As children, we were fascinated by the tales one of our old family retainers, Kushaliya, would tell us about his days with a nautanki company. “Can we go see one?” we would constantly ask him. But since nautanki-watching was a sin on par with drinking alcohol in families like ours, Kushaliya finally had to smuggle us in to watch Amar Singh Rathor, a nautanki that was being staged at the Nauchandi fair in Meerut. We later came to associate nautanki with pure joy.
I do not know who spilled the beans on this surreptitious trip, but poor Kushaliya nearly lost his job for introducing us to the non-Brahminical basket of forbidden pleasures.
Nautanki lives on. Urban directors and playwrights, from Habib Tanvir and Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena to Atul Yaduvanshi, use nautanki techniques to produce significant modern theatre. But now, in the age of inexpensive streaming music, nautanki is an exotic art, kept alive artificially by a few. The name ‘nautanki’ survives as strange hybrids: Nautanki Gali, a restaurant in Hyderabad, and The Great India Nautanki Company, a joint venture of Wizcraft International Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, Apra Group of Companies and Raghbeer Group of Companies. The latter recently launched a 21st century avatar of nautanki: The Kingdom of Dreams, publicized as India’s first live entertainment, theatre and leisure destination.
This neo-nautanki is located, suitably, in a town with the name of a village: Gurgaon. It is a Haryana town widely publicized for luxury living, with high-end cars, multi-storey luxury apartments and glittering shopping malls. The Great India Nautanki Company opened with Zangoora; the world’s longest-running Bollywood musical’s inauguration was colourfully reported in the Hindi papers as a mega event, inaugurated by the chief minister of the state, a leading Congress leader. Was it a coincidence that the same Congress party was recently heckled by a leader from the Opposition benches for indulging in thetharai (theatrics) and promoting nautanki baazi while fobbing off charges of corruption and misuse of government funds?
How did this word become ordinary parlance? How did nautanki come about?
In the beginning was the religious ras-bhagat tradition—recitations about the lives of gods. In the 19th century Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the colourful and eccentric Badshah-e-Awadh, said, “Let there be rahas” And there was rahas. The badshah himself dressed as Raja Inder, and a new art form began to evolve, which opened with a musical Chaubola:
“Raja hoon main kaum ka, Inder mera naam
Bin pariyon ke deed ke, mujhey nahin aaraam.”
(Behold, I am Inder, emperor of the races.
Restless unless I see my fairies’ faces.)
According to the court papers available, just before the uprising of 1857, Jan-e-Alam Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s government had an annual budget of Rs.30,16000 earmarked for his rahas team, which included two permanent dress designers. While the nawab was exiled to Metiaburz, the poet Agha Hasan Amanat wrote a new rahas, Inder Sabha, for Jan-e-Alam (1851) and his fabled troupe. The play was a huge success and the music-loving folks of Awadh were hooked to the new art form. Awadh lost a badshah and gained a popular commercial theatre, now known as nautanki .
After royal patronage declined, akharas, or wrestling hubs, began to double up as meeting places for writers, musicians, teachers and out-of-work performers. This was where talent was spotted for nautanki performances. As nautanki began to gain renown as entertainment, akharas in Kanpur woke up. First Lalman Numberdar’s, and then Shri Krishan Pahlwan’s akharas in Kanpur became active addas (haunt) for thespians. Srikrishna Pehelwan was a man of many parts. Besides being a wrestler and an active Arya Samaj leader (a fact that helped him put up patriotic plays supporting the Gandhian movement), he was an actor and a singer and also ran a successful tailoring shop that created glamorous dresses for members of his company. In 1920, Srikrishna Pehelwan’s company produced a runaway hit about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre called Khoone Nahak. This was followed by Zulmi Dyer , written by Manohar Lal Shukla in 1922. Patriotism as a saleable commodity had arrived.
A standard format for nautanki ran like this: a prayer sung by the cast, followed by a brief introduction to the theme by a sutradhar (narrator). The ranga or sutradhar stood at all four corners of the open stage, repeating his lines, so that nobody missed out on the bare bones of the play about to open. Breaks in the play were brilliantly punctuated by the funny and daring antics of a joker (a term borrowed from the circus). The music ranged from folk to ghazals and qawwali to classical. Recitations of rhymed dialogues began with a simple couplet (doha).
Over the years nautanki borrowed a lot from its urbane cousin, the Parsi Theatre, including a proscenium stage and a curtain covering the stage. New instruments like the harmonium and bulbul tara were added to the nakkara drums and clarinet.
Bolstered by back-to-back hits, the Company theatre was soon touring the Hindi belt, carrying musical romances, colourful sets and dancers who drove Kanpur and Lucknow audiences wild. Whole villages emptied out when the Company-wallahs were sighted and the colourful tents came up at the village urs or mela site. Young boys with kohl-lined eyes peered from behind tents. The inviting sound of anklets,the strong whiffs of fresh jasmine flowers, and the flickering shadows cast by Petromax lamps that lit the makeshift manch (stage) created an Arabian Nights-like atmosphere. Young men, unmindful of growling fathers and anxious wives, caught snatches of songs as the lead singers practised their scales under an eagle-eyed ustad:
“More jobna pe lal jadey, bahut khare, bahut khare
(My breasts are studded with red red rubies, O Maharajji )
As it moved from village to village, community to community, ticketed performances of nautanki plays displayed three major assets: energy, audacity and speed. They were enough to clothe and feed the large family of performers, carpenters, cooks and tailors.
By the late 19th century Kanpur was fast becoming for nautanki what Mumbai is to the film industry today. Its textile and jute mills and thriving leather businesses, which employed more than 30,000 migrant craftsmen from all over the Hindi belt, created an ideal audience for the raunchy and melodramatic musicals, as also plays filled with a patriotic fervour. The latter brought several police crackdowns on theatre companies and forced some of the ustads to migrate. Erotic theatre, however, flourished. Bereft of their families the mill workers waited avidly for the excitement of nautanki, which featured singing beauties like Moti Jaan and Gulab Bai in female roles.
Most of the nautanki women belonged to traditional courtesan stock or communities like the Kalbeliyas, Bedias and Nats, with the latter facing penury after the British government declared it a criminal tribe. Most of them came from communities where the women earned and the men just hung around in a haze of alcohol and tobacco. After independence, the genre of plays with patriotic themes went into a decline and the aura of erotic tales about “company women” slowly drove discerning music lovers away.
In the first two decades of post-independent India, nautanki was in decline but its music still attracted listeners from all strata of society. HMV recorded popular music from nautanki and by 1969 released at least eight 78 RPM records by one of its star performers, Gulab Jan. In the absence of clear copyright laws, these pulsating songs were freely lifted, polished somewhat and used in Bollywood films like Mughal-e-Azam (Mohey Panghat Pe) and Mujhe Jeene Do ( Nadi Nare Na Jaao Shyam).
Later, Gulab formed her own company, The Great Gulab Theatre Company, which came to be recognized all over India as the authentic voice of nautanki. Gulab was the last authentic practitioner of this art form. Today, her sister Sukh Badan and daughters Madhu and Asha lament that there are no takers for their art, and young nautanki artistes are branding themselves with names like Chhoti Helen and Nautanki Shilpa.
By the 1990s, while the nautanki-bred triad of Ranjit Kapur, Annu Kapoor and Raghuvir Yadav were creating history in cinema, real nautanki companies were increasingly being relegated to places like Singhi, Shikohabad and Beeghapur. In the age of milk cooperatives, tractors and urban migration, peasant fairs at Sonpur and Nauchandi no longer drew the rural young. In urban areas, nautanki survived on the charity of occasional government festivals promoting India’s folk theatre.
In 2001, the Sangeet Natak Akademi of Andhra Pradesh had a week-long festival of folk theatre across India. At the Delhi Hindi Akademi Nautanki fest in 2004, Krishna Kumari Mathur and Company from Hathras performed the old hit, Amar Singh Rathor, and won applause from the Delhi elite as an exotic period-piece. But in 2007, when the same company performed another old hit, Puran Bhagat, at the Kumbh fair in Allahabad, it was clear that nautanki as an organic genre was no longer popular among rural folk.
Natharam Sharma Gaur, Radheshyam Pehelwan, Yaseen Miyan and Naushad Joker, where are you?
Mrinal Pande is a Delhi-based writer and freelance journalist.