NORTH India has two extremes of folk theater: the secular Nautanki and Naqal, and the religious Ramlila and Raslila.
Nautanki, an operatic drama, is performed in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan. The earliest dramas of this form were called sangeets (musicals). One such musical, Shehzadi Nautanki (“The Story of Princess Nautanki”), became so populas in the nineteenth century that the people started calling the form “Nautanki”. According to another theory, Nautanki derives its name form natak (play), which became nataki and later nautanki. Some claim that one hundred years ago the amission fee for such performances was nau takkas (nine coins), and that from this the form derived its name.

Nautanki evolved out of ballads and recitals of bards. The ballad singers, as they unfolded their stories, gesticulated and dramatized the emotions of the various characters. Gradually, in addition to the narrator, other singers were introduced to play the different roles. The stories of saints, robbers, kings, lovers, and knights popular in the folklore have been carried on by Nautanki performers, who in many cases use most of the verses of the original ballads.

Nautanki is performed on a waist-high platform surrounded by the audience. After introductory songs in praise of the guru, the stage, and the deity (Krishna, Shiva, Saraswati, or some other), the Ranga (Stage Manager-Director) sings out a dramatic event of the story and ushers in the characters. Generally the play starts with a king’s court, a robber’s den, or a queen’s palace, providing the occasion for dancing and singing. Suddenly some unusual event occurs, distrubing the colorful scene.

The actors in the traditional Nautanki sit on the stage near the orchestra but are theatrically absent. They smoke, chew pan, and get up when their turn comes. If the play is performed in a village square or in a city street, the balconies, housetops and platforms become the tiers of a gallery. The princess sits in the upper window of a house. The dauntless hero sings out a love song from below, fixes a ladder and climbs up to meet her. Natural locations and spatial levels are used to advantage.

The orchestra – harmonium, sarangi (multistringed wooden instrument), clarinet, and nagara (kettledrum) – is on the stage. The nagara is theatrically extremely effective. The player sits on his haunches and strikes it with two sticks. With thumps, thuds and clatters he punctuates entries and exits and underlines the singing;

After the bhaint (invocation song), the Ranga sings a couplet. It is followed by the chaubolaa four-line song, each line with twenty-eight beats. The chaubola singing is concluded by the daur, which has four lines, three with twelve beats and the fourth with twenty-eight. The last line of the daur is synchronized with a loud stroke of the nagara which clatters with a brilliant ferocity. Sometimes the nagara gives only a short clatter, as a rhythmic stitch, after which the other character replies. In a duet, the nagara provides punctuating strokes. The character starts his song with a short spiral note and fixes the meaning of the song by clearly pronouncing each word. If the audience is large, the characters sing each line on the four different sides of the stage, thus reaching the remotest listener. The repetition heightens the enjoyment. If the audience is small, the characters repeat the lines twice, walking from one corner to the one diagonally opposite.

In chaubola singing, the drummer injects fury into the song. The actor explodes into a dance sequence which the drummer carries further by stepping up the tempo. Drunk with its rhythm, he is like a rider whipping a galloping horse.

Chaubola and behar-e-tweel are the favorite song forms. Behar-e-tweel, a lenghty metrical composition, is good for narrative singing. The finale is the last half of the concluding line, which is repeated like a refrain. The singer goes on doubling and quadrupling its tempo. This Greeks the monotony of the long verse and provides an occasion for dance and superb drumming.

The musical scale changes with the singer. Since the music does not have a harmonic pattern as in Western music, the scale can be shifted without difficulty. For this reason, the harmonium has become an indispensable instrument, supplying cues to the actor-singers and guiding the shifting of the scale.

Of the large variety of musical meters use, the most common are the lavani, dadra, khayal, behar-e-tweel, qawali, and doha. When someone appreciatively offers money to the singer, the Ranga announces the donation in an extemporaneous rhyming couplet, weaving together the names of his father and grandfather The singer accepts the donation with a bow and puts it in the hollow of the sarangi.

Men act as women. Since the main expression is through music, the boys acting females do not stress acting nuances as uch as singing. Their high-pitched voices must be melodious. When people go to see a Nautanki, they do not care who plays the harmonium or the sarangi or the clarinet. They are concerned with the principal singers and the nagara player.


Nautanki, secular to the roots, is a beautiful blend of the Hindu-Muslim folk cultures. Its language, music, costumes, themes and characters reflect the mixed social set-up. The austere Muslims who came as conquerors in the eleventh and twelfth centuries slowly adopted the ways of local Hindus, and the Hindus slowly accepted Muslim influence in their arts. During the long Moghul rule, the arts reflected a synthesis of the two cultures. The classical Kathak dancers, steeped in Radha-Krishna lore, are dressed in Persian tunics and girdles. The Rajput miniatures of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries are an expression of the gilded refinement of Moghul courts and Hindu myths and legends. The Nautanki also manifests the vitality the two cultures.

Religious tales digested in the Nautanki have a secular coloring. Even in as sacred a play as Raja Harishchandra, (“The Truthful King Harischandra”), when the noble Queen Taramati begs money for the cremation of her dead son, she dances kicking her heels and swinging her lips. In a religious tale Sita sings of her tragic plight while casting “come-hither” glances.

The Nautankis were mostly written in Personalized Urdu with a mixture of Braj, Hindi and Rajastani. The courtly language of the Nautankis required the composer to select ornate music and to draw from the classical ragas. In actual singing, they made the ragas more folkish. the chief regional variants of the classical ragas are bhairavi, bilawal, peelu and kamaj. The Nautanki singing does not offer musical elaboration. It gives the classical melody a directness, an edge, a rural vigor.

Famous Nautankis are: Tippu Sultan, Amsr Singh Rathaur, Prithviraj Chauhan, Rani Durgawati, Panna Dai – all historical plays championing valor, honesty, and faithfulness. Among the religious ones are: Ram Banwas, Shrawan Kumar, Nala Damayanti, Mordhwaj, Raja Harischandra. Popular social romances are : Triya Chitra (“Witchery of a Woman”), Reshmi Rumal (“Silken Handkerchief”), Shahi Lakarhara (“The Royal Woodcutter”), Sultana Daku (“Sultana, the woman Bandit”), Siyah Posh(“The man in the Black Mask), Sabz Pari Gulfam (“The heavenly Nymph and Prince Gulfam”).

The story from which Nautaki takes the name tells of Princess Nautani of Multan, a famous beauty. In a neighbouring state live two brothers Bhup Singh and Phool Singh. One day the younger, Phool Singh handsome,adventurous, and rash, returns from hunting and asks his brother’s wife to serve him food quickly. She taunts him saying that he is behaving as if her were the husband of the beautiful Nautanki. Insulted, he leaves home, vowing that he will not return until he has married Nautanki. His faithful friend Yashwant Singh accompanies him. On reaching Multan, they meet the flower woman of the palace and beg her to allow them to stay in her fut. Every day this flower woman carries a garland of fresh flowers to the princess. Phool Singh, expert in the art of floral decoration, offers to weave a garland for the prince if his hostess will cook for him. The flower woman takes the garland to the princess, who suspects that someone else has prepared it and flies into a rage. The terrified flower woman explains that her nephew’s young wife has been on a short visit and that she had prepared the garland. The princess commands her to produce the young wife and the flower woman returns to her hut greatly perturbed. Phool Singh calms her, suggesting that he is a superb disguiser and will not be recognized if he puts on a woman’s clothes. The flower woman takes Phool Singh, disguised as a beautiful woman, to the princess, who is stuck by his beauty. She offers her friendship and insists that Phool singh stay in her chamber. He agrees. At night the princess sighs that if Phool Singh was a man, she would marry him. Phool Singh asks her to close her eyes, meditate and concentrate on the household diety and invoke her blessings to turn one of them into a man. This the princess does, and when she opens her eyes, she finds that her friend has turned into a man. A love scene follows. In the morning the palace maid reports the matter to the king, who orders the young man arrested and killed. Nautanki, carrying a sword and cup of poison, reaches the spot where Phool Singh is awaiting death. She drives off the executioners and challenges her father. The king, deeply touched, agrees to her marriage with Phool Singh.

Nautanki and Phool Singh have entered the vocabulary of the folk speech. Any beautiful girl dismissing her suitors one after the other is a Nautanki waiting for her Phool Singh. Hundreds of plays have been written on the theme. Most troupes have the story of Shehzadi Nautanki in their repertoire.

Siyah Posh is another popular tale. Jamal, daughter of the Wazir of Syria, is reading the Koran on her palace balcony when handsome young Gabru passes the street and points out the mistakes in her recital. Jamal looks at him and invites him to continue correcting her. He scales the palace wall, and they fall in love. Every night he meets her in her chamber. One night, while scaling the wall, he is arrested, and the Wazir orders his execution. Jamal, dressed in a black mask, arrives at the scene. The king, who has overheard their conversation on one of his nightly incognito rounds, recognizes the purity of their love an pardons them. Struck by Jamal’s nobility and faithful love, he adopts her as a daughter and marries her to Gabru, who is proclaimed heir the throne.

Raja Harischandra is the story of an ancient Hindu King who is steadfast in honoring his words. One day Sage Vishwamitra, in order to test him, appears in his court and tricks him into a promise by which he relinquishes his throne, jewels, palace – everything. In the end he is obliged to pay dakshina, a fee offered to the Brahmins. Unable to pay, the honor-bound king serves as a slave at cremation ground. His wife, Queen Taramati, is reduced to working as a domestic servant in the house of a rich man. Their young son is bitten by a snake and dies. Taramati carries the dead child to the cremation ground, but the truthful Harischandra will not cremate him because she cannot pay the fee. She begs him to chop off her head to her from further humiliation. He blindfolds his eyes and draws the sword. At this moment, Vishwamitra appears, admits the glory of the truthful Harischandra, receives his son and restores him to the throne. The story has been celebrated in ballads, plays, musical dramas and poems all over India. Films have been made from the theme. Every Indian child knows the story and is moved by the scene of Queen Taramati walking in the street with her son’s dead body in her arms.

An important 19th Century musical drama was Indrasabha (“The Court of God Indra”) by Agha Hassab Amanat, the Urdu poet of Lucknow. Amanat used traditional melodies, folk tunes and seasonal dances, adding to these, his dramatic lyric talent. The operatic play went into many editions during his lifetime. Every professional theatrical company during the second half of the 19th Century staged Indrasabha. Various Nautanki troupes modified the original to include their local myths, characters, situations and melodies. Indrasabha stands between literary drama and folk play. Its popularity invigorated Nautanki writers, who sought to emulate its whimsical and other worldly atmosphere of fairies, devils, gods, princes, wizards and dancers.

Nautanki stories are full of noble bandits, brave fighters and truthful lovers. They emphasize courage, nobility and gallantry. Events take place at fast pace. Gods, wizards and nymphs have free social intercourse with Kings, palace maids, robbers and landlords creating a fanciful world with intense appeal.

The language is simple, direct and strong. It has no literary density. In the mid 19th Century, Urdu had already become a definite language because of court patronage and the tradition of sophisticated poetic symposia. The Nautanki writers cast off the heavily-padded Hindi vocabulary and employed chiefly the more plastic Urdu.

The opening prayer song, Mangalacharana, is invariably in Sanskritized Hindi because of its religious atmosphere. The rest of the songs and the alliterative dialogue flow in a hybrid form with heavy Urdu bias. The writers mix Braj, Rajastani, Hindi and local dialects in the play, and for this reason Nautanki plays are not generally highly assessed as literary works in spite of their dramatic quality. Their popularity with rural audiences, however, is tremendous. Most villagers are acquainted with the plays, and because of their musical appeal and the directness of their language, Nautanki literature sells much better than the best sellers in Hindi or Urdu. People buy basket loads of this folk literature by weight. A customer may say, “Give me twenty seers of Nautanki”. The wholesale dealer weighs cheaply printed plays in a scale and hands them over to retail shop keepers, who circulate them among the rural folks.

The costumes do not belong to a definite period. King Harischandra wears the 17th Century gilded tunic, while Queen Taramati appears in contemporary sarees. The romantic hero struts in a velvet coat of Western style; the heroine flaunts a sari or a silken lehnga (loose flowing skirt).

Women, acted by men, use bright make-up. They apply face powder and mark cheeks and forehead with red dots and silver moons. Lamb soot accents the eyes. Nose rings, ear rings, bracelets and ankle bells add glitter.

Munshiji, the Clown, wears a coat button backward, with a patched multicolored shirt and trousers, and carries a split bamboo in his hand. Munshiji means “accountant of the household”. He was a popular in the 19th Century palaces of Nawabs and landlords, always appearing at an unfortunate moments to remind the mistress of the accounts. Knowing the seamy side of life, Munshiji moved among the cuckolds, disguised lovers, mistresses and gallant warriors, breaking the serious mood by his financial logic. He appears in Nautanki as an all knowing man whose incongruous remarks make people laugh. Sometimes he wears a hat or a turkish cap. He can wear any absurd costume, make any crazy remark, appear at any moment whenever the play drags he enters, bringing in a splash of colors.


There are 5 important akharas (schools) of Nautanki: Hathras, Muzafar Nagar, Saharanpur, Kanpur and Kanauj, each named after the town in which it originated. Of these, Hathras and Kanpur stand out for their individual styles. The Hathras was given a robust form by Indarman and perfected by his pupil Natharam Gaur of Hathras. The Kanpur is led by Srikrishan Pehalwan, an actor-singer-composer-wrestler of Kanpur who owned a Nautanki company. Both these men were exceedingly popular fifty years ago.

Natharam started his career as a young boy. He had a melodious voice and danced superbly. He played the heroine, always a beautiful princess or the daughter of a chief. Indarman’s troupe became famous because of Natharam. When Indarman grew old, he handed over the company to Natharam, who established a big professional troupe in Hathras. For years Natharam held sway over Uttar Pradesh, earning fame and fortune. His Nautanki, with its densely textured singing, erotic acting, and lusty dancing became the famous Hathras school. Over sixty plays, including Raja Harischandra and Siyah Posh, are ascribed to him, though atleast half of these were actually written by Indarman and other people.

The Hathras school has produced many famous actors. Karan, a good singer and dance director, appeared on the stage with over two hundred medals, pinned to his satin tunic. Actresses were an additional attraction in his troupe. Deep Chand, popularly known as Deepa was a favourite thiry years ago. His troupes travelled upto Calcutta and Rangoon. Now over eighty, he lives in retirement in a village in the Braj area. Anno and Shyama, two Nautanki dancing girls of Etawah were tremendously popular in the thirties. They still take part in Nautankis and still have dancing power because of their personalities. They have ringing voices and perform well even today.

The Kanpur school, though it uses the same text, differs in its style of singing and production. The Hathras lays stress on classical singing and ignores dramatic action. The Kanpur style is simpler, subordinating singing to the needs of dramatic action. In the Hathras, the invocation is sung by Ranga, after which he introduces the play. Before the invocation, the singer sings a dhrupad (a majestic, slow, classical form) always in the honor of God – Shiva, Rama and Krishna. Dhrupad singing demands a highly trained voice, well grounded in classical art. Not many dhrupad singers are left in Nautanki. The tradition is dying. In the Kanpur style, the actors do not sing an invocation but bow to the instruments, offer a muslim salam and squat on the stage.Then follows a nagma (a style of song).

Kanpur troupes perform on a picture-frame stage. The drop curtain shows the palace or a garden with the name of the company inscribed on it. Three more curtains represent the jungle, the bazaar and the court. The players enter and exit from the wings. The audience sits in the front. The Kanpur style has changed the folk character of staging and absorbed all the vices of decadent professional theaters. The Hathras, on the other hand, is open and free, played on a three foot high rectangular stage surrounded by spectators. The orchestra sits in a semicircle on the stage. The actors move freely on all sides. Boys playing female roles are a big attraction. Before the performance, they are kept hidden from the public gaze. The eager toddy-drunk spectators vie with one another in presenting gifts to them, and sometimes feuds errupt. One famous Nautanki “heroine” some thirty years ago was a good looking boy called Allah-hoo, who earned this name by singing the Allah-hoo song.

Because of its commercial character, Nautanki has attracted women performers. Its secularism has wiped out almost all of the religious elements, and it has become increasingly lewd. In Maharastra, the Tamasha woman sparkles in a performance; In the north, the Nautanki woman is emerging. After the adoption of Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act in 1959, many prostitutes and nautch girls, forced to leave their professions, joined Nautanki troupes. In Kanpur, a Nautanki Company consisting solely of female artists makes use of film tunes and other cheap melodies and emphasises tantalizing gestures in its performances. The city corporation has banned the performance of Nautanki companies within municipal limits. The troupes perform on the outskirts of the city, and the townsmen flock to gay performances. But it is the old Nautanki troupes with their all-male cast that preserve the vigor, singing style and the operatic beauty of the form.

Some folk theatrical forms closely resembling Nautanki are the Bhagat of Agra, the Khyal of Rajasthan and Maanch of Madhya Pradesh.


Bhagat, a four-hundred-year-old form of operatic drama, (This form of entertainment is mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari, the monumental sixteenth-century record of Akbar’s court) was in its earlier stages a dramatized Keertan singing with a thin story. Nautanki owes its birth to this old form and is called its “daughter”. The word Bhagat means the “devotee”, and those who perform the drama in the earliest times were devotees of Vaishnava cult. Later stories of kings, historical romances, chivalric tales were introduced, but the form never lost its religious pattern. Today there are Bhagat akharas in Mathura, Vrindaban, Agra and places associated with relious fervor. In Agra, in 1827, Ram Prasad of Amroha and Johari Raya of Motikatara produced a legendary folk play, Roop Basant, the story of 2 brothers who suffered at the hands of their step brothers. The akhara was founded, and Johari Ray was acclaimed as its first Guru.

The Khalifa is the administrator of the troupe, and membership is awarded strictly on his recommendation. The new member presents a turban to the Guru, touches his feet and offers sweets to be distributed among the members. Only then is he admitted as a disciple of Akhara. Annual contests are held between different Akharas in which only members can take part. Nautanki, on the other hand, has no such restrictions. Any actor ca be employed by a Nautanki troupe or invited or loaned at commercial rates. A Bhagat performance, unlike a Nautanki one is free because of its religious background and social status. Nautanki uses a mixture of Urdu, Persian, Braj, Hindi and Rajasthani words. Even English phrases appear and any novelty is welcome. But Bhagat employs only Hindi, Braj and Urdu vocabulary. In Nautanki, women act; in Bhagat only men.

The preparing of the Bhagat stage – a high platform – involves a long ceremony. The Guru fixes the first pole; then the construction starts. The stage is dressed with flowers and colored clothes with religious motifs. When the rehearsal starts, all the members gather in the dressing room. The Guru, well versed in rituals plants his handprint in yellow on the clay coated wall. The script is kept before the handprint, which symbolizes an auspicious beginning. Near the wall, a lamp filled with ghee is lighted and a cowdung cake smolders, emitting fumes that are considered sacred. The Nagara clatters, the musical instruments are played, and a bhaint, or prayer is sung in the honor of Goddess – Saraswati, Laxmi or Shakti.

The ceremony is repeated on the day the play is to open. The action begins with the entry of Ganesha (or Ganapati), the elephant headed God. He dances wearing a elephant head mask, vermillion trousers and a yellow satin jacket. After his introductory dance, he sits on a chair and the Khalifa offers worship to him. After Ganesha’s exit, a bhaint is sung in honor of the Goddess, followed by various prayers commemorating famous Gurus and personalities. These prayers are generally sung in couplets and chaubolas, followed by the daur , the finale of the musical composition. The Ranga then appears and acquaints the spectators with the story, theme and action to follow. The performance lasts till the small hours of the morning.

The concluding ceremony is Jyoti Shanti. The actors gather in the dressing room and sing bhaints to the Gods and Goddesses, thanking them for their “presence” during the performance. The Guru puts out the flame of the ghee lamp, ending the ceremony.


The Khyal of Rajasthan is lyrical in temperament. The name probably comes from the Urdu word khyal, meaning “imagination”, perhaps because of the Khyal is an operatic drama without realistic setting or decode, which depends upon the imagination of the audience. It is also possibly a corruption of the Hindi word Khel, meaning “a play”.

Its themes are historical romances, love tales and religious stories full of chivalry. The tradition of heoism, for which the sandy land of Rajasthan is famous has been popularized by Amar Singh Rathaur, Balaji, Pritviraj Chauhan and Tejaji, Ballad singers of this region depict the the valor of their chiefs, kings and local Robin Hoods. The Khyal became a popular dramtic form in the early 18th Century when Rajput miniature paintings were expressing the heroic life of the land with fine line and color. Romantic plays include Laila Majnu, Pathan Shehzadi , Sultan Nihalde, Dhola Maru; Religious ones include Raja Bharatari, Narsi Bhagat, Nala Damayanti and Draupadi Swayamvara.

Khyal includes a variety of styles derived form the famous composers and regions. The Kuchamani style owes its name to Lacchi Ram of Kuchaman who introduced melodic variety and vigor in the dance steps. The main meters are Doha, Lavani, Kavit, Dubola and Chaubola. He wrote over 2 dozen Khyals which are performed today by professional groups. The Shekhawati style (from Shekhavati region) was created 150 years ago by 2 brothers Jhali Rama and Prahladi Ram of a rich Brahmin family, who blended the folk melodies with classical ragas and raginis. The principal ones are Jaijaiwanti, Asavari, Mand, Chandravali, Sorath, Malhar and Des. The Khyal actor-singer does not depend on rehearsals since the theme and the song are known to everyone and are sung in daily life at parties and fairs.


Maanch is the lyric drama of Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh. The name Maanch originates from manch, “the stage”. A week before the performance, the flag staff,or stage pole, is fixed according to the old Sanskrit tradition and the Guru, generally the playwright-actor,performs the ceremonial worship. The stage is open on all sides. In earlier times, it had and extension where the village nobility and the officials sat. There was also an arrangement for instrumentalists to sit at another stage level.

The play begins with the entire cast on stage in full costume and make-up, their hands folded with eyes shut, singing the invocation. The Bhishti(water carrier ) sprinkles water and sanctifices the stage. The Farrason(attendant) spreads a carpet. The Bhishti and Farrason act out these services while singing the glory of their functions. Then the Chopdar(herald) announces the play, introduces the characters , and sets the mood.

Most actors in Maanch are from artisan classes; Goldsmiths, Tailors, Carpenters, Gardeners, Coppersmiths. Only men participate. The one exemption has been eccentric woman, Babajan, who appeared in heroic roles and wore a turban and a loose sleeved shirt. She performed on the Malwa folk stage until 20 years ago, when she died the age of 84.

The dialogue of the characters always ends with a refrain, sung by the instrumentalists and the actors and punctuated by the Dholak(the drum). The language is traditionally Malwi, although, now Hindi is also being used. Modern Maanch was started by Guru Balmokand, who died while still a youth, during a performance of Genda Pari(“The fairy of the Marigold Flower”). He left sixteen plays which have been printed and are still popular in Malwa.

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