Street Performances To Grand Stages: Theatre In India's Festivals

While over 300 small and large theatre practices exist in India, some participatory ones take centre stage in festive seasons
Hanuman and  Ravan in Tolu Bommalatta
Hanuman and Ravan in Tolu Bommalatta

The hypnotic beat of a large nagada drum fills the night air. The traveling Nautanki Company is in town. Two teenage boys dance on top of an elaborate arch, trying to draw the crowds and fill every seat in the shamiana auditorium in a small north Indian town. Announcements blare out on a loudspeaker about the night's show—the evergreen tragic love story of Laila Majnu.

Nautanki, one of the many folk theaters of India, was a popular form of entertainment for over 100 years. Mythological and quasi-historical stories were the main fare, and traveling companies would criss-cross India—some even went as far as Indonesia and East Africa—to perform before huge audiences outdoors. With their larger-than-life characters, racy dialogue, rhetorical speech, rousing song-and-dance sequences, and gaudy costumes, these plays foreshadowed the Indian cinema tradition. And then, in the 1920s, the movies replaced them.

In many parts of the country, folk theaters continue—in disparate forms and languages. For instance, the jatra folk form thrives in Bengal, especially during the Durga Puja season, and top Bengali film stars are big draws in these elaborate plays staged in Bengal and Assam.

A Jatra performer applies makeup to a fellow actor
A Jatra performer applies makeup to a fellow actorGetty Images

Across the length and breadth of India, over 300 small and large performance traditions exist—including the tamasha of Maharashtra and the bhavai of Gujarat. While certain folk dramas are mounted throughout the year, others are performed annually, often coinciding with festivals.

Theatre Of The Eternal

A unique ritual performance occurs between April and June in over 40 villages in Northern Tamil Nadu. This is Draupadi Amman, as much a magnet for large audiences as the Ramlila of Ramnagar, held on the opposite bank of the Ganga in Varanasi.

Ritual performances are more than festive celebrations or theatrical events. For the audience, these experiences are also a collective assertion of identity through a periodic retelling of powerful myths.

The Draupadi Amman festival begins with each village community selecting a multi-caste group, five of whom play the Pandavas and another five play those who survive the Mahabharata war.

Through the month of performance, these ten men must live in a temple, fast regularly and wear yellow garments.

The epic is narrated every afternoon for the first 15 days. For the rest of the month, Therukoothu—street theatre—troupes perform scenes from the Mahabharata every night. The 500-year-old folk form is similar to Kerala's kathakali or yakshagana of Karnataka. Actor-dancers dance and sing in colorful costumes, winged ornaments on their shoulders, and chest shields of wood (together weighing almost 40 kilos), often rotating on their knees.

A shadow puppet of painted leather
A shadow puppet of painted leather Getty Images

In the courtyard of every Draupadi temple, stands a statue of Aravan, the son of Arjun and a Naga (snake deity) princess, who was sacrificed with his consent before the Mahabharata war. The story goes that he had two wishes one, that even though he was to be beheaded before the war, he wished to witness it. Second, he wanted the experience of being with a woman before giving up his life. To fulfil the second wish, Krishna appeared to him as Mohini.

In a fascinating replay of this tragic union, transgender people from all over the South congregate at these Draupadi temples dressed as Mohini on a specific night to marry the statue of Aravan. The following day they smash their bangles and weep to mark their widowhood.

Yakshagana materials setup in backstage
Yakshagana materials setup in backstage Shutterstock

While the performances carry on through the night, people are also at work creating a 30-foot-long mud sculpture of Duryodhana lying on the ground. This will be destroyed by stomping feet on the festival's last day, recalling the smashing of Duryodhana's thighs by Bhima.

This is participatory theatre at its best, as the audience can question actors during the performance, participate in the Draupadi Swayamvar, carry out rituals for the deceased in their own families and soon. The interplay between the individual and society, the coming together in the temple every day, the recognition and social acceptance of the transgender, validated by myth and tradition, the triumph of good over evil by the destruction of the evil Duryodhana are all key themes of this festival.

An artist depicting Kovalan
An artist depicting KovalanWikimedia Commons

While this is a rare retelling of the Mahabharata, themes from the Ramayana appear regularly on stage. In many parts of North India, Dussehra is celebrated by staging a 10-day-long Ramlila, with a different episode enacted every evening. This celebration culminates on the tenth day, Dussehra, when huge effigies of Ravan, his brother Kumbhkaran and his son Meghnad are set on fire. But across the Ganga in Varanasi, the retelling of the story of Shri Ram stretches over a month in a place appropriately called Ramnagar.

A Performance For the Ages

The casting starts in July every year. For three months or so, those playing the roles of Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat, and Shatrughan—selected from a group of over 50 young boys—must stay together in a gurukul to prepare for their roles while attending special classes as they are school-going boys. Most of the other performers are adults, several of them, such as Ravan, are members of families that have performed this specific role for as long as six generations.

The Ramnagar Ramlila is not a performance for the inhabitants of Ramnagar; they are an integral part of it. Many of the thousands who gather for the shows hold a copy of Tulsidas's "Ramcharitramanas" and recite the verses along with the actors.

Another unique feature of this Ramlila is that it is performed over 50km, with Ayodhya, Panchavati and Lanka in separate locations. The entire audience travels with the actors from one place to another to witness the next event in this epic story. The UNESCO recognised Ramlila as an intangible world cultural heritage and named the Ramnagar one as among the most representative Ramlilas.

This is the season when stages are lit, and performances come alive. The participants, audiences, and devotees return home after the show—only to prepare for the coming year.

(Educationist, theatre director, and activist Feisal Alkazi lives and works in New Delhi. He is the author of two plays, "Noor" and "Quiet Desire," and the director of over 200 plays, mainly with his group Ruchika.)

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller