 Sanskrit slokas and 126 compositions in Odia. Interestingly, it has both a Sutradhar and a Gahak — the chief singer who is also the anchor — following the classical and folk theatre traditions.

The play has 20 male and five female characters. The female roles are, however, performed by men. The play is staged at local fairs and during festivals. Besides, the troupes are also invited to perform at marriages, births and deaths.

Prahallad Natak is performed outdoors. A seven-stepped platform called mancha is erected atop which sits King Hiranyakashipu on a throne. His ministers and officials sit on the steps as per descending order of their ranks. The space in front of the king is converted into his court, where the scenes from the play are enacted. The spectators sit in front of the pedestal to appear as if they are seated in the royal court. The pillar from which Narasimha will emerge in the final scene to kill the demon is placed at the farthest end of the performing space.

Originally, Prahallad Natak was spread over seven nights, but later cut short to three nights. Now, it is an overnight performance at villages in the Ganjam region (where it was established) and a two-hour presentation in auditoriums.

Though the costume and make-up bear some striking resemblances to Kathakali and Yakshagana, it is the mask of Narasimha, who signifies the victory of truth over evil, that is of immense significance to both the practitioners and patrons of Prahllad Natak. So much so that Nrusimha mandirs have been established in several villages to preserve the mask. The oldest mask, believed to be as old as Prahllad Natak itself, is worshipped in one such temple at Sukunda near Berhampur.

Despite support from the people, this unique folk theatre is struggling to survive, since the new generation does not seem eager to take it up, given the poor remuneration.

Says octogenarian exponent Krushna Chandra Sahoo, who is a Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee and has travelled abroad many times to perform, “My father was known as the king of Raja Nata (he played the role of Hiranyakashipu) and I used to play Prahlad till the age of 18. I played the king thereafter for several decades. My father earned ₹3 for each performance while I got ₹12. It was very difficult to meet family expenses, yet we never gave up. But my son refuses to join the theatre group. The tradition seems to be dying.” Krushna Chandra’s fears are echoed by other veteran performers.

“A survey conducted by the Odisha Folk Foundation reveals that there were as many as 172 troupes across the region before Independence. The number dwindled to 57 in the 1980s, and now there are 35 troupes. In reality, however, there are just 10 professional troupes. It is time the State government takes measures to save this art form,” says Bighneswar Sahu, the foundation’s convener, who hails from the Ganjam region and has been organising a 128-year-old biennial folk festival in his village for 18 years, which invites Prahllad Natak troupes.

“Documentation and promotion of Prahllad Natak needs another Shivaram Karanth. He dedicated 23 years of his life for the revival of Yakshagana, which resulted in the creation of the famed Yakshagana Kendra in Udupi in 1972 and made the 400-year-old art form globally popular,” says Manmath Nath Satapathy, vice-president, Odisha Sangeet Natak Akademi, an avid researcher and promoter of Odisha’s arts traditions.

Manmath presented a performance of Prahllad Natak at the Yakshagana Kendra, where it received rave responses from exponents and scholars. “Girish Karnad loved it and, as the chairperson of Sangeet Natak Akademi, he spoke about its uniqueness at Rashtrapati Bhawan when the SNA award was given for Prahllad Natak,” he says.

As Sahu and Satapathy point out, Prahllad Natak needs some kind of urgent intervention for its survival. After losing royal patronage, the people kept it going. Now, it’s the government’s turn to play its role.

The Bhubaneswar-based journalist

writes on culture.

Photos: Odisha Folk Foundation

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