From four o’clock in the evening people started arranging for bamboo poles; some started fixing them in the ground. The loud speaker was belting out film songs interspersed with Maithili and Bhojpuri folk numbers.
The bamboo poles were raised. Then, the khatiyas (wooden cots) were arranged for the audience to sit on. Thereafter, multi-coloured tents were hung. Swarms of people gathered to help with the arrangements, all the time gazing curiously around. As time passed, people’s excitement grew. Some of the actors were helping to erect the stage while the others had already started putting on make-up, surrounded by the crowd in the make-up room. The actors’ faces showed that they didn’t like the audience thronging around them, and the leader began to mutter… “What strange people these are! The actors also need some rest. But who cares?! Some want to have a glimpse of Rudal, some Sonma, some Deva, and some Annar- they want to see their favourite actors in spite of all the abuses from the manager!
– From Ramesh Ranjan’s ‘Fulbharan’
Naach, the folk drama of Mithila1 in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plain, has its roots in peasant society. Though essentially pastoral, it is not related to the seasonal rounds of agricultural activity that generate many forms of folk poetry. The performers of Naach are generally artisans or farmers from the same community and perform on special occasions like the Chhath and Dasain festivals. The actor Lale Raut, is a farmer, while Ram Birich Thakur is a barber; rarely are Naach performers from the upper-castes. The business is seasonal and performers cannot earn a living from Naach. Ramdev Mandal, manager of Kumhraura Bhagwatipur Naach Party says that the demand for performances has greatly declined.
Maithili Naach utilises a number of folk themes in the story. Dialogue delivery depends on the wit of the artists since the dialogues are not written. In addition, Naach brings up issues of social change on stage, clearly demarcating the line between good and evil in the context of Maithil society. Says Phulo Pasman, a Naach performer, “In these dramas we find the seeds of cultural consciousness of the Maithili people.”2
The folk theatre of Mithila shares a great deal with other genres of folklore, such as folk epic, folk song, and folk tale, and a single folk item can exist in various forms. For example, the story of Salhesh, exits in Mithila as a legend, a folk epic and a folk play at the same time. Salhesh was a legendary figure of Mithila, the king of Mahisautha, which lies today in the Siraha district of Nepal, around the fifth or sixth century. It is similar to other folk materials such as Gopi Chand and Kamal Brijbhar. Naach belongs to a large group of narrative that includes the various legends and tales known to the Maithli people. These legends, which are more secular than religious, include Rani Saranga, Dinabhadri, Salhesh and others.
At the formal level, these stories are structured according to a musical and prosodic plan distinctive to the genre. The drama is performed in episodes throughout the night and it might take a week, or even two, to finish a story. Naach uses musical instruments like nagara, (kettle drum), shehnai, clarinet and harmonium. Each dialogue in verse is followed by a musical passage using the same melody and rhythm which is followed by a dialogue in prose often as an explanation of the things in verse.
Origins of Naach
Naach is probably as old as Maithili itself. As Phulo Pasman says, “Maithili folk drama emerged along with the language around the eighth and ninth century. As a dialect is born before the language, folk drama comes into existence before classical drama.” Jyotiswor Thakur, a scholar and philosopher in the court of King Hari Singh Dev of Mithila (1296-1324 A D), mentioned the existence of Naach in his book Barnratnakar. The book was written in the early period of the 14th century when the Kirtaniya style of Maithali court theatre had still to take shape. With this marker, scholars trace the history of Naach back to the 8th and 9th century A D.
Naach is, however, not the kind of folk drama that Jyotiswor mentions in his Barnratnakar. Does he refer to the ‘Jhijhia’ and ‘Jat-Jatin’3 or is he talking about folk drama such as Salhesh and Brijbhar. Has ‘Naach’ been influenced by the court theatre? If so, to what extent? In response to these questions posed by this writer, Mahendra Malangiya, a Maithili dramatist from Malangiya, a small village in the Madhubani district of Bihar, responds that the manner in which the artist uses the stage and musical instruments shows that Naach has been influenced by the court theatre of Mithila. And the kind of Naach that Jyotiswor mentions in his Barnratnakar may refer to the Jat-jatin and Jhijhia forms. Naach, believes Malangiya, is the unification of court theatre and folk epic, adopting the elements of dance, song, musical instruments and stage from the court, using existing Maithili legends as a popular form of entertainment.
Since Naach builds on folk epics, its presentation becomes one filled with many characters, plots and events. To complement the storytelling, Naach relies on orchestra, song, dance, poetry, and of course witty dialogue delivery. While the principal characters don vibrant, colourful costumes, the minor characters wear day-to-day clothes. It is an all-male cast, as women on stage are still considered immoral. Naach is performed on the waist-high platform, described so evocatively by Ramesh Ranjan above. In making the temporary stage, Naach artists gather materials for stage making from villagers and construct the stage in an open village square. They collect khatiyas, wooden logs and bamboo for the stage which faces the audience from three sides while the upper and rear of the stage is curtained. The few permanent stage platforms of brick and mortar that have been erected in some village squares are open from all directions and need to be tented before the performance. The dressing room is a few metres away from the stage.
When the music begins, the performance is declared open. Music and dance are inseparable companions of Maithali folk drama. Song is considered the most important dramatic element, and 60 to 70 percent of the performance may be devoted to singing. As with the instruments, the singing has to loud so as to be projected to the crowds. To accomplish this, actors cultivated an open-throated vocal style. Though electric amplifiers are used nowadays, they have not brought any change in the singing style.
In determining the nature of a performance, context plays a vital role. Naach reflects the very essence of Maithili culture. While talking about the role of context, Kapil Vastsyayan, an Indian dancer and an expert of Indian performative art writes: “Context plays a vital role particularly in a performative genre. Maithili Naach sheds some light on Mailthili culture and life particularly when it focuses on the male female relationship, and the distribution of power among different characters.” So the caste system, marriage relations and the relationship of people to their deities all become part of the performance.
As Mahendra Malangiya points out, Naach bears both the time of history as it brings historical character and events on stage and time of performance when it throws light on the problems people face in their daily lives. The gap of past and present sometimes causes total transformation of the historical material. Sometimes, the character on the stage speaks more of the actors than the historical hero.
Such a transformation of character can be seen in the presentation of Salhesh Naach. Salhesh, the hero is called Surma Salhesh: the word Surma implies courage, power and heroics. But actions on the stage reveal the opposite. Kushma, who is madly in love with him, easily changes him into a parrot. He does not hesitate to work as a gate keeper of a princess. He prefers the path of self-sacrifice than revenge. In fact , this is a result of the fact that historical material is changed to meet the temperament of the actors, who in Maithil society rarely are able to fight against their landlords.
Maithil society, as defined by Kapila Vastsyayan, is an organized village society whose origin can be linked with the Bedic concept of grama, or village, where music, dance and drama have been woven into agricultural functions and where drama contains the indigenous myths and legends of the oral tradition.
Although the tradition of Maithili ‘Naach’ has been a powerful culture force, preserving the hundreds of folk lore and folk epics in a form that has been entertaining the common people by including the different ingredients like dance music and story, its popularity is dwindling.
Its close linkage with agriculture means that as agriculture itself loosens its hold over rural life, the hold of Naach is also weakened. There is less inclination of people with non-agricultural jobs to sit through nights of performances over weeks. This art form has also received minimal attention from scholars, and artists are also losing interest in a form that is considered ‘backward’. Moreover, the inroads made by electronic media have been too powerful to resist. Despite these changes, there are as many as 50 Naach companies active in Mithila, and Naach remains a prominent form of theatre. There is still a buzz when the stage is erected and the music begins.
Watch a clip of a Salhesh Naach performance staged at Thera on 14 October 2010.
Malangiya, Mahendra. “AaikhakDekhal. KanakSunnal”.Ankita. 2003.
Mishra, Jaykant. A History of Maithila Literature. Delhi: Rajkamalprakashan 1993.
Pasman, Phulo. “MaithaliDalitbargiyaLoknatya. “MaithaliNatakakBikash. Ed.
Dev Kant Jha and Dinesh Kumar Jha. New Delhi: Sahitya Academy. 2006
Rajan Ramesh, “Fulbharan” SamkalinSahitya. Magh, 2062 B.S.
Vastsyayan, Kapila, Introduction. Traditional Indian Theatre: Multiple Streams. 2nd ed. New Delhi: National Book Trust India. 2005.
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