Some of the stalwarts of Nautanki are Dr. Devendra Sharma, Gulab Bai and Shrikrishna Pehelwan.
The North Indian folk operatic theatre, Nautanki, is often interpreted as a precursor to the Bollywood version of blended acting and singing by many. A reservoir of talent for today's cinema industry, Kanpur was actively involved in the progress of this art form, so much so, that a distinct style of Nautanki has originated from this city. Interweaving eloquent and melodious speech with clear and iconic gestures, the Kanpur Nautanki style is probably the reason why so much drama runs across this city! This World Theatre Day, know this city beyond the title of 'Manchester of East' and tag along with us on a journey through the annals of cultural history.
From fiction to fight against injustice
While the Hindi cinema industry flourished in Mumbai, the art of drama and theatre is not unknown in other parts of India. Tracing its evolution to earlier traditions, such as Bhagat and Swaang, Nautanki has two main presentation shaili or styles- Hathras style and Kanpur style. The distinction between these two styles is marked by the fact that in Kanpur shaili, the stagecraft has more finesse while the music is less elaborate.
The Kanpur style came into existence around 1910, when this city became the epicentre for Nautanki and almost two decades later, this art form became commercialised. Although it began as an all-male genre involving men from akharas (all-male space for the practice of arts, bodybuilding and wrestling), Nautanki became women-dominated around the 1930s when the acting companies were venturing into professional management.
What started as a secular platform to engage people in mythological stories and the likes, was eventually gripped by the tide of the times. In an effort to fight against colonial rule, many plays were staged in Kanpur around the Quit India Movement (1942), including Aurat ka Pyaar in Phool Bagh. This play, enacted by Tirmohan Lal's company, attempted to awaken the feeling of patriotism among the common people.
It is widely believed that when this art form was at its peak in the 20th century, the Nautanki script books sold in larger numbers as compared to the Hindi and Urdu bestsellers. So if you are Kanpurite who has been dubbed as nautanki, even if only once in your life, you now know that it has all been in your genes!