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Naatak Presents Nautanki

I had never thought that I would get to see an ancient Indian dramatic form in a theatre in the US. Surprises galore, reports Shalini Kathuria Narang.

india Updated: Mar 28, 2008 21:47 IST

When I heard about the staging of a Nautanki by a local theatre group, my curiosity was aroused. I had never thought that I would get to see an ancient Indian dramatic form in a theatre in the US. Surprises galore. Once again, life taught me-never say never. Attempts by individuals and organizations to bring forth varied aspects of transcontinental cultural showpieces for art's sake and financial gains are on an incline. Living in a multi cultural place like the Bay Area, one can enjoy performing arts of various nations, but a showcase of nautanki was definitely beyond my imagination

The appeal of the unexpected was immense and thankfully, the resulting pleasure from the performance matched the appeal.

As an exercise in inquisitiveness, I also googled the word Nautanki and was pleasantly surprised that wikipedia had the following about it.

Nautanki is a famous form of theater very much popular in northern India especially in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Before the advent of cinema in India, it was the most popular form of entertainment prevalent in these areas. Usually a nautanki consisted of folk lore and mythological dramas with interludes of folk songs and dances.

Popular Nautanki-Sultana Daku- the story of a Robin Hood style hero showcased at the CSU East Bay Theatre on the evenings of Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23rd was presented by Naatak- a group of Indian theater enthusiasts in the San Francisco bay area. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University dedicated to staging thought-provoking plays and producing independent films founded the organization in 1995. The final show of Sultana Daku is scheduled at the Canada College theatre in Redwood City on March 29.

The story revolves around the escapades of the protagonist, Sultana Daku, a notorious dacoit, who thrived in the hilly jungles of Uttar Pradesh in the early 1900s. The confrontation scenes between the admirable underclass hero and the agents of the British colonial government to capture him were woven together with folk songs, poetic verses and comic interludes involving romantic interest with a moll, dramatic sequences of a robbery at a rich moneylender's shop and other interesting scenes.

Ram Dayal Sharma, a renowned singer, composer, writer, director, and music teacher from India mentored Naatak's production of the show. Pundit Sharma's son, Dr.Devendra Sharma - a practicing performer, writer, and director of Nautanki and Swang folk musical theatre genres, directed and acted as the main protagonist in the production. He is currently an Assistant Professor at California State University-Fresno in California and has written and presented numerous guest lectures and conference papers on the role of folk performances in the contemporary world.

The two hour show was entertaining and interesting, not only in its appeal as an alternative entertainment medium, but as a standalone theatre genre that brings out the myriad talents of acting, singing and dancing of the artists. The poets presenting the highlights of the main story act as vital narrators of the sequences.

Different performing arts genres help us appreciate the need for preservation of our ancient performing arts traditions that are no lesser in value than precious arts and artifacts. Though Bollywood and its offshoots in the form of dance and music shows have become the popular entertainment mediums in India and in places with a substantial Indian Diaspora, yet shows such as these help stir the need for preservation and promotion of the old art forms.

While currently the audience of thousands at live shows presented by the latest Bollywood sensations far surpasses the numbers at theatre, yet I am sure with deliberate efforts towards preservation and promotion by public and private organizations like Naatak and others, the audience at these presentations will rise and see the appeal of different entertainment mediums.