Long before entertainment fitted in the palm of our hands, one had to wait for months to see some dance or drama performance. As with most performing arts of yore, Prahalad Natak or Prahallad Nataka, a folk theatre from Odisha, was held in the open air in the evening mostly to mark special occasions.
The play is based on a text by poet and dramatist Gopinath Pariccha, who was patronised by Raja Ramakrishna Chottaray (1857 to 1905). He was the last king of Jalantara, a small kingdom on the Odisha-Andhra border. The region is now part of the Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh.
A form of traditional theatre with a one-play repertoire, Prahlad Natak is locally known as Raja Nata or the dance of the king. It is today still performed in rural areas of Ganjam district in south Odisha, after the end of royal patronage in the last century.
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The musical theatre is unique as it combines the elements of Indian classical and folk theatre traditions like Kerala’s Theyyam, Assam’s Ankia Bhaona and Karnataka’s Yakshagana.
Prahalad Natak narrates the story of demon king Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahalad, who was rescued by Vishnu's man-lion avatar, Narasimha. The performances centre around nearly 200 songs based on 35 ragas and various talas of Odissi music.
The throne and stage
The throne of King Hiranyakashyap is the centre point of the stage set up. It is made using a seven-stepped wooden platform called the mancha, which is around six feet high. An ornate chair, representing the throne of Hiranyakashyap, is placed on top of the platform. The mancha can be easily dismantled. The area in front of the mancha is used as the stage for performance.
A temporary pillar is put up opposite the mancha for the last scene where Lord Narsimha emerges from the pillar and kills Hiranyakashyap.
While the play has 25 characters (20 males and five females), the main ones are Hiranyakashyap, his wife Lilabati, son Prahalad and Lord Ganesha besides the narrator or sutradhara. The actors have to adhere to the performance narrative and there is no room for improvisations.
Prahlad Natak is not a classical drama. Instead, the whole text is a continuous long piece and does not have scene divisions. The performance is composed in musical sequences connected by prose dialogue.
As a result, music plays an important part in Prahalad Katha. The actors are accompanied by musicians who play the harmonium, trumpets, the mardal, conch, cymbals and mukhaveena.
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The characters use elaborate costumes and masks, made using wood or papier mache. It is customary for Lord Ganesha to appear in the beginning to bless the play. He is shown wearing a papier mache mask. In some plays, Hiranyakashyap does not wear any mask and his face is painted bright red to suggest evilness. His moustache is usually made using black thread and golden zari, which adds light to the face as audience sit in the dark to watch the performance.
The actor depicting Lord Narasimha always wears a wooden mask and a big turban.
Each performance of Prahalad Natak lasts 12 hours. Earlier, in the royal courts, the play would continue for seven nights.
Ramakrusna is credited with conceiving the first performance of Prahlad Natak, which quickly spread to neighbouring areas with some variations in performances. Soon, three more plays of Prahlad Natak were written by Raja Kishore Chandra Harichandan Jagadeb of Surangi, Raja Padmanava Deo of Parlakhemundi and Raja Ramchandra Sur Deo of Tarala.
Though the plays that came later were published, the original script did not see the light of the day for many decades. Recently, it has been published by the Odisha Government’s Cultural Affairs Department. The manuscript has been preserved in the Madras Oriental Manuscript Library since 1938.
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