When Folk Theater comes to the City

I am all for the breaking down of cultural barriers – not nation to nation (we have already crossed that milestone a hundred times over) – but from the rural to the urban.

I had the delight to observe a ritual spirit dance taking place in the interiors of south India a while ago and was left with the question: how do I know these rural / tribal dancers are not just putting up a show for us city slickers, but are actually lost in their traditional ritual?

Had another interesting thought-wave recetly when I attended a Yakshagaana performance in the city of Mumbai, India, in an auditorium. The folk theatre, an almost opera-like form of performance, dialogue, narration and singing, has its roots in classical Indian dance and is traditionally performed during a festival, religious event or a significant ceremony in the community. These performances last for a fortnight in many villages, and villagers – the audience – participate in the event by asking ‘Lord Ram’ to solve their problems, or asking ‘Lord Hanuman’ to bless their newborn. It’s a cathartic experience for them, as it’s a recreation of a myth they believe in. 

With a rural/folk roots, Yakshagana today has traversed the village boundaries with troupes establishing a base in cities where their performances are patronized. It was just a leap of time before such performances came to regularly ‘showcased’ in city auditoriums around India and the world.

The same question haunts me: How does the context  of a folk performance change when it’s translated on stage? These troupes, who are used to being treated as ‘gods’ by their local community while they perform the Epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata – are reduced to ‘performers’ who receive claps, standing ovations and calls for ‘encore’ in the city.

Obviouly, urbanites are not educated about the background of folk theater, and neither will they view such performances in a ‘religious’ or ‘ritualistic’ context. But, how has the folk dancer coped with the changed setting? Has he learnt to enhance his performance and play to the gallery? How does he retain the originality and context of his ritual? Is he conscious of the fact that his is a performance and not a worship for the audience? I hope there will be documented answers to these questions soon.

By Nilofar Ansher

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