Folk Theatre – a brief survey

The form of plays, the shape of the stage and the nature of production of the folk theatre in North India vary widely. In the dramatic dances in Bihar there is a dominant story element in dance and there is a predominance of pantomimic gestures e.g. Kiratarjuniya. This differs from the spectacular pageant dramas like ‘Ramlila and Krishnalila’. In between these two types there are opera type ballets. Rashlila which uses a highly developed form of music and dance, the song drama Nautanki and farcical plays Naqal of various communities.

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Folk Theatre

These plays present a unique combination of the narrative and dramatic arts. in the Lila plays one, while watching it, has a feeling that the production swings harmoniously and effectively from the dramatic to the narrative with pauses filled in by singing, dancing or some ritualistic observance in which the audience participates spontaneously. The tempo is another characteristic feature of the folk theatre. The play moves with speed unfolding the events in a simple straight, narrative manner.

The Ramlila plays utilise epic poetry while the Rashlila plays build their structure on lyric poetry. Ramlila is rather a moving processional drama and is structurally loose while Rashlila is more organised and performed on a fixed stage. Generally Rashlila stage is on ground level. Ramlila plays are also performed on a simple open platform stage in the form of dance drama in which, while the chorus sings, the dramatic characters make their entries and exits and engage themselves in action. Rashlila has one variant form called Krishnalila. Like Ramlila it is a processional and mobile drama enacted on the banks of the village ponds,» temple gardens. Popular dramatic forms like Nautanki have an inter-regional appeal covering the whole of Northern lndia and Central lndia.

Folk theatre, even today is a living and vital theatre maintaining a professional status and entertaining large masses of people. There are ‘Mandalis’ in every region performing these folk theatres. These vast folk professional theatre is struggling hard to survive. This hard struggle is killing its artistic calibre.

In the South, interest and enthusiasm in folk lore has drawn the attention of the theatre men to the multiform folk drama. Performances by the folk theatrical parties have been held in many towns under new staging conditions for urban audiences. South India is the home of a number of forms of theatre that have developed from religious usages. From the theatre point of view Kerala is the most important region in South India. In Kudiyattam, a form of folk drama the language of the plays is Sanskrit but the interpretation which is given by the Vidusaka is in Malayalam. Little dancing is there but much importance is given to ‘abhinaya‘.

The Kathakali has borrowed many techniques from the folk form of Kudiyattzm. In Tamilnadu the most popular form of folk drama is the Koothu meaning ‘street play’. They are very old and performed at the time of annual temple festivals. The themes are taken from the epics and Puranas. The presentation is straight and simple. A performance lasts usually the whole night. The performance begins with an invocation to Lord Ganapathi and then the principal actors make their entries. In Andhra there are two main forms of folk drama, the Veethi Natakam and the Burrakatha. In the Burrakatha there are three performers. One sings, and plays on a stringed instrument while the other two act and dance. Puppet plays throughout the South are very popular. The themes are taken from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.

The folk theatre throughout our country needs good patronage. Immediate steps should be taken to revive forms which are practically dead and to ensure that the surviving forms are not allowed to suffer further vitiation. The responsibility of doing this lies as much with the people as it does with the State.

Written by Prof. S. K. Bagchi and published in the Diamond Jubilee Souvenir, 1974.