Nautanki again

Print edition : August 24, 2012

Atul Yaduvanshi. Apart from organising documentation of the folk artistes of Uttar Pradesh and some other States, he is trying to get government support to preserve the theatre tradition.-RAJEEV BHATT

Atul Yaduvanshi and his repertory company have been trying to revive the traditional folk theatre form in parts of Uttar Pradesh.

NEW DELHI was recently treated to its first performance of Malvikagnimitram, a Nautanki played in the traditional folk style but with some originality in content, at Stein Auditorium, courtesy Atul Yaduvanshi, 45, the theatre director from Allahabad who has taken up the uphill task of reviving Nautanki through his Swarg repertory company.

The play was true to the style of Nautanki, which is a musical play interspersed with songs meant to enhance the moods and emotions of the characters. A few artistes, preferably good singers, introduce the story by singing in chorus. The play also ends with a chorus. Yaduvanshis play was lavish with numerous characters, an assortment of musicians and able singers, multiple stage backdrops and ostentatious costumes. The artistes appeared poised and comfortable in their roles. The background music at times was out of place or dominated the dialogues, but the two-hour performance, with minimal diction flaw, was, nonetheless, captivating.

It is based on Kalidasas story of the politics of power and love in the kingdom of Vidarbha, but Yaduvanshi has rewritten it using carefully chosen words in pure but understandable Hindi and interspersed the performance with songs based on classical ragas.

Brief history

Nautanki, which is a form of folk theatre, with songs and dance based on classical ragas, was considered a high-class entertainment in the Mughal period. It finds mention in Abul Fazals Ain-i-Akbari. Akbar himself was a great cattle drummer and he, as documented history goes, used this skill for Swaang, as Nautanki was called in those days. Naurang-e-ishq, written in 1685 by the famous Rajasthan writer Maulana Abdul Ghanimat, also mentions Nautanki. The last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, had an annual budget of Rs.30,16,000 to pay folk artistes and he had two special dress designers employed to make costume for Sangeet. Rahasya Manzil in Lucknow still bears testimony to the Nautankis that were performed there, sponsored by the Nawab. Kalidasa, who is believed to belong to the Gupta period, wrote about Sangeet, and so did the 16th century poet Tulsidas.

In pre-Independence India, Nautanki was used to spread messages of patriotism. Between 1924 and 1936, it was banned in Allahabad. Jawaharlal Nehru was deeply interested in the theatre form. During one of his stints in jail, he met Ramdas Tripathi, a well-known Nautanki director from Allahabad. They became friends, and Nehru started calling upon folk theatre directors/artistes to spread the message of nationalism. Nautanki groups would help to collect audiences when nationalist leaders delivered speeches at public meetings. There is a story of how Kamala Nehru, while addressing one such meeting where the audience was gathered by Nautanki groups, was taken off the podium by troops who pulled her by the hair. The incident is mentioned in a report in Suraji Ranbheri, which was published by the Department of Culture and the Department of Information, Uttar Pradesh, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Indias Independence. The area where this happened started being called Kamla Nagar by its residents.

Later, Nautanki also formed the basis of Bollywood cinema, with song and dance sequences woven into the narrative. People now think of Nautanki as a play with tantalising songs bordering on crudity. The very word nautanki is now used in a derogatory sense, implying a piece of futile play-acting to influence someone. The original style of Nautanki, however, was totally bereft of frivolity. Musical plays interspersed with songs and dialogues in verse, Nautankis usually take their themes from mythology or history, stories such as those of Raja Harishchandra or Sultana Daku. This, gradually, led to a thinning of interest among both the artists and the audiences because, as Yaduvanshi explained, the scripts remained unchanged over several centuries. People were bored with watching the same Nautanki repeatedly, and artistes wouldnt come on rehearsals because they had crammed the dialogues over the years. From there actually began the fall of the Nautanki, he said.

There is a technical side to the story. The performance of a Nautanki required several changes in the stage backdrops. As these were mammoth curtains, it took about half an hour to change them, and this interval was used by the audience as tea breaks. A long performance would have several such breaks, and sometimes it would stretch to a whole day and even a night. The audience would, naturally, tend to drift away, and to retain them Nautanki groups started using nautch girls to entertain them with popular songs. On demand and payment of money, they would even repeat the song and dance.

YADUVANSHI WITH SUKKHU Dada, 83, a "naqqarchi", or drummer, from Madhopur in Uttar Pradesh. Dada, whose home was washed away by rain, lives in a polythene shed.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Bereft of any other form of entertainment, rural audiences lapped up these performances, and gradually these breaks started to command greater popular attention from an audience that already knew the story anyway. Many among the audience would even shower money on the dancers. For the cash-strapped Nautanki groups, such songs brought in money, and the newly rich groups started travelling more to make money.

Slowly, around the middle of the last century, these songs and dances overshadowed the otherwise dignified Nautanki and edged out the dialogues to a minimum. Yaduvanshi says there were several incidents where senior folk artistes were humiliated as members of the audience, impatient with the long dialogues, stood up and said, Go back old man, send the [dancing] girl in.

Some years ago, the Swarg team started going from village to village in search of folk artistes and trying to revive the folk form by performing. Yaduvanshi, who is himself a folk artiste, recalls: My theatre guru Shanti Swaroop coaxed me to try and revive this folk theatre. During my research, I was surprised to see that there was no documentation on the form. I gathered some five or six people and set out to do a Nautanki in its original form. Such was the image of the Nautanki that if anyone asked what we were doing, we would say, we are doing a folk drama and add Nautanki in whispers. If we used the word Nautanki, they would look at us with contempt and even laugh at us.

Yaduvanshi said that when he started doing folk dramas, the governments of Delhi and other States invited him to perform. But they would pay barely Rs.200-250, and rooms in the guest houses where the artistes were housed were dirty, with smelly mattresses spread out on the floor. I saw that even folk artistes such as Padma Shri awardee Teejan Bai and Gulablo Bai were given the same treatment. It was humiliating. I looked up the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] guidelines for the welfare of folk artistes and found that folk artistes around the world were hugely respected and well paid to perform. A UNESCO convention once described folk artistes as living human treasures.

Yaduvanshi started documenting folk artistes in 2002. In 2007 he started travelling to different States for performance, research and documentation. His group officially has 43 members, but folk artistes from different States keep joining it from time to time on a freelance basis. I cant pay all my artistes, so they keep on dropping out. For the past few years, the government has been providing salaries to 14 folk artistes/actors, Rs.6,000 for each, which is not really enough to retain them, Yaduvanshi said.

Allahabad, where Yaduvanshi is based, has as many as 97 groups of folk artistes. Nautanki had all but died out here, as in other Indian cities, because of waning audience interest and lack of funds, but the past five years have seen a revival of sorts. Nautankis originating here deal with all issues that are of interest to the common people, including corruption. Yaduvanshis team, however, has taken its performances and its research/documentation to places in Uttar Pradesh as diverse as Kanpur, Kannauj, Itawah, Firozabad, Agra. Mathura, Bharatpur, Hathras, Azampur and Jaunpur, and also to other States such as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (Sagar and Gwalior). Fortunately, the team met several old people who used to be an integral part of Nautankis in their villages but later switched to other activities as the form lost popularity. The team members have had to rough it out during their travels to perform and to research, sometimes sleeping under trees. Getting folk artistes to talk to them is not easy either because these artistes are not always willing to talk about their work.

Many of these tremendously talented artistes told me that Nautanki fetched them no recognition or money. Because of the blot that it started carrying, Nautanki artistes wouldnt like themselves to be associated with it anymore. My team, therefore, had major problems in making the artistes comfortable about telling their stories, talking about the proper/original methods of doing Nautanki, and the folk tales that they remembered, which could well be integrated for a successful Nautanki even today, Yaduvanshi said. Documentation, hence, was an uphill task. The absence of zonal cultural centres and field officers, he said, was to blame for the lack of documentation.

A SENE FROM "Malvikagnimitram" staged recently in Delhi by Yaduvanshi's group.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The team would also request old folk artistes to teach the original style to the younger generation in their villages. Apparently, these artistes would agree to teach the new generation but in practice they wouldnt. We discovered that it was because they didnt like to miss the rare invitation for a performance that would fetch them some money.

Yaduvanshi needed to figure out how people could be brought back to this folk art. He found out that in 1882, the first recorded Nautanki, Sangeet Rani Nautanki Ka, was immensely popular for it connected with the audiences. A story from Malwadesh, it was about an underweight princess who could be balanced with just a few coins or a bunch of flowers. Her condition rendered the king, her father, sleepless. Then one day, after treatment by many physicians had failed, the king noticed that she was gaining weight without any medication. He discovered that she had fallen in love with an ordinary soldier. The audiences, Yaduvanshi says, connected with the story because they felt that the ordinary soldier could be any one of them. In mythological or historical plays, they always remained outsiders, but here they became participants.

By 1998, Yaduvanshi picked up newer stories that rural audiences could connect with. He recalls, We brought classic stories such as Premchands Kafan, Eidgaah, Boodhi Kaki, Panch Parmeshwar, Poos Ki Raat, Lahoo Bolta Hai, and Andher Nagri Chaupat Raja, apart from stories by more contemporary writers such as Vinod Rastogi and Ashok Mishr. When the rural audiences saw characters talking about their problems and working out solutions through the medium of dialogues and songs, the crowds started to swell.

During intervals, too, the team engaged the audiences. We would make characters from the play sing about villagers own joys and sorrows adapted from their own folk songs, for instance, on marriage functions, childbirth, death, grief or festive occasions. We would blend them in the stories in simple language that they could connect with.

As a result, the Swarg repertory company now receives good audience attendance wherever it stages Nautankis. It has modified itself in terms of proper costume, stitched by an in-house designer. Multimedia projectors have replaced background curtains, and the actors, preferably with inclination to music, are trained to sing.

Recent casualties

While trying to work on the original form, the Swarg team discovered that several folk artistes had died before receiving the pensions they had run from pillar to post to secure. Prominent among them were the immensely popular 90-year-old Ramjiyavandas Bawla, known as Tulsidas in the Bhojpuri poetic world, who translated Ramcharit Manas into Bhojpuri; Nanhe Miyan, a famous naqqarchi or drummer from Aligarh; and Sarju Bhagat, the 82-year-old Allahabad-based Karinga artiste.

Before he died in May this year, Sarju Bhagat was among the five living artistes of Karinga, a combination of song and dance drama largely belonging to the Scheduled Caste communities in northern India. The other four (Mahanand from Dhanupur, Lal Bahadur Raagi, Mukund Lal, Bansi Lal and Ram Awadh) are too old to perform any more. Karinga finds mention in the 800-year-old Sanskrit work of Vidyapati and also in the 20th century poetry of the Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant. Nautanki artiste and lecturer Rajkumar Shrivastva says this art form gave the country musical instruments such as the Indrabazza or mridang, Dandtaal, Kasura and Singhadi (horn).

It is important that the folk artistes still living should be recognised before it is too late. Yaduvanshis research so far has made him reach folk artistes who are up to 96 years of age: Chacha Chunni Lal from Hathras, Choudhry Chajjan (80), Nanda Devi and Radharani from Pilibhit (70 and 82 respectively), Hazra Begum from Agra (80), Ashfaq from Aligarh (86), and Munna Master from Bulandshahr, among others. But they are not interested in bequeathing the art to the next generation because it does not fetch them any monetary benefits. Besides, they are themselves somewhat alienated from it because of a stigma that has come to be attached to the folk art.

A NAUTANKI GROUP on its way to a performance in Delhi, in December 2009.-RAMESH SHARMA

Yaduvanshi identified some 97 such groups in Allahabad alone, and almost three times as many in other States. I didnt know that I had such a dense lineage, he says with pride. Whenever it is not performing, the Swarg team goes out to hunt out long-forgotten Nautanki artistes. The members stay in makeshift arrangements, sometimes under trees, cook their own food and conduct workshops.

Yaduvanshi recently met Sukkhu Dada, 83, a naqqarchi from Madhopur. Dada lives under a polythene shed as his house has been washed away by rain. He was a naqqarchi in Allahabads famous Shriram Sangeet Mandali whose owner, Ramdas Thripathi, was Nehrus friend. The group used to perform Nautankis with strong anti-colonial messages. The Swarg team has been trying to make sure that he gets a pension.

Ministrys involvement

Yaduvanshi has been making efforts to get the government act to help folk artistes and revive the art forms they nurture. In November 2011, he organised the first Allahabad Declaration for Preserving Indigenous Tribal and Folk Art, a three-day event where folk artistes from 14 States gathered in Allahabad to work out how they could preserve Nautanki. The oldest person present was Chacha Chunni Lal, then 96. (He is 98 now and still waiting for his pension.) The next Declaration would be held in December this year, which would be attended by folk artistes from the south and the north-east too, Yaduvanshi said.

In mid-February this year, Yaduvanshi met Rahul Gandhi, Congress general secretary, and Kumari Selja, the Minister for Culture, and made a representation. Rahul Gandhi gave us 45 minutes. We asked for a census of indigenous tribal and folk artistes. If we have one, we will find that we have 20 crore of them, including narrators and kirtan singers. The government has some schemes, including salaries for artistes and grants for NGOs [non-governmental organisations], but there are no research officers from the Ministry to locate these artistes and tell them to fill out pension forms and apply for salaries if they perform, Yaduvanshi said.

The Minister for Culture, he said, accepted the following recommendations: meetings to grant pensions to old artistes, to be organised every three months instead of only once a year; a national culture award to be given by the Culture Ministry every year; enhanced honorarium and better board and lodging for travelling folk artistes; and incorporation of folk art practitioners in the Ministrys expert committees.

The Minister has asked her officials to work on a census plan for folk artists and folk art forms. She has also given orders for the creation of a National Folk Academy in Delhi and capacitation of folk art groups at the grassroots, which means gathering folk artistes and making them proud of the art that they represent.

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