Bringing back a lost opera: Nautanki

'My passion came from a desire to re-establish the dignity of the indigenous culture,' associate communication professor Devendra Sharma said.
Joseph Edgecomb / The Collegian

Devendra Sharma remembers the powerful singing that cut through the 30,000 audience members who packed into his rural village India when he was a child.

He remembers the beats that emanated from clay drums with sheepskin tops — the actors’ ability to throw their voices seemingly for miles, the jungle backdrops that hung on a length of rope across the back of the wooden stage and the social themes that carried the nine-hour, Indian folk opera called Nautanki.

Over 30 years later and 8,000 miles away, Sharma is carrying the nearly 400-year-old tradition of Nautanki on his back to another venue –– California. Sharma, an associate professor in communication at Fresno State, is currently the only person in the United States producing Nautanki operas.

He also plays the lead role as a revolutionary who takes on the British occupiers in his Nautanki renditions in Hayward and Redwood City last month. Instead of the traditional nine-hour performance, Sharma has condensed his Nautanki to two hours. One of his motivations for his work lies in childhood memories of Nautanki.

“People would be on rooftops, treetops, everywhere on the ground,” Sharma said when describing the Nautanki audience that swarmed to his village in northern India.

Sharma recalls the powerful singing that erupted when the actors belted out their opening vocals across the thousands of silent, attentive onlookers.

“Such strong voices,” Sharma said of the Nautanki singers. “It seems like a miracle to sing so strongly and melodiously. But they used to. I have heard them.”

The times and places are different, but the core of Nautanki remains the same.

“How we sing, how we play our instruments, how we act, how we use our backdrop is exactly the same,” Sharma said comparing to Nautanki in the U.S. and India.

After his performances in Hayward and Redwood City, Sharma began to see changes in the mostly Indian audiences.

“I saw all of these people clapping and cheering who never knew about the actual Nautanki,” Sharma said. “I had so many great emotions going on inside me.”

Television, cinema and rock and roll have left folkart a fading role in Indian society. Sharma said the word, Nautanki, is often used in a demeaning fashion.

“My passion [for Nautanki] came from a desire to re-establish the dignity of the indigenous culture,” Sharma said.

Gobinda Chowdhury, a native of India, felt this was an opportunity for third generation Indians to connect with their past.

“I am so thankful Devendra is doing this,” Chowdhury said. “Culturally and historically, those who grew up in the United States have a great opportunity to become informed on their heritage thanks to Dev.”

While Sharma tries to replicate the core of Nautanki, there are differences. In India, the open-air surroundings invite a festive atmosphere. People eat and drink tea with friends and families from other villages. In the two shows Sharma has presented in Hayward and Redwood City, the theatre atmosphere and time constraints lead to a more subdued setting.

“Traditions have been modified,” Sharma said. “But I began to see some of the same traditions come from the Bay Area audiences as the word about the opera was spread.”

Another difference is cost. Producing a Nautanki in India costs much less than in the U.S. The difference lies in the amount of people and the cost to rent a theatre. With 30 thousand people, a little money goes along way to paying the actors. The stages in India are hand built from wood outside of the rural villages and the audience brings their own seating. Sharma said that in the U.S., the biggest cost is the price of the theatre halls he rented, as well as equipment like microphones, rental instruments and costumes. Nautanki may also be coming to Fresno State soon.

“Oh yes, I would love to do it,” Sharma said. “It is something I am going to pursue in the fall.”

Sharma said that he could bring down his actors from the Bay Area, but would like to create a three-credit class to train a new set of Fresno State student actors to perform a traditional Nautanki.

“Fresno is so diverse,” Sharma said. “There are so many people from different cultures it would be a good thing to do it here.”

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