Not just naughty

Nautanki is finding new audiences in metropolitan cities in India, in foreign countries with a large Indian diaspora, and also in academic institutions. Photo - Naresh Kumar  

Baiji, her pallu tucked firmly into her waist, runs her nautanki kampani like a tight ship. But she can’t quite stamp down the spirited stars of her repertory. There is fiery Sonkali with a voice that can travel any scale, the deep throated imp Juggan, and the velvety-voiced macho man Rashid. Baiji herself is no mean soprano, as she plays the tragic Anarkali and Taramati.

Actor and director Sajida’s ‘Tamasha-e-Nautanki’ is the story of Baiji’s battle for survival against the draw of cinema and television. But the play staged recently in Delhi is also the story of nautanki itself, its rise and fall, the corruption of its art and finally, its revival in the face of tremendous odds.

Nautanki is finding new audiences — in metropolitan cities as a rich folk form with connections to Bollywood, in countries with a large Indian diaspora, and also in academic institutions as a subject of research into popular culture. Mainstream theatre, notably Atul Kumar’s blockbuster ‘Piya Beharoopiya’ borrows heavily from the folk form. But in its homeground, the towns and mofussil areas and badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it is often sadly reduced to its filmi caricature, the ‘Bidi Jalayile’ clones.

“If you search for nautanki on YouTube, you are most likely to come up with the titillating stuff produced by people like Rampat Harami, which mostly ape item numbers. So when I was first exposed to real nautanki, I was stunned by its versatility and decided that I would one day direct one,” says Sajida.

The queue waiting to enter Delhi’s National School of Drama for the recent staging of ‘Tamasha-e-Nautanki’ snaked away, with many people finally denied entry. Scripted by Mohan Joshi, the performance wove songs from legendary plays like ‘Anarkali’, ‘Satya Harishchandra’, ‘Bahadur Ladki’, ‘Ram Khevat Samvad’, and ‘Puranmal ka Kissa’ to tell the story of the resurgent art form. Its biggest draw is the music — the full-throated singing that’s close to folk but also draws heavily from khayal, thumri, ghazal, qawwali and even lavni. The beats of the naqqara and the soft notes of the clarinet, both critical to nautanki, are evocative. And there is no denying, of course, the charm of the exaggerated theatrics, stagey dialogue delivery, and the infectiously energetic and saucy dance moves, immortalised by cinema as jhatkas and matkas.

“The word nautanki today has become a generic term for cheap entertainment. But it is a complex music system with its own metres like doha, chaubola and behre-e-tabeel, which takes years of learning and listening to master,” says Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, the nautanki-swang maestro who is the play’s music director. Actors Sneha Kumar, Debarati Majumdar, Shivprasad Gaur, Sangeeta Tiple and Marathi stage singer Anirudh Wankar needed a fortnight of rigorous training to prepare their voices for the show.

Sharma himself was born to a Mathura clan that traditionally performed rasleela, bhagat and swang, the older form of nautanki. He learnt its intricacies as a child, travelling with the family troupe across Kanpur, Unnao, Lucknow, Allahabad and Varanasi where all-night shows of ‘Amar Singh Rathore’, ‘Indal Haran’, and ‘Sultana Daku’ were massive crowd-pullers.

Sajida talks of how the big stars of nautanki were typically the women, who could hold audiences of thousands with their acting and singing skills. “They commanded big fees, but in their personal life, they were often exploited by families who depended entirely on them.”

Tamasha-e-Nautanki’s central character is Baiji, loosely based on the legendary artiste Gulab Bai whose tumultuous life and times have been chronicled many times, most notably by Deepti Priya Mehrotra in The Queen of Nautanki Theatre.

In the play, two women, harassed by husbands and brothers, meet an unscrupulous agent, Zalim Zaleel, who pushes them into the world of heave-and-thrust wiggling and bawdy songs aimed at all-male audiences. The play, rather over-optimistically, has a happy ending, with all those who quit Baiji’s company returning to it in search of real nautanki. Scholar and performer Devendra Sharma, who has done groundbreaking work in taking the art form to the West, especially the U.S., traces references to it in Abul Faizal’s Ain-i-Akbari.

The form developed mostly in two UP towns, Hathras and Kanpur, each distinct in style. The Hathras format is more musical and slow-paced, while Kanpur has a more robustly dramatic, racy and dialogue-heavy style that borrowed heavily from Parsi theatre. Till the mid-1950s, as films like Teesri Kasam show, travelling nautankis had a fierce fan following.

It is now time, says Devendra Sharma, to reinvent nautanki. He has set up a troupe with 60 artistes in the U.S., where he teaches at California State University in Fresno. Drawing migrant Indian talent from various professions, he trains them and the troupe has even staged a performance in English, ‘Mission Suhani’, on the diaspora’s divided cultural identities.

He has, along with his father, Ram Dayal Sharma, scripted other new nautankis too, which go beyond the themes of mythology and heroism. “ Nautanki has always changed with the times. While we must keep great plays like ‘Ala Udal’ alive, we also need to start looking for fresh audiences,” says Sharma.

Malini Nair likes to explore the intersection between culture and society in her writings.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 12:14:01 AM |

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