Jatra, Tamasha, Yakshagana and Nautanki: A look at India’s traditional folk drama forms on World Theatre Day

March 27, 2021 2:13 PM

Most of these theatre forms of folk arts are slowly disappearing after independence as Hindi films have become more popular with the masses.

Jatra, Tamasha, Yakshagana, Nautanki, India's traditional folk drama, World Theatre DayThe word Yakshgana literally translated means the songs of the demi-gods. These performances started sometime during the 11th century during the Vaishnava Bhakti movement in the coastal areas of Karnataka.

By Monidipa Dey

Folk art has a long history in India, and as the very name suggests gives voice to the common people and showcases a range of popular beliefs (both religious and non –religious types), while also airing the feelings and views of the common man. The concept of folk art culture used for showcasing popular expressions is mentioned in the Maitrayee Upanishad, and is represented by songs, dances, and various forms of dramas that are now collectively known as performing arts. The philosophical theory behind Indic folk culture is based on Charbaka/ Lokayata concept, which is said to be the inner voice or logic of the common man. To summarise it, folk culture or performing arts is the most perceivable characteristic of the ideological trends of the common people of a certain era.

India has various regional forms of folk culture, and here we will take a brief look at some of the popular ones:

Jatra in West Bengal

In the 18th century a popular culture was seen developing in Calcutta that showcased traditional Bengal folk culture but enjoyed urban patronage, which was known as the Jatra paala. Jatra originated from the religious rituals of songs and dances, popular in the Bengal village festivals. In the songs and dances composed for the Jatras, the most important element in them were the conversations among the different characters taken from Hindu epics, which were given melodramatic interpretations by the actors, and were loved by the audiences. The Jatras were performed in round or square flat grounds with the audience sitting in a circle around them. Various musical instruments were used in these jatras, like drums and tanpuras in the early years; while by the late 19th century western instruments became an integral parts of the jatra orchestra. A leading jatra figure in the mid- 19th century was Gopal Uday (1817-1857), who introduced a new style where dialogues were written in short verses along with songs that evoked emotions that matched beautifully with the poor people who came to watch his paalas, making him the most popular jatra man of his times. Gopal Uday was also popular for introducing the popular Khemta naach, performed mostly by men at that time. An interesting theme in these jatra paalas were the jatra duets, which provided sarcasm based comic relief, and involved couple figures such as the dhopa-dhopani (washerman and his wife), methor-metharani (the sweeper and his wife), etc. Later many people like Motilal Roy started using Jatras to raise awareness on nationalism issues and keep people united against the British. In the first half of the 20th century these Swadeshi Jatras played a significant role in raising the patriotic fervor and instill a strong sense of nationalism among the common Bengalis.

Yakshagana of Karnataka

Quite similar in concept to the Yatras, is the Yakshagana, which are also presentations of Epics and Puranic stories in the form of theatric performances which involves music, songs, dances, and dialogues.

The word Yakshgana literally translated means the songs of the demi-gods. These performances started sometime during the 11th century during the Vaishnava Bhakti movement in the coastal areas of Karnataka. Later in the 13th century, Narahari Thirtha started Dashavatara performances, which gave a full form to what is now known as the Yakshagana of modern Karnataka.

In Yakshagana, men play the roles of both male and female characters, and they are adorned with colourful costumes and elaborate headgears, the latter being differently designed for different characters. The prasangas or stories are enactments of various stories from Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas, involving various historical or semi-historical legendary heroes, while in the background a group of musicians known as Himmela play the music using drums, pipes, and organs. Comic relief is added to these religious narratives through performances of the Hasyagar. Traditionally, Yakshagana is performed within a temple complex in the open air from sunset to sunrise, and the stage or rangasthalla is decorated with mango and banana leaves, flowers, etc, to give a colourful festive feel.

Tamasha of Maharashtra

Tamasha is a popular folk art that originated in rural Maharashtra, and was conceptualised like the Bengal Jatra to entertain the masses, mostly comprising of labourers and farmers. Tamasha was created by Ram Joshi (1762 – 1812 CE), a man well versed in Sanskrit and Marathi. Joshi along with another well known Marathi writer Moropanta, created a form of singing known as Lavani, which forms to be at the core of Tamasha. Lavani is a musical dance performance by women moving to the beats of the dholki, attired in gaudy paithini saris, and wearing heavy ghungroos.

Tamasha is a form of theatre, with a heavy focus on music and dance. It is famous for carrying lyrics with a double meaning, with soft erotic themes and dance movements, for which there is a tendency among the Maharashtrian elites to look down upon this folk art. Tamasha can be categorised into two main popular forms: dholki bhaari and sangeet baari, of which the latter is the older form and has more songs and dances than theatrics. Tamasha, which was avoided by the elites, was performed by the lower caste communities and the audience was also from the same social strata.

Companies that organise tamashas are known as phads, and each phad is akin to a close knit family, and the artists are called kalavanths, and this form of performing art has been going on from the time of the Peshwas. Previously, men played the roles of both male and female, but with changing times women joined the Tamasha, and this art soon became famous for bringing out the glamorous side of their women actors who danced sensuously attired in bold and expensive zari lined saris. Traditionally tamasha had dancers known as Nachya, a poet known as Shahir who was also the Sutradhar, and a Vidushaka or jester.

Besides financial difficulties and dwindling audiences, currently another damaging impact on this dying Maharashtrian folk art is the public insistence on the nachyas to dance to Hindi film music instead of the old songs written specifically for the tamasha.

Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh

Nautanki, like the previous three, is also a form of theatre that combines songs, dances, stories, witty dialogues, humour, and melodrama. It originated in the late 19th century in Uttar Pradesh, was originally known as Svang, and was mainly popular among the lower class communities. Svangs were held in the open, on make shift stages, and performed in villages, towns, cities, bazaars, factory gates, etc. One of the most famous svangs in the 1890s was titled Shehzadi Nautanki (based on a Punjabi folk tale), which gave Svang its new name: Nautanki.

Kanpur, which was an important Nautanki centre, developed a distinctive style, known as the Kanpur shaili. Of the two popular nautanki styles, the Hathras shaili was closer to the original svang style that emphasised on Hindustani classical songs; on the other hand Kanpur shaili focused on the acting styles with emphasis on facial expressions and dialogues. Nautanki, which was originally an all male performance, later saw many women joining the show.

Nautankis were a part of popular annual melas, and they would declare themselves with a pair of nakkaras, which would play the characteristic nautanki beat that could be heard and recognized from miles around. All nautankis (Hathras or Kanpur shailis), would always start with a vandana to devi Saraswati and Ganesha. The sutradhar would then present a musical summary of the entire story, after which the show would start.

Nautankis right from their start reinterpreted various literary works, which included stories passed through oral traditions, Persian love stories, Sanskrit dramas, and stories from the epics. Some of the popular stories enacted were that of Shirin Farhad, Raja Harishchandra, Bhakt Prahlad, Laila Majnu, Bansurivali, Heer Ranjha, and Dahiwali. Plays based on historical characters were also staged, such as Prithviraj Chauhan, Rani Durgavati, and Amar Singh Rathore, etc.

Most of these theatre forms of folk arts are slowly disappearing after independence as Hindi films have become more popular with the masses. It is time for the central and state governments to support these art forms and provide these performing arts with much-needed patronage by spreading awareness about their importance to bring audiences back to theatres. With support from the govt and general public, these traditional drama forms can be revived for good.

(The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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