Five Indian performing arts that might soon be lost forever

Five Indian performing arts that might soon be lost forever

Five Indian performing arts that might soon be lost forever yakshagana pala beharupiya tamasha thali ki ramayana 30stades

India is home to hundreds of arts and crafts that have survived since ancient times. Each state has its own strong tradition of fine arts, performing arts, and crafts. In olden times when there were few means of entertainment, these arts not only entertained people but were also a medium to pass on the knowledge of the ancient religious scriptures, myths and folk tales that often had a moral message imbued in them.

The rulers of different kingdoms too did their bit to conserve the arts by giving them patronage and allowing their spread and development.

This vast treasure trove of Indic culture has been passed down from one generation to the next over the centuries but it is inevitable that some have been irretrievably lost.

To safeguard this extensive legacy is no mean task, especially now in the absence of patronage or government assistance to many of the art forms. The artists who are still continuing to preserve and propagate in the face of odds are deserving of our gratitude and respect.

Also Read: Left on their own, performing artists bear the brunt of Covid19

30 Stades has been regularly writing about such art forms to try and highlight the difficulties being faced by the artists and the need for their preservation.

While some efforts are being made by well-meaning individuals and organisations, in the end, they might not prove enough. Here is a list of five art forms that might disappear forever in the next few years if their artists are not provided with the financial support to sustain them.

Also Read: ‘We need a paying audience to make performing arts self-sustaining’: Odissi dancer Prachi Hota

PALA

Pala is a unique folk performing art of Odisha that combines elements of classical Odia music, theatre and Odia and Sanskrit poetry. It also has a history of communal amity as it emerged as an attempt to forge Hindu Muslim unity during the Mughal era. Pala is believed to have originated in the 16th century.

Pala troupes worship ‘Satyapir’ who is sacred to both Hindus and Muslims.

Though the Pala form originated in Bengal, it flourished in Odisha and also helped create amity between the two communities.

In olden times, Pala performances were organised in villages and towns on special occasions such as marriages, birthdays, and festivals and community members would gather to watch the lively performance. But with the march of time and development of media, the stately folk form is now fighting for survival. There are very few Pala practitioners across Odisha.

A Pala performance in Bhubaneswar. Pic: Odisha Tourism 30stades
A Pala performance in Bhubaneswar. Pic: Odisha Tourism

A Pala group consists of five to seven members. A Pala performance begins with the ensemble entering the stage to the loud music of cymbals and mridang. After the ensemble, the main gayak (singer) enters into the arena and the group first offers invocation to Satyapir, the presiding deity.

The gayak or gana then begins the performance. He is supported by the bayaka (drummer) and the palia (chorus). The Sri Palia is the main chorus singer who supports the gayak. He also holds cymbals in his hands and strikes them in time to the music. The others support the singing and also dance to the music in slow, small steps.

Read More: Pala: Odisha’s 16th-century folk ballad with roots in Hindu-Muslim unity

The gayak sings ballads from Odia poetry written between the 17th and 20th centuries.

The poems and kavyas are sung in the traditional chhanda (quatrain) classical style. Apart from the traditional poems, the gayak also sings episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

TAMASHA

Tamasha is a unique musical folk drama, involving music, acting and dance that developed in a specific form in Jaipur. Dilip Bhatt is the sixth generation of Tamasha performers keeping the tradition alive. His ancestors came from Andhra Pradesh to the court of Sawai Ram Singh II, who ruled Jaipur from 1835 to 1880 and was a patron of the arts.

With the decline of the princely states, the tradition also languished in the absence of any support from the government even though the Bhatt family continued to perform Tamasha.

Dilip Bhat performing Tamasha. Pic: courtesy Dilip Bhat 30stades
Dilip Bhat performing Tamasha. Pic: courtesy Dilip Bhat

Traditionally, Tamasha was performed in the open air with the actors in the middle and the audience sitting around them.

Back then, Tamasha was only performed twice a year, on Dhulandi (the day after Holi) and Chaitra Amavasya, in the Amrikeshwar Mahadev temple in Amer.

The performance began around noon and continued till 5 pm, says Dilip. Much of that has changed due to compulsions of modernity. Now performances are of shorter duration and can be held anytime. The performances are based on stories written by Bansidhar Bhatt including Gopichand Bhartrihari, Jogi Jogan and other popular tales such as Heer Ranjha, Roopchand Gandhi and Jhutthan Miyan.

Read More: Jaipur’s Bhatt family struggles to keep alive the Tamasha tradition

Music is a significant component of Tamasha. The songs are semi-classical and composed in a dozen or so ragas such as Bhairav, Bhairavi and Malkauns.

The other ragas include Kalingada, Asavari, Jaunpuri, Kedar, Bhupali, Bihag, Pahadi, Mand and Pilu. The main instruments used are Harmonium, Tabla, Sarangi and Ghungroos.

THALI KI RAMAYAN

Thali ki Ramayan is an Indian folk art form that has been enthralling the audience for over 150 years. Literally meaning rendition of the Ramayana using a plate (thali or thaali in Hindi), the art is practised by mandalis or small troupes in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh who perform across north India. 

The performances are not limited to just episodes from the epic Ramayana as the name suggests; they also include stories from the Mahabharata. Off late, social issues around unity, brotherhood, environment and community development are also highlighted by artists who include one or two lead singers accompanied by others playing the musical instruments. 

Read More: Thali ki Ramayan: The 150-year-old farmers’ performing folk art from Uttar Pradesh

Mostly performed by members of the Yadav community in Etah, which lies within the cultural region of Braj, the patrons of Thali ki Ramayan cut across the boundaries of caste in rural India.

The art form is passed on orally from one generation to the next as there is no documentation on its origin. 

Thali Ki Ramayan is Uttar Pradesh's folk art performed by farmers. Pic:  30stades
Thali Ki Ramayan is Uttar Pradesh’s folk art performed by farmers. Pic: Courtesy Dinesh Chandra Yadav

While Thali ki Ramayan is mostly based on the two epics, it is very different from the regular rendition of Valmiki’s Ramayana or sage Vyasa’s Mahabharata written in Sanskrit.

The performance is in the Braj or Brij Bhasha, a western dialect of Hindi spoken in Mathura, Etah, Agra and Aligarh.

Also, the artists perform their own interpretations of stories from the epics, not always following the popular view. There are about 40 to 50 groups in Etah that perform Thali ki Ramayan.

It is not a professional performance art like nautanki (a folk theatre form that involves acting and singing). Most performers are farmers during the day who double up as artists during the evening.

The lead singer in Thali ki Ramayan is accompanied by others who play the manjira (a pair of clash cymbals), dholak (two-headed hand drum), chimta (a pair of tongs), gagri or ghara (a metallic or earthen water pot) and the thali – a plate made of bronze. Played together, their vibrations energize the surroundings and complement the lead singer’s rendition.

BEHARUPIYA

Beharupiya or Behrupiya is a traditional performing art that was once widespread in many parts of India. The Beharupiya was an impressionist who would make a dramatic entrance at social gatherings such as weddings or festivities disguised as a policeman, priest or mythological figure.

Akram Khan, the seventh-generation Behrupiya performer in his family. Pic: StillSpace Theatre 30stades
Akram Khan, the seventh-generation Behrupiya performer in his family. Pic: StillSpace Theatre

The custom during these appearances was that if the Beharupiya’s identity was discovered, then he did not get any money from the audience. But if he successfully convinced the audience of his identity he was then given a tidy sum for entertaining the audience.

Over time, the art form has declined with most practitioners living in poverty.

Behrupiya literally means one with bahu (many) roop (appearances or forms). Beharupiyas are sometimes also referred to as Naqqal (copycat) or Maskhara (jester or buffoon).

Traditionally, Behrupiyas would choose from one of the 52 traditional roles that were played. But over time, some modern roles have been added.

In the past, Behrupiyas were more than artists. They assisted in circulating, transmitting and publicising the various knowledge forms in the popular domain of Samaj (society).

Interestingly, Kautilya’s Arthashastra mentions that in the Mauryan kingdom’s religious processions and tableaux were taken out where the Beharupiya artists would dress as gods and were taken around the kingdom.

Beharupiyas would provide entertainment not only in the streets but also in the courts of kings and other elites. In Rajasthan, the Behrupiyas served under Sawai Madho Singh, the erstwhile ruler of Jaipur.

Also Read: From online performances to vaccination, Bangalore’s StillSpace Theatre helps artists keep alive their arts during the pandemic

Beharupiyas were also known to have served as spies under kings due to their expertise in disguising themselves. They also helped freedom fighters during the freedom struggle.

YAKSHGANA

Yakshagana literally means ‘songs of the demi-gods’. This traditional art form flourished under the patronage of kings of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 15th century.

Yakshagana is the traditional folk theatre from the coastal belt of Karnataka, covering Dakshin Kannada, Udupi, Malaynadu and Kerala’s Kasargod district.

Members of the Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali at a performance. Pic: Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali 30stades
Members of the Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali at a performance. Pic: Idagunji Mahaganapati Yakshagana Mandali

The art combines dance, music, theatre and costumes to create powerhouse performances that enthral audiences.

As with all traditional arts and crafts that face the challenge of survival, Yakshagana too has undergone adaptations to suit a modern audience as it struggles to find a national and global platform.

Traditionally, the performances would be held within the temple premises through the night as artists went from one village to another. From temples, Yakshagana has moved to urban spaces and indeed to social media besides travelling around the world. The duration of the acts too has been shortened to suit audiences.

Read More: Yakshagana: Karnataka’s ancient theatrical dance art adapts to reach global audience

The Yakshagana act consists of the mummela or foreground actors who perform the dance drama and the himmela — background musicians led by the Bhagavatha or lead singer. The artists too are trained in ragas, talas and vocal exercises. 

The Yakshagana performances are in Kannada. In the coastal belt, some troupes also perform in Tulu. Dialogue delivery is the toughest aspect of the performance as the act is not scripted.

Also Read: Buried at birth, how Gulabo Sapera survived to become the global ambassador of Rajasthan’s Kalbelia folk dance:

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