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India Heritage:Performing Arts:Dance:Folk Dance
Uttar Pradesh

Raslila Khyal Nautanki Naqal Svanga Ramlila


It is a generic term that includes many dances and dance-dramas throughout the country, all of them based on one theme. The term ras refers to Krishna's joyous, circular dance with the maids and the wives of Brahmin cowherds of the region known as Braj. Lila means play: not merely literally, but also God's playful interaction with humans and other earthly beings. The other forms of raslila such as Krishnattam and Ankiya Nat are not as widely popular as the raslila of Vrindavan. This form is believed to have developed in the sixteenth century due to the influence of the bhakti wave.

The drama deals with incidents from Krishna's early life and the miraculous experiences of friends and young women who came into contact with him. The performance invariably opens with the jhanki (tableau) of Krishna enthroned, with Radha seated beside him to the left. The other sakhis (friends) are seated to Krishna's right on the last few steps of a platform. Musicians and the singer pay their respects to the two central figures. This is followed by a series of dances (nitya ras). The performance lasts approximately two and a half hours and comes to a close by midnight.



Khyal, a folk art form popular in Rajasthan as well. While the origins of Khyal remain uncertain, we do know that Agra was an important center. There are different styles, each known by the name of the city, the acting style, the community or the author. For example: Jaipuri Khyal, the Abhinaya Khyal, Gadhaspa Khyal, and Alibaksh Khyal. Subtleties demarcate these variations.

There are two areas marked out as acting space: one is a three to four feet high platform, to one side of which white sheets form a lower stage. Instead, a lower stage (laghu) may be built. A structure between twelve and twenty feet high is erected behind the platform. This `balcony' can be accessed by ladders. Banana tree trunks are installed in the four corners, and colorful flags strung between them.

The festive atmosphere in no way undercuts the religious undertones of an event. Prior to setting up stage, there is a ceremonial installation of a pole at the site. Performances begin with hymns to the deities. The plays are mythological, historical, or creative in content, and are marked by romance, brave deeds, and sentiment. Equally festive music is ensured by the nakkara or the dholak drum, cymbals, and the harmonium.

The clown is as always an integral part of a show,of and the all-male cast is directed - on stage - by the ustaad, the director producer, who remains on stage with a prompt script.



It is a form of Svanga, and believed to be named after a popular play Shahzadi Nautanki (The Story of Princess Nautanki).

The plays may be based on historical, mythological or folk stories, and are either narrated or enacted in the grandiose epic style. The performances are marked by the strong singing and the beating of the nakkara drums (kettle drums). These drums are of two sizes and the musicians have their own method of controlling pitch. the larger drum is controlled by the application of a damp cloth to its head while the head of the smaller drum is heated over hot coals. Other instruments are the dholak drums, the harmonium, and cymbals while the sarangi (a string instrument) has been discontinued. The songs are increasingly film-based, although folk music has not been abandoned.

The stage manager (ranga) is part of the company of ten or twelve actors. Performances can be staged anywhere, and are generally moralistic in tone. Comic and dialogue sequences are interspersed for the purpose of changing momentum.

The two major styles of Nautanki: Hathras and Kanpur. Hathras is the older version and was encouraged by Indarman and Natharam, his disciple. In the nineteenth century, they organized akharas (training centers) where the khalifa (leader) reigned supreme. His word was law. The singing style was high on pitch and style. The rebellion against the control of the khalifa led to the Kanpur variation, created by Sri Krishna Pahalvan, that has remained simple in song but elaborate in stage scenery.



A farce with a leader known as the Khalifa. The clown determines the action and pace through his witticisms and antics. What makes this play interesting is the fact that the all-male cast satirizes the audience as well.

Naqal is also known as Naqqal and Nakkal and is highly popular in Punjab and Kashmir.



Also called Sangeet, has its origins in the late eighteenth century. This folk form, prevalent in Haryana and Punjab as well, is sourced in the ballads and semi-historical stories.

Festivals and family occasions are reasons for a performance. An all-male cast will stage a play in the village open or in a patron's house. The simple costumes are contrasted with fancy headdresses, and lots of false hair. Dialogues dominate the show, with songs occupying a secondary position.



The Story of Rama is a generic term, including all performances pertaining to the life of the epic hero Rama, believed to be one of the avatars of Vishnu (the Preserver ). The stories deal with his exile from his kingdom at Ayodhya; his subsequent victory over Ravan (the demon-king); the interaction between Rama and Sita (his wife, who accompanied him in his exile), and his brothers Lakshmana, Shatrughan and Bharat.

The festival of Dussehra celebrates Rama's destruction of Ravan: giant effigies are constructed, and the ten-headed Ravan is shot down with burning arrows. This is one popular occasion for a host of Ramlila performances. The festival Diwali celebrates the homecoming of Rama with firecrackers and the lighting of earthen lamps (hence the nomer Festival of Lights). Ramlila performances commemorate this joyous event as well.

Traditionally the characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Shatrughan and Bharat are played by Brahmin boys who are trained by the liladhari (the leader of the troupe)

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