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A new stage for nautanki
In 1942, when Gulab Bai took the stage at the landmark Phool Bagh in Kanpur, scores of fans gathered to watch. Playing Farida, the protagonist in Bahadur Ladki, Gulab actually slapped a lecherous British officer. The crowd went berserk cheering her. Gulab Bai became an instant hit. Peeved with her rebelliousness, the British establishment banned her troupe for five years from the city.
Decades on, nautankis at Rail Bazaar and Bakarmandi still attract large crowds. But these are a far cry from the traditional, three-hour-long performances where powerful, full-throated voices told stories of bravery and love. Today, bawdy item numbers dominate nautanki.
The traditionalists are not amused. Padmashree awardee Gulab Bai's daughter, Madhu Agarwal, who runs Gulab Theatrical Company after her mother's death in 1996 is upset that nautanki is no longer considered an evolved art.
But some good has come from the degradation of nautanki - it has prompted older practitioners like Harish Chandra to take affirmative action. Trained under Ustad Rashid Khan and conferred with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Chandra is one of the few remaining players of the nakkara, a percussion associated with nautanki. To salvage the dying art, Chandra set up the Nautanki Prashikshan Kendra (NPK) in Kanpur. His idea is to familiarise students with and train them in nautanki, the way it was performed in its golden years. Classes at the NPK are held twice every week. Senior nautanki artistes tutor students in various aspects of the art.
"I come from a middle-class family. Though I have been doing theatre for years, I was skeptical when offered a role in a nautanki show, " recalls 24-year old Poonam Jaiswal who is training at the NPK. But she found that nautanki was far more demanding than ordinary dramatics. "In theatre, the emphasis is on dialogue delivery, but nautanki is song-based. So we have to master vocals. "
With support from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the NPK has organised several nautanki performances, offering its students a much needed platform. From Harish Chandra aur Taramati to Pooran Mal, Bahadur Ladki, a nautanki performance on Hindu-Muslim unity, Dil ki Khata, Beti Ki Qurbaani, Garib Ki Duniya and Itihas Chakra, the troupe travels across the state, but prefers government-sponsored events.
"The newer artists are particular about this. The girls, for instance, will turn down performance in rural areas, " says Chandra who has performed alongside Gulab Bai in her most memorable performances like Sultana Daku, Dahiwali and, of course, Bahadur Ladki.
Nautanki practitioners are not alone in their bid to save Kanpur's heritage. The city's intelligentsia is also keen to revive nautanki's lost glory. Kanpur Parivartan, a volunteer group, wants to 'lift' the art form from the abysmal lows it has hit. When IM Rohtagi, music lover and a member of the Merchants Chamber of Uttar Pradesh, was first asked by Kanpur Parivartan to be the chief guest at the staging of Anarkali by Gulab Theatrical Company, he had hesitated. A city notable, he did not want to be seen patronising an art form that is considered degenerate. But the show impressed him with its authenticity and artistry.
Rohtagi is now an ardent promoter of the art. "Nautanki is something most 'decent' people would not associate with. So, we tried to present nautanki in its original and dignified form. Each performance has been a run-away hit, " he says.
Nautanki found its status as a recognised folk art in Kanpur. But it also has its roots in Hathras where early last century it was called swang. "As Kanpur became the commercial hub of the north, theatre companies travelled here;religious themes gave way to secular subjects to boost the entertainment quotient, " says SP Singh, history professor at Kanpur's Christ Church College.
But there are problems in staging good nautankis. For one, no new scripts are being penned. Then, resources are limited;so artistes act, direct and very often, produce shows. As a result, the shows lack finesse. "We invite National School of Drama professionals, actors and directors to come and assist nautanki artistes, but that costs money too, " says Rohatgi.
Finding new talent to train in nautanki performances is also tough. Most artistes live in abject poverty today. For a night-long performance - and you may get one in two months or six - male artistes are paid a paltry Rs 500. The women make anything between Rs 1, 200 and Rs 3, 000, especially when they are "lookers". Artiste Suresh Sharma runs own tea-stall to make a livelihood. "I have a family to feed and the money I earn through nautanki is never enough, " he says.
Agarwal is educated and married to a businessman and doesn't really have to depend upon on her nautanki earnings. She has been luckier than many other artistes. She trains students, sometimes, for Rs 3, 000. But it isn't enough. "No passion can be sustained on an empty stomach. Saying that nautanki needs reinvention is easy, but where are the resources?" she asks.
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