Sunday, 13 April 2014

Nautanki Tales


As children we were fascinated by the tales our old family retainer Kushaliya recounted about his days with a travelling Nautanki Theatre Company . Can we go see one ? we were constantly asking him . But in families like ours, going to see a Nautanki was not just Non Brahminical , but also considered a sin on par with drinking alcohol . Kushaliya had finally to smuggle us during a family visit to see the hit play, Amar Singh Rathore , being staged at the Nau Chandi fair in Meerut . Individually and collectively we came to remember Nautanki thereafter as a basket of forbidden pleasures where we saw lots of dance and music and grown ups with their shirts unbuttoned and their hair all disheveled, their usually glum adult faces aglow with pure joy .
According to court papers available , just before the great Uprising of 1857, the ill managed principality of Awadh under Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, a.k.a. Jaan e Alam, was facing a grave financial crisis . The Court had, however, earmarked an annual budget of Rs 30, 16000 to maintain the theatre buff Jan e Alam’s Rahas team , which included musicians , actors, courtesans and acrobats, as also two permanent dress designers . In 1851 the Nawab got the poet Aga Hasan ‘Amanat’ write Inder Sabha, a musical, for him and his fabled troupe . With this play hybridized classical music , so far limited to family festivals or temples , found a new popular form by marrying classical Ragas to folk music of Awadh . By the time the Nawab was exiled to Matiaburz in Calcutta by the British 1856, and moaned (in a letter) to his estranged Shaida Begum , “ O Jan e Jaan , we are no longer what we were ! Love and romance ( Ishq o Ashiqui ) have all flown out of our life !”, fun loving and loquatious Awadh had gained a popular commercial theatre that was soon travelling all over and in time begat Nautanki . The  rich ( all male ) wrestlers’ Akhadas (training institutes for wrestling and traditional forms of  martial arts ) in the sugar belt of Awadh rescued the impoverished thespians . Celebrity wrestlers of Awadh, many of whom were also skilled bone setters and masseurs , were rich enough to provide a haven to writers , musicians , teachers and out of work performers, and give them a permanent space where they could interact with each other and also rehearse .
Around 1880 , the Akhada run by a prosperous local wrestler , Ustad Inderman in the prosperous town of  Hathras became a congregating point for theatre buffs . The Ustad talent spotted and trained  several  bright Shagirds ( camp followers ) of whom was one Nattharam Gaud , son of a blind Brahmin singer from the streets who excelled in playing female roles and became the star attraction for the troupe’s Rahas presentations . His loyalty to his Ustad and his undeniable talent resulted in his inheriting the theatre company from an ageing Ustad Inderman . Once Nattharam took over , he set about organizing the wrting of fresh scripts based on tales from the scriptures and old romantic ballads and lore . He also created a proper repertory of trained and well paid performers , got traditional craftsmen to design and  create new portable sets and backdrops for the new plays , and employed music teachers to train his young actors . The first blockbuster for Nattharam’s Company was a romantic play written by one Vasudev ji Basam , titled Siyahposh ( The Dark Knight ) . It was the love story of two individuals , Jamal and Gabru . It was basically a musical but also had small prose paras ( called Drama ) inserted here and there . The next block buster came from Basam’s apprentice (Shagird ) Murlidhar ,  who wrote  a play called , Shehzadi Nautanki . This was a tale of love between an anorexic princess ( Shahzadi ) called Nautanki and a commoner , Phool Singh . Shahzadi Nautanki proved to be so popular that the theatre form which was till then usually called Rahas or Swang ( Impersonation ) , now came to be called Nautanki . Bolstered by back to back hits and the cash registers ringing , the Company theatre was soon touring all over the Hindi belt , carrying musical fantasies of love ( divine and carnal ) , colourful sets , and dancers all of which drove the audiences in the Kanpur and Lucknow region wild . Whole villages emptied out when the Company wallahs were sighted and   the colourful tents came up in the village commons near the Urs or Mela site . 
 
As Hathras Nautanki began to gain renown as entertainment , Akhadas in the neighbouring town of Kanpur stirred into theatrical activity . First Lalman Numberdar’s and then Shri Krishan Pahlwan’s Akhadas in Kanpur became active Addas for thespians . Krishan Pehlwan was a man of many parts . Apart from being a wrestler and an active Arya Samaj leader ( a fact that helped him get respectability when he put up patriotic plays supporting the Gandhian movement ) . This actor singer also ran a successful tailoring shop that created glamorous  dresses for members of his Company . Meanwhile printing presses had also arrived in India and Kanpur saw the public getting fired with a Swaraji fervour . In 1920 , Krishan Pehalwan’s Company produced a run away hit about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre called Khoon e Nahak . This was followed by Zulmi Dyer in 1922 which ended amid great applause as the ghosts of all those shot dead by General Dyer beat the blazing daylights out of the General . Patriotism as saleable commodity had arrived ! Sri Krishan Pehlwan also realized the lucrative potential of publishing play scripts or Sangit . His Shri Krishna Pustakalaya had sold 75 million copies of his plays and a play like Aankh Ka Jadu was running into its 79th edition by 1989 . Sangit books became the earliest best sellers in Hindi publishing and remained top grossers upto the 1980s . The plays , mostly printed from  boom town like Meerut , Delhi and Kanpur , did brisk business at all railway book stalls and popular fairs such as Nauchandi ( at Meerut ) , Sonpur ( cattle fair near Patna ) or Ghazi Baba Ka Urs ( Bahraich ) . With the advent , first of recorded cassettes in the T series and later , TV , these wonderful handbooks are being fast rendered  obsolete .

As the Company moved from village to village , city to city , community to community, ticketed performance of Nautanki plays earned enough to clothe and feed its large family of performers , carpenters , cooks and tailors . Bhishtis ( water sprinklers ) , legend says , sold their Mashaks  ( water skins) and boys stole money and pawned family jewellery to buy tickets for a night of revelry . Audacity helped induct women ( around 1934-35 ) into theatre and this brought the audiences even closer to the performers ( leading to many unforgettable scandals !) . The noted Hindi writer from Poornia Phaneeshwar Nath Renu has immortalized the Nautanki mania in his Teesri Kasam , a  story about a Company Bai ( Heera ) and a bullock cart driver Heeraman . This delicate love story was later  made into a memorable film of the same name by the musician film maker Shailendra .

By 1920 the town of Kanpur became for Nautanki , what Mumbai is to the film industry today . Its  rich textile and jute mills and thriving leather businesses that employed over thirty thousand 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 by now featured singing beauties like Moti Jaan and Gulab Bai in female roles . Most of the Nautanki women belonged to the  traditional courtesan stock ( Deredaar Tavaif ) or communities like the Kalbeliyas , Bedias and Nats , who were facing penury after the British government declared them to be criminal ( Zaraympesha) tribes . These women were immune to the profanities and obscene cat calls in public spaces so long as they were paid regularly and well . But finally the drunken audiences began booing off seasoned artists with calls of Ladki bhejo ! ( Send in the young women !) . 
In post Independent India , Nautanki began declining but its music still attracted high and low . The recording company HMV began recording popular music from Nautanki and by 1969 it had 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 to great effect in Bollywood films like Mughal e Azam ( Mohey Panghat Pe) and Mujhe Jeene Do (Nadi Nare na jao Shyam ) . Bollywood films cannibalized Nautanki talent as they wer to do with Bhojpuri and Haryanvi films later . By the 1990s , the Nautanki- bred triad of Ranjit Kapur , Annu Kapoor and Raghuvir Yadav had also migrated to Bollywood since Companies were increasingly being relegated to places like Singhi , Shikohabad , and Beeghapur .
In the age of Milk Cooperatives , tractors and the great urban migrations , old peasant fairs like Sonpur and Nauchandi no longer drew the rural young . And even in the urban areas , Nautanki survived by now on the charity of occasional government festivals to promote India’s folk theatre . In 2001 Sangeet Natak Akademy of Andhra Pradesh had a week long festival of folk theatre across India . Then the  Society of Indian Scholars presented a two day festival Nautanki 2003 at Singapur .This was followed by the Delhi Hindi Akademy’s Nautanki fest in 2004 and another one in 2007 at the Kumbh fair in Allahabad , it was clear that Nautanki as an organic genre was no longer such a hot ticket among the authentic rural folk .
In the age of inexpensive music from the Net , mobile apps playing Bolly hit songs all day , Nautanki is an exotic orchid , kept alive artificially in a few hot houses . Its name now survives as a cheeky pejorative like The Great Indian Nautanki Company , a JV of Apra and Wizcraft that launched a Twenty First Century Avatar of Nautanki : The Kingdom of dreams inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Haryana . It opened as was appropriate, with Zangoora , the world’s longest running Bollywood musical !

1 Comments:

At 14 April 2014 at 00:27 , Blogger pramod joshi said...

मृणाल जी आपने नौटंकी पर काफी सामग्री एकत्र की है। इस पर अब किताब पूरी कर दें।

 

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