Chapter I
Nautanki as Performative Art F orm
Once in a land, far away, there lived a princess of peerless beauty. The radiant glow of her body made the moon' s turn pale. Her eyes were like a doe's she had the voice of cuckoo. When she laughed, jasmine blossoms fell. In the prime of her youth, she maddened men with her lotus-like breasts and the three folds at her waist. She was so graceful that her weight could be measured onl y against a p ortion of flowers. This princess was known in many different regions of India under a series of names, each incorporating the word phul meaning "flower". In Rajasth an she was called Phulan Derani . In Sind and Gujarat she was known as Phulpancha (five flowers) . In the Goanese account, her name was Panch-phula Rani, as it was one of the North Indian versions. The Punjabi tale styled her Badshahzadi Phuli or Phulazadi , " Princess Blossom " as translated by colonial collectors. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, when most of these tales were recorded, a drama called Princess Nautanki (Nautanki shahzadi) was also being performed. It employed a music - laden style popular in rural Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Nautanki was Panchphula literally weighed in a different coin. Nau means "nine" and tank , a measure of silver currency equivalent to approximately four grams - Nautanki: A woman, whose weight was only 36 grams, was the princess of Multan, flower- light, fairylike, whose fame had travelled far and wide and therefore her story is still being told- " What is it like, this roving theatre? What is its name, do you know? This is Nautanki. That's right, Nautanki! The chief attraction of village fairs in Uttar Pradesh. Several days before the fair starts, the tents and trappings arrive on a truck and are set up at a fixed spot. A large tent is stretched out to form a hall. At its head, a good-sized stage is erected and adorned with curtains. All the arrangements are made for the lighting. In front of the stage, places are fixed for the audience to sit. A big gate is put up outside, and a signboard attached to it with the name of the Nautanki. " (Hansen 10).
Nautanki drama was larger than life. The predecessor to Bollywood ext ravaganzas, it was a world full of glamour, glitz and pure fantasy. Song, dance, romance and melodrama wove many a magic spell. Popular dramas performed in this genre were peopled with historical figures like Raja Harishchandra , who gave up wealth, kingdom, wife and child for the sake of keeping his word; Majnu , who went crazy for love; Rani Taramati , who too became crazy, but for her child; Laila , who was torn between loyalty and love; and Sultana Daku who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. A folk form of entertainment among the Dalit classes, Nautanki rose to prominence during the latter half of the nineteenth century. When people were exhausted by their daily lives, such fantasy provided a means of escape for them . Ordinary people often got together and put up Nautanki troupes in their humble homes, providing simple food and warm hospitality in return for a night's entertainment. Nautanki dramas were fine-tuned; its protagonists were highly skilled. Few props were used, yet actors created forests, rivers, battles and royal courts by the sorcery of their art. The same spot would be transformed into a different place by a word or a gesture. The Ranga or Sutradhar built up a montage of varied dramatic episodes and threaded them together like fine beads in a storyline. As the years went by, Nautanki became increasingly elaborate with ornate sets, sophisticated props and gaudy costumes. Drop curtains and painted sceneries were used. Nautanki worked at several levels. Some encouraged a sense of high moral duty, true love and loyalty and at the same time tensions, conflicts and varied points of view were also communicated. Therefore Nautanki presented dilemma people could relate to. They found some of their own concerns mirrored on stage. These dramas were like a distorting mirror-stretching figure, exaggerating details,