The Folk and The Classical
(Folk Theater Of India By Balwant Gargi)

THE FOLK theater is impolite, rude, vulgar.  It shocks prudes.  The secular forms - Tamasha, Nautanki and Naqal - dominating the northern and western parts of India are replete with sexual jokes.  It is considered improper for women to watch these plays.  In the city of Poona, many professors and intellectuals, champions of culture, refuse to see a folk play because of its "vulgarity".

Folk drama is unself-conscious, spontaneous, boisterously naive.  The classical theatre is rigid, complex, sophisticated.  The folk is unhewn, the classical chistled.  The folk sprawls, the classical demands mathematical exactness.  One is rural, the other regal.

Folk theatre can make a whole community take part; the classical is for the chosen few.  The folk has mass appeal and caters to the lowest common denominator, the ordinary man; the classical is for the elite and demands previous knowledge from the spectator.  The folk theater has a universality which the classical lacks.  Folk art (singing, dancing, acting) crosses the borders of class, religion, and country.  The classical often imposes these barriers because of its esoteric nature.

The relationship between the classical and folk theatre is complex.  They are not antitheses of each other.  They coexist; they borrow and lend.  We know that folk art always precedes classical.  Cave drawings and primitive hunt mimes were the precursors of painting and dancing.  Greek tragedy and comedy were born out of fertility rites and the frenzied worship of Dionysus.  The classical Indian drama also grew out of pageants, rituals, mimes and ancient folk forms.  But the Indian folk theatre prevalent in rural areas today is only four to six hundred years old.

India is a country of kaleidoscopic contrasts.  Four hundred and eighty million people inhabit the giant triangle which stretches from the snow-capped Himalayas down to the tapering tropical Cape Comorin.  There are fifteen major languages, including English; more than seven hundred dialects; six important religions; half a dozen ethnic groups; and many different castes and creeds.  The wheat-complexioned bearded sikhs in their colored turbans in the Punjab; the ebony-bodied naked Santhals in the east; the close-shaven Dravidian priests of the south, the full-busted dark women of Maharastra; the Mongolian-flavoured people of Assam; and the sun-baked ballad singers of Rajasthan offer a baffling variety.  Religious beliefs, eating habits, social customs, rituals, styles of turban, hairdos, and beards, and the draping of saris and dhotis differ from region to region.  Yet the people are bound by a common impulse embedded in their philosophy, music, arts and tradition.  The folk theatre mirrors both this variety and this unity.

When, after the tenth century, the classical Sanskrit language splintered into vernaculars and took root in the form of regional languages, the Sanskrit drama, petrified for many centuries - was replaced by the growing folk theater.  Old legends, Puranic tales, mythological lore, philosophy, and stories of Sanskrit plays were popularized by the present folk theater.  In this way, the tradition flowed not from the folk to the classical, but from the classical to the folk.

The folk theater inherits many of the classical conventions.  

The Sutradhara (Stage Manager) of Sanskrit drama appears in vernacular folk forms as the Ranga, the Bhagavatha, the Vyas, or the Swami.  The Buffoon, the counter part of the classical Vidushaka, is the darling of the folk theatre.  He appears under different names in various regional forms: Konangi, Komali, Hanumanayaka, Joothan Mian.  He speaks in rustic prose or dialect.  He has the freedom to connect the past with the present and relate the drama to the contemporary scene.  He also acts as liaison between the audience and the players.  The purvaranga (stage preliminaries) is an essential feature of both Sanskrit and folk theater.  The musicians take their positions on the stage, tune their instruments, and play a melody; the dancers perform a few dance numbers; the cast sings a mangalacharana (a vernacular form of the classical invocation).   Some of the the folk theaters also use a benediction at the end of the play.  They employ music, dance, stylization, verse dialogue, exaggerated make-up, and masks with the same lavishness as the classical drama.  Scenes melt into one another.  The action continues in spite of changes of locale and scene.  Asides, solioquies, and monologues abound.

Folk theater represents the people in their natural habitat, with all their contradictions and multifarious activities.  It gives a glimpse of their style of speech, music, dance, dress, behavior, humor, proverbs, wit and wisdom.  It contains a rich store of mythological heroes, medieval romances, chivalric tales, social customs, beliefs and legends.  In order to understand the colorful diversity and unity of India, it is important to see the folk theater in its natural setting.  Watching a Tamasha performance in Maharastra, one comes to know more about the Peshwas, the Maratha heroism, their rugged landscape, their music, their passionate optimism, their dogged virility, and the full-busted female figures of their cave sculpture.  Similarly the Gangetic Valley culture, philosophy, and traditional morality are mirrored in Ramlila and Krishnalila pageant plays.  Yakshagana, the opulent folk opera of Kanara land, revels the tradition, temple worship, and the peculiar music and ritual of its people.  The Jatra of Bengal expresses patriotic fervor, histrionic refinement, and explosive nationalism with an interlacing of the Vaishnava cult.

The folk theater does not give a slice of life; it offers a panorama of existence.  Though it moves slowly, it cannot afford to be dull.  The spectators are participants in the performance.  They cheer and laugh and weep and suddenly become silent as the moment demands.  They constantly throw sparks of live interest to the actors who, charged with this electrifying contact, throw the spark back.  A good Yakshagana company can hold spectators spellbound from nine in the evening to seven in the morning when the play concludes with the first shafts of the sun.  Jatra actors in Bengal are a bigger draw than modern professional actors.  A good Jatra company generally has a salaried staff of 15,000 rupees (* 1 dollar equals approximately 4.75 rupees) per month )One actor Chhota Phani, is paid 3,300 rupees a month) and performs without a microphone before an audience of three to five thousand people.  The Jatra, in its production method, in its use of stage areas, movement, speed and the oaklike stance of its actors, paradoxically looks more modern in terms of theatrical aesthetics than the realistic "modern" play.

Life in India is in the street.  Shops, stalls, rituals, bathrooms are exposed to the sun and to the glare of the people.  So is the folk theater.

The idea of a closed theater is almost foreign to the Indian masses.  In the nineteenth century, when the British introduced their educational system, they also brought in the concept of the picture-frame stage.  In big cities where the amateur movement developed, a few theater halls were built in mid-Victorian style with plush curtains, gilded chairs, and chandeliers.  But in seven hundred thousand villages of India the traditional dance dramas, pageants, operatic ballads, and folk plays continue to entertain audiences in the open air. 

The folk play is performed in a variety of arena stagings: round, parabolic, horizontal, square and multiple-set stages, with different types of gangways and "flower-paths."  The techinique of arranging various scenes at the same time and place in Ramlila is very effective.  The spectacle, by the telescoping of time and space, speeds the action of the drama.  The naked stage achieves spacelessness.  The Sutradhara, like a film editor, builds up a montage of varied dramatic episodes.  The same spot is transformed into a different place by a word or an action. The folk actor uses very few props.  He creates palaces, rivers forests, battle schenes, and royal courts by the sorcery of his art.

The most crystallized folk theatre forms are: Jatra of Bengal, Nautanki, Ramlila and Raslila of North India, Bhavai of Gujarat, Tamasha of Maharastra; Therukoothu of Tamilnad; Yakshagana of Kanara; and the Chhau mask dramas of Seraikella.  These forms give a glimpse of the richness of folk theater and folk culture and the passion of the people for life and drama.  

Courtesy & Copyright : Sri Balwant Gargi

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Last updated on : 11 Mar 2002 .
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