The term “Bollywood” (a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood) tends to evoke images of “Slumdog Millionaire” or lush, extravagant musical productions. On November 21, local residents will have an opportunity to watch a traditional Indian musical play, “Mission Suhani.” It is being presented at the Front Row Theater, 17011 Bollinger Canyon Road in San Ramon. As of this writing, the 12:30 show was sold out, but a second show runs at 3:30.
Mission Suhani represents the Nautanki art form. Devendra Sharma is cofounder of the Brij Lok Madhuri; artist-in-residence at CounterPULSE, a theater, community center, and gallery in San Francisco; and writer and director of and lead actor in Mission Suhani. He explains that Nautanki is an operatic performance tradition of northern India. Before the advent of Bollywood, he continues, Nautanki was considered the single most popular form of entertainment in the villages and towns of northern India. Rooted in the rural society of premodern India, this theater encompasses lively dancing, pulsating drumbeats, and full-throated singing.
Nautankis are operas with story lines ranging from mythology and folklore to contemporary heroic tales. Nautanki plays such as Satya-Harishchandra and Bhakt Moradhwaj are based on mythological themes, whereas Indal Haran and Puranmal originate from folklore, Sharma elaborates. In the first half of the 20th century, the contemporary sentiments against British rule and feudal landlords found expression in Nautankis.
Mission Suhani follows a confident Indian bride and her U.S.-based Indian groom, who has taken her dowry and left her in India. Despite familial and societal pressure, Suhani travels to the U.S., where she catches her husband, recovers the dowry . . . and finds her love. The script is in English as well as Hindi.
Nautanki performances can take place in any open space in or around a village that can accommodate audiences in the hundreds or thousands. The stage is open on three sides. There is a backdrop on the fourth side, usually a cloth with colorful scenery painted on it. A temporary enclosure behind the stage serves as a makeup/changing room.
The audience sits on all three sides of the stage. On the stage, musicians and percussionists sit on one side and actor-singers occupy the center stage. The harmonium (an Indian keyboard instrument) and Nakkara and Dholak (percussion) are the main musical instruments used in Nautanki performances. Usually two or three performers are onstage at one time. “The pleasure of Nautanki lies in the intense melodic exchanges between the two or three performers,” says Sharma.
Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, a renowned Nautanki singer, composer, actor, writer, and director, will also sing folk songs of the Braj region.
Nautanki still has a strong influence on the minds of North Indians, notes Sharma. “Even after the spread of mass media such as television and radio, a crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people can be seen at the top Nautanki performances. However, sadly, like many other folk forms of India, Nautanki has been badly affected by the apathy of the political leadership and lack of support from powerful, West-imitating, urban Indian “elites” suffering from a postcolonial hangover, who often look down upon their own indigenous artistic traditions.”
For more about Mission Suhani, go to:
Mission Suhani is being presented by Pallavi Sharma, who has a Ph.D. in art history from the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology in India. She has served on San Ramon’s Art Advisory Committee for five years and is the director of Inner Eye Art, a San Ramon-based art consulting firm that curates art shows, workshops, and educational programs by local and international artists.
John A. Barry is a writer and avocational artist. To share anything art-related, call him at 314-9528 or email email@example.com