Hindi Folk Opera Comes to California

Lonny Shavelson

Throughout the world, indigenous rural music is fading out. It's overwhelmed by a modern, urban sound that propagates worldwide through web downloads and MP3 players. But sometimes, music that fades in one part of the world, say, remote parts of India, shows up again surprisingly far away. From Hayward, California, Lonny Shavelson brings us the sound of Indian nautanki.

Picture a rural Indian landscape of plowed farmland. The sky grows dark. Thousands of farmers and their families relax on the ground. Others sit on nearby rooftops or in trees. At ten at night, the crowd pushes back to make a circular clearing. Gas lanterns are lit, a dozen or so opera singers, actors and dancers prepare to perform until dawn -- and you have a nautanki, a Hindi folk opera once wildly popular in northern India.

Devendra Sharma, now a professor of communication at California State Fresno, grew up in India, where his father was a famed nautanki performer. "You can imagine if you have to throw your voice so that thousands of people around you can hear each word, how much power you have to have in your voice," he says, adding that he's been smitten by nautanki since he was a boy.

But nautanki is dying out in rural India, giving way to Bollywood cinema and cable TV. Sharma says his calling is to keep nautanki part by bringing it to the U.S.

But in a modern American theater , with its plush carpet and cushioned seats, he admits that nautanki isn't quite the same as back home. "I understand the audience ambience is not the same. It's more formal. But that's the challenge of modern times," Sharma says. "And as a member of the newer generation of nautanki artists, I want it to thrive. So I'm kind of experimenting with different spaces. So what I want to present to audiences is the melody of nautanki, how beautiful nautanki tunes sound."

Adapting the performance to an indoor theater wasn't the only challenge Sharma faced. While he had no trouble finding actors in the area's large Indian community, none had ever sung a nautanki. "Most of these people who are here in the Bay Area are engineers or doctors, software professionals. And they have been brought up in cities in India," he explains. "So these young people here, they love Indian culture, but they don't know much about their traditions, particularly the rural folk traditions. So it has been an eye opener, because they're now for the first time knowing about nautanki."

He says he jokes with them that they are machines during the day, and only become alive in the evenings when they are performing nautanki. And they now consider themselves artists.

It took three months for Sharma to teach his actors to sing the nautanki style and present the opera Sultana Daku. He says the lead character, which he plays, is based on a real person born in northern India in the early 1900s, a bandit.

"He used to rob rich people and help poor people, like Robin Hood. But then he became very famous because he challenged the British," Sharma says. "So all the rural people, even though he was a bandit, they thought of him as a hero because he was challenging authority... Ultimately he was caught by British and he was hanged so he became a big symbol for Indian resistance in a very local and colloquial way.

Nautankis were originally performed for farmers, laborers and others in the poor countryside. At the opening in Hayward, the audience was decidedly more educated and affluent, but just as appreciative.

One woman observed, "Sound quality and stage direction is a lot better here because of the tools they have available but it's very close to the original nautanki they did." Her friend admitted it was hard to understand at first, "because I've seen a play before but never a play sung. But once I got into the hang of it, it was good fun." Another audience member marveled, "Truly only in the Bay Area [can] you get to do this! It's awesome!"

Director Devendra Sharma calls the production a metaphor of the immigrant experience. He points out that he's bringing indigenous theater from India to Indians who've been in the United States for years, sometime decades. "Some of them behave as if this is a foreign thing. And slowly, they got like round-eyed, and they were so happy that they did this. Because it's the first time that they're being introduced to this musical tradition of India."

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