Folk theater in India is born from a rich legacy. In the ancient Vedic culture and even in some Buddhist literature, folk theater was an art form used to “illustrate the unedited realities of life”. However, while folk theater was known, it only rose to prominence in the medieval period, and slowly became a hallmark of Indian drama. Historically folk theater in India can be traced as far back as the 15th century, as drawings from the Puranas, historical epics like Mahabharatha and Ramayana, myths and fantastical texts. It was right after the huge success of Indian traditional theater as an art form, that the distinct style of the ‘Indian Natya’ changed and so developed a whole new theater form where Indian myth, dance, history, song, culture, mores, tradition and beliefs all gained a common platform on which to be displayed.
Much later, this theater form was given the name of ‘Indian folk theater’ and even now it continues to draw from the heritage and traditions in India. In rural society, which is still regarded as the starting point of folk theater, the first rudiment of drama is rituals; therefore rituals, with their different facets and importance in Indian culture and life formed the very base of folk theater in India.
Folk theater tends to usually be narrative in its form. This points towards the origin of the “age old sagas” of the sutradhara in the Indian Natya. The narrator or sutradhara, in order to make his visual art more appealing, slowly incorporated acting into his narrative, which then gave rise to the tradition of narratives in Indian folk theater. Folk theater has a clear narrative form, as well as a highly dramatic narrative style. Further, India has seen a long lineage of folk entertainers who either move alone, or in groups in rural India, performing wherever they go. Their music, religion, dance and songs all reflected their ‘folk culture’ and acted as a mode of communication in rural India. With its colour, vibrancy and musicality, folk theater in India goes beyond just entertainment, and aims to create “an environment of receptivity in which communication of ideas is an effortless process”.
Indian folk theater can tentatively be divided into two broad categories; the religious and the secular. While religious folk theater mainly draws from history, religion and myth; secular folk theater emerged as a typical form of entertainment. The two forms gradually began working together, whilst influencing each other, to “create a whole fresh enunciation in Indian natya”.
The concept of stage design of folk theater in India is just an example of its simplicity. The actors of Indian folk theater usually perform on a make-shift stage. This helps them connect and converse with the audience, and audience participation is essential in folk theater. The stage for the folk theaters is typically a huge empty space, and the actors make this space their own by employing witty dialogues,symbolic gestures, elaborate make up, masks, costumes, loud music and folk dance.
In folk theater forms there are special styles of dance that act as cues for entry onto the stage or platform, or contribute to the actors narrative of descriptive roles. A good example of this would be the ‘Bidapat naach’. Here, the emphasis is not on beauty but on the acting itself, and its narrative and descriptive skills. Dance as a narrative art is the base of folk theater, and can be seen in the theater forms of Bhavai of Gujarat, the Kashmiri theater form Bhand Jashn and even in Koodiyaattam and Ankia Naat.
In traditional theater, age-old forms, customs and the desire to improvise are intermingled. It is usually when the significant themes are enacted, that the acting restricts itself to traditional norms, not deviating from it. But, every time the theme inches towards the contemporary, the actors improvise as far as dialogue delivery is concerned.
In folk theater forms there are certain conventions of presentations depending upon and changing according to the form and size of the stage or the platform and other available situations. There is no formal setup governing the entry or exit of the actors. Depending on the situation or context, the actors enter into the stage and enact their role without being formally introduced. After a particular event or incident is over, all the artists make an exit, or all of them sit down on the sides of the stage or near the backdrop, conveying the change of a scene.
In folk theater characters keep changing their place on the stage to be more impressive and to give the situation a greater significance. This technique also reduces the chance of boredom through repetition and stillness. Dialogues delivery is usually carried out in a high pitch. This helps the actors in reaching out to a larger audience. The artists always add something or the other to the original dialogue on their own and the changes brought through improvisations, make the spectators ecstatic. Also, it establishes a direct relationship between the artists and the spectators.
Every state in India has its own distinctive forms of folk theater. Examples include:
- Tamasha in Maharashtra
2. Nautanki in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab
3. Yakshagana in Karnataka
4.Therukoothu in Tamil Nadu
and many more.
Some additional key features of folk theater include:
-Songs: they say a lot about folk traditions
-the plays are not very rigid: actors have liberties with their lines
-the narrator or ‘sutradhara’ becomes very important and he has full control
-the plot becomes more important than the characters
-folk theater primarily based on myths
-stage settings and props are very simple
-the boys in the folk theater companies were important for dance and singing–> they were called ‘nachas’ as they were used for female impersonations
-demons came from among the audience and had to practice their scenes beforehand
With its sheer verve therefore Indian folk theatre is just not a theatre form but is a lot more. It unfurls the saga of the voyage of Indian drama from the eposes to the modish theatre pattern. It is the chronicle of Indian drama where for the very first time theatre broke the barrier of orchestra and pits and reached the mass in a whole new way through the quixotic brilliance of music, song and folklores.
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