Walk Through The Diverse Landscape Of Folk Theatre In India

Posted on 26 April, 2016 by Team Wishberry

Exploring-folk-theatre-of-India Theatre in India has a history that’s about 2000 years old, and its rich with all kinds of stories and narratives. Amongst the many myriad shades of Indian theatre, folk there occupies a special place, even today. And with a country like India, where cultural shades vary from region to region, state to state, folk theatre makes for an even diverse and interesting subject. So, gird your loins and get ready. We’re taking a trip through the uniquely eclectic folk theatre from the various parts of India.

Tamasha in Maharashtra

Tamasha is characterized by its loud song and dance (Lavani) routine. Taking strong roots in the 18th century during the Peshwa rule, each Tamasha has the following roles: Kalavanth (actors), Sutradhar (narrator), Nachya (dancers who were earlier known to play women’s roles), Dholkia (drummer), Surne (singer) and Songadya (the jester). Although started as a purely song and dance routine, soon Tamasha plays started incorporating small dramatic and comic acts, with the actors mostly improvising their lines. Each Tamasha group does up to 200 shows in a year in Maharashtra and the bordering villages of Gujarat and Karnataka.

Bhavai in Gujarat and Rajasthan

Bhavai is a form of folk drama that started in Gujarat and later spread to Rajasthan. Each Bhavai has a series of playlets (short plays or pieces of drama) called as Vesha and each Vesha has its own plot. A Bhavai drama usually broadly covers any of the following themes: mythology, social, royal and contemporary. Like Tamasha, dancing is an integral part of a Bhavai performance. But this is no ordinary dancing – it’s usually an interesting mix of Raas, Garba and Kathak. Although in their early days Bhavai plays were usually around Ram Leela, today they mostly revolve around currently relevant social topics.

Nautanki in UP

Nautanki is a popular form of drama all across North India. What’s most interesting about a Nautanki is the level of involvement from the whole village. The community handles the logistics of the performance, helps in the finances and even contributes talent in the form of actors. In fact, they even choose the script that will be performed on a specific day! The themes of a Nautanki performance shifted from mythology to anti-colonialism and anti-feudalism to social messages and awareness about issues like HIV, women’s exploitation, immigration and family planning. Some of the most notable Nautanki plays include Syah-Posh, Sultana Daku, Beti Ka Byah among others.

Bhand Pather in Kashmir

Prevalent in Jammu and Kashmir, Bhand Pather revolves around two main themes – satire and mythology, highlighting social evils and issues. Music and dance are an integral part of Bhand Pather, with an orchestra of instruments like the dhol, nagara, swarnai and thalij, wherein the swarnai is used to summon the locals at a particular place where the performance is being held.

Jatra in West Bengal

Jatra is a form of theatre widely spread throughout West Bengal as well as Bangladesh. A Jatra play is usually 4-hours long and is full of song, dance and dramatic monologues. Characteristic features of a Jatra are loud music, dramatic lighting and strong lighting all put together on a gigantic stage. Another notable feature unique to Jatras is the presence of a generic character who serves as the voice of conscience and a moral guardian, vaguely similar to the Sutradhar in a Tamasha. Jatra plays are known to begin with a climax and then take the viewers on a journey from there. Each Jatra season begins in September (around Durga puja) and ends just before the monsoons.

Maach in Madhya Pradesh

Maach is a form of folk theatre that originated in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. A typical feature of Maach is the blending of religious and secular themes via semi sacred characters. Maach plays are full of stories of legendary local and state heroes. However, in recent times  these plays have deviated from historical and legendary themes to incline more towards contemporary themes specific to the region, such as landless labour, illiteracy and dacoity.

Bhaona in Assam

Bhaona is a traditional form of play prevalent in Assam. Bhaona plays always have a religious message in the end. With origins dating back to as far as the sixteenth century, what differentiates Bhaona from other forms of theatre is that this is usually a one-act play, wherein the performers act wearing huge masks (sometimes even 15-feet long!).

Yakshagana in Karnataka

Yakshagana is said to be one of the oldest and most influential forms of folk theatre. In fact, it has lent inspiration to and heavily influenced Tamasha theatre in Maharashtra too, after a travelling troupe performed in Maharashtra in 1842. Mythology is a ruling theme of a Yakshagana performance and is used to even convey modern day messages. What’s truly interesting about Yakshagana is that it transcends conventional ideas of folk or classical theatre. In its earliest days, a Yakshagana performance would last for 12 hours, but it has now been reduced to 3 hours.

Therukoothu in Tamil Nadu

Therukoothu draws thematic inspiration from the Mahabharata. A version of Sutradhar, but unique to Therukoothu is the Kattiyakkaran – the interlocutor who introduces all characters, narrates the prose and provides detailed explanation of certain parts of the story or events. Other unique characteristic traits include spontaneous delivery of dialogues and humorous dance moves.

Mudiyettu Koodiyattam in Kerala

Mudiyettu Koodiyattam or Mudiyett takes place between February and May. This form of theatre is performed by members of the Mara and Kuruppu communities of the Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Idukki districts of Kerala. Just like in a Nautanki, Mudiyett plays are also a wholehearted community effort. These plays usually enact the battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika. A unique characteristic of these plays is that the character of Kali is completely unrehearsed and unprepared. Each play has up to 16 people including musicians, singers, dancers, artists and actors. The folk theatre landscape of India sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? What makes this form of theatre truly special is that it remains rooted to traditions, while promoting contemporary topics specific to the region, to educate the masses! Which of these have you experienced?

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