Nautanki, an age-old art form from Uttar Pradesh that paved the way for Modern Indian Cinema
Nautanki is an operatic theatre form fusing dance, music, story, humor, dialogue, drama and wit in an enchanting package. The art form originated in Uttar Pradesh, in the late nineteenth century and gained immense popularity. The dramas were fine-tuned and its protagonists were exceptionally skilled actors and singers.
Despite using very few props, actors created riveting scenes by the bare alchemy of their performance. Performances were held in open grounds, on a make-shift stage, and as actors adorned their costumes and put on a show, people of all age groups watched the performances, spellbound.
The theatre of life
The first known home to Nautanki was Hathras, UP. By the 1910s, Kanpur and Lucknow had become important centers for Nautanki and had each developed a distinctive style, catering to their unique audiences. From the beginning, Nautankis reinterpreted a wide range of literature and tradition including legends, Sanskrit and Persian romances and mythological lore.
Some of the most popular nautankis were Raja Harishchandra, Laila Majnu, Shirin Farhad, Shravan Kumar, Heer Ranjha ,and Bansurivali. Plays based on historical characters like Prithviraj Chauhan, Amar Singh Rathore, and Rani Durgavati were also quite popular.
A syncretic community of artists and skits
Nautanki functioned as the main source of entertainment for Lucknowites and Kanpur folk, while also instilling moral, social and political values within their plots, conveying messages relevant for causes. In North India, Nautanki played a reformist role during the national movement. It was fighting a battle in it's own way, by enacting plays dripping with patriotism and valour, throughout the stretch of Avadh.
Such was the effect of Nautanki on people that, the theatre would echo of sobs when Majnu met Laila for the first time after going mad, in Laila Majnu. When Farhad beats his head against Shirin’s grave in Shirin Farhad, or when Sultana amazes the British police commissioner in Sultana Daku, a very strong emotion was evoked out of the audiences. The actors and spectators became one, and the wall in between lay broken.
The show must go on
Indian cinema owes a lot to Nautanki. Music, melodrama, the traction between good and evil, royal courts and decoits were imported from stage to screen. By the 1960s, cinema had become the dominant medium of entertainment, and by 1990's, shutters were down on almost all existing Nautanki companies.
However, it cannot be said that the art form has diminished entirely, for in recent times, there is a resurgence of interest in Nautanki. Companies such as the Great Gulab Theatre Company, Krishna Kala Kendra, BLM and Mission Suhani perform occasionally.
Street plays have also managed to kept the art alive to a great extent by blending contemporary into modern, and telling stories woven around current issues that affect the modern audience.
The struggle to keep Nautanki alive, is a constant fight between trying to protect the traditional operatic and artistic elements of the original art form while also effectively communicating the story and message to a modern audience by speaking to them in a language of emotions, that is not dependent on translations.