It is houseful at Tagore Theatre, Chandigarh, for the ongoing eight-day Saang Festival that has been an annual feature of the department of public relations and culture, Haryana, for the past decade to keep alive a dying theatre that is well past its prime. A look around at the audience and it is mostly Haryanvi with the rural flavour and mostly in the age group of 40 and above. The young and urbane are missing from the gathering that has come to enjoy the old rustic flavours of a time long before the entertainment revolution.
Saang is a popular folk dance theatre form in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in which religious stories and folk tales are enacted and sung by a group of a dozen or so artistes and is characterised by loud rendering of dialogues and songs as essentially it was performed in the open without microphones in old times. As is the case in most theatrical forms of yore, the female roles were by males and in times gone by, women were not even part of the audience as the performances had a coarse idiom. The performers were from lower castes as song and dance were a taboo for the upper castes.
Meet the Saang artistes camping for the festival in town and one gets a feeling of sadness in their persona even though they have a fair share of talent and a past when they were centre stage in the agrarian society. Walk into the green room and the leading star of the evening, middle-aged Shyam Lal, is all set for the show to play the role of a king, Gopi Chand Bhartari, with a string of pearls round his neck and several silver medallions, reminiscent of the feudal age, decorating his black waistcoat. He started participating as a female impersonator when he was a lad of 14 in a village near Karnal and rose to be the leading man with his talent and emotive way of singing out the story in ‘ragini’. He still commands a presence on the stage but talk to him and he says that the best days of Saang are over.
“The government holds festivals in the capital city of Chandigarh and some are held at the district level but these are hardly enough to sustain the artistes who anyway come from the depressed classes. The traditional support too has gone because earlier schools, temples, and panchayats would invite Saang artistes to hold shows for weeks to raise funds. But they do not need us now because they get grants from the government.”
Dola Ram, a popular Saang comedian who has won several awards for his performances, says: “The tastes of the young have changed. They listen to popular Punjabi music or film songs. Everyone has a mobile theatre on their phones and there is a TV set in every home. The Saang artistes who come from poor homes are struggling to make ends meet.”Renu Hooda, who heads the culture department, says that they have made an effort to gradually increase the performance fees. “Earlier, we would pay the group Rs 20,000 for a performance in the festival but now we give them Rs 50,000,” she says. However, distributed among a dozen or so performers and that too once or twice a year, it does not amount to much. Meet female impersonators Ranjit and Laddu, who are decking up to play queens in the show and the embarrassment of being in this role is expressed at once. “I started playing a girl when I was just about eight. My father was addicted to liquor and there was no money at home so I would earn doing small roles. Gradually, I got to like them,” says Ranjit from Kheri Jalab village in Hisar, who earns just about as much as an unskilled labourer would in a city. He is married and has a year old son. His co-artiste, Laddu, adjusting his veil adds, “It is want that brought us into the profession and not our choice.”