Folk Opera of North India

Click here to watch Dr. Devendra Sharma speak about Nautanki

Photo credit: Swagato Basumallick

Swang-Nautanki* is one of the most popular folk operatic theater performance forms of South Asia, particularly in northern India. Before the advent of Bollywood (Indian film industry), Nautanki was the biggest entertainment medium in the villages and towns of northern India. Nautanki's rich musical compositions and humorous, entertaining storylines hold a strong influence over rural people's imagination, and even after the spread of mass media (such as television and DVDs), a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 can be seen at the top Nautanki performances.

Nautanki performances are operas based on a popular folk theme derived from romantic tales, mythologies, or biographies of local heroes. The performance is often punctuated with individual songs, dances, and skits, which serve as breaks and comic relief for audiences. Audiences sometimes also use these breaks to go to the toilet or pick up food from their homes or nearby shops. Nautanki performances involve a lot of community participation from audiences. For instance, community members provide logistical support, financial support, and talented actors for Nautanki performances. Also, the audience members choose what script will be performed, and often intervene during the performance to demand a repeat of a particular song or skit of their choice.

Nautanki performances can take place in any open space available in or around a village that can accommodate audiences in hundreds or thousands. Sometimes this space is made available by the village chaupal (village community center). Other times, the playground of the local school becomes the performance site. A Nautanki stage is elevated above the ground and is made up of wooden cots (usually provided by local villagers). Until a few decades back, there was no electricity in Indian villages, so light was provided either by big lanterns or Petromax (a device run by kerosene oil).

The pleasure of Nautanki lies in the intense melodic exchanges between two or three performers; a chorus is also used sometimes. Traditional Nautankis usually start late at night, often around 10 p.m. or so, and go all night until sunrise the next morning (for a total of 8-10 hours in duration). There is no intermission in Nautanki performances. Story lines of traditional Nautankis range from mythological and folk tales to stories of contemporary heroes. For instance, while Nautanki plays such as Satya-Harishchandra and Bhakt Moradhwaj are based on mythological themes, Indal Haran and Puranmal originated from folklores. In the first half of the 20th century, the contemporary sentiments against British rule and feudal landlords found expression in Nautankis such as Sultana Daku, Jalianwala Bagh, and Amar Singh Rathore. In the last four decades, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma (a renowned Nautanki maestro) and later Dr. Devendra Sharma have co-authored many new Nautankis. These new Nautankis are centered on contemporary social messages such as health, HIV/AIDS, women's empowerment, dowry, immigration, and family planning. They are of a much shorter duration—around two hours. This is to give audiences an opportunity to watch performances during a break in their daily routine. These contemporary Nautankis have been performed extensively in India and America and met with resounding popularity.

Some famous Nautanki performers are Gokul Korea, Ghasso, Ram Swarup Sharma of Samai-Khera, Manohar Lal Sharma, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, Chunni Lal, Giriraj Prasad, Puran Lal Sharma, Amarnath, Gulab Bai, and Krishna Kumari.

Some popular traditional Nautankis are Syah-Posh (Pak Mohabbat), Sultana Daku, Indal Haran, Amar Singh Rathore, Bhakt Puranmal, and Harischandra-Taramati. Some popular contemporary Nautankis are Mission Suhani, Subah ka Bhoola, Behkaani and Muskaani, and Beti ka Byah (all of these contemporary Nautankis are written by Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma.

Further Reading

1. Performing Nautanki: Popular Community Folk Performances as Sites of Dialogue and Social Change (Ph.D. Dissertation written by Dr. Devendra Sharma)

2. Wikipedia Page on Nautanki

*I refer to Swang-Nautanki as Nautanki for the sake of convenience

Latest Events

Shrirampur, Maharashtra
Tilaknagar Industries, Ahmednagar District
Nautanki "Hanuman ki Ramayan"
Directed by Dr. Devendra Sharma
June 22, 2013

National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA)
Nautanki "Hanuman ki Ramayan"
Directed by Dr. Devendra Sharma
May 25, 2013

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Nautanki Lecture and Workshop
May 8 & 11, 2013

South Asia Institute
Nautanki "Indal Haran"
Directed by Dr. Devendra Sharma
April 26, 2013

California State University, Fresno
Talk by Dr. Devendra Sharma
April 15, 2013

University Journal
Interview with Dr. Devendra Sharma
Featured in Feb 2013 Vol. 16 No. 6

Campus-Wide Lecture
"Relevance of Folk Forms in Today's Society"
January 11, 2013

Prithvi Theatre
Nautanki "Hanuman ki Ramayan"
Directed by Dr. Devendra Sharma
June 5-6, 2012

Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)
Nautanki "Sultana Daku"
Directed by Dr. Devendra Sharma
January 23, 2012