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The Folk Theater in Himachal Pradesh
Banthra- A form of folk-theater in Mandi
The folk theater is an integral part of the rural life of Himachal Pradesh. Every festival, fair and ceremony are blended with folk performance including dancing, singing, music, and dramatics.
Though gradually changing and becoming obsolete with time, this ancient pastime is an important pillar of the cultural heritage of the region. These plays are based on myths, legends, history, religion, culture, manners and mores of the people. Although the present day folk theater tends to include even Ram Lila and Krishna Lila, the old forms still retain their popular appeal. The folk theater was the powerful way to convey the right messages to the rulers and the ruled.
A number of forms folk theaters with unique execution and style are staged throughout the different regions of the province. It is known by various names in various places of Himachal Pradesh. The people of Shimla and erstwhile Mahasu state call it Kariyala, while in Mandi, Bilaspur, Sirmaur, and Kangra districts, it is Known as Banthada, Swang, Budechhu, and Bhagtu respectively. The performers are correspondingly known as Karayalchi, Swangchi, Budechhi and Bhagtias etc.
Like the Elizabethan theatrical conventions here also the women are taboo on stage. So the female roles are performed by a boy with an unbroken voice. The female character of Chandrauli or Chandwali is the main pivot of the folk theater.
The folk- dramas are enacted in the village around Diwali or Baisakhi when the hard working farmers become free to entertain themselves. The groups of artists can be seen roaming in the villages carrying musical instruments like drum, Dholak, trumpets, musical forks etc.
The artists do not require the stage. The open courtyard or Akahra with banana trees in the four corners and marigold or mango leaves strung up as buntings become the stage with the audience from the surrounding villages perch atop the balconies of the houses or on the slopes of the surrounding terrain.
Sometimes in the middle of the courtyard, a big fire ritual is observed to have a sacred beginning. The earthen pots containing cotton seeds soaked in oil are ties to the four poles. A house nearby is used as a green room.
Kariayala at the open-air theater of Mahasu or Shimla
Kariayala Folk Theater
The Acts in kariayala
In a typical Kariayala, there are three or four acts with variegated themes.
The first act is generally a satire on the so-called holy man or Sadhu or Saint or the wandering mendicant in India. After the invocation, the dance of Chandrauli on various Pahari tunes follows in the form of Goddess Shakti or Durga. A male artist dressed as goddess enters by holding the burning incense and walks to the tunes of music and touches various musical instruments before exit. A great lull descends after his exit and then enters a group of Sadhus from every corner of the stage. Their dialogues, Swangs or farces, mimicry, pompous remarks, incantations, and gestures create laughter but soon they are exposed as phony.
The second act presents two or three men claiming a woman’s heart. Their claims made before a magistrate do not yield any results, as the latter leaves it to the girl to decide. The girl then asks the claimants to prove their worth in a singing competition. While they are thus engaged the beauty quietly slips away.
The Third act too has a romantic theme, dealing with the elopement of a girl.
The fourth act offers a glimpse into the world of witchcraft and an enchantress is brought to exercise the evil spirit. The spirit is so powerful that the enchantress is rendered powerless.
Finally, a mock god is brought in a palanquin. This god speaks through his mouthpiece, called Gour or medium. The Gour then makes queries from the victims assembled for séance and treats them. The evil spirit is then drawn and it falls at the feet of god.
The word Kariyala is a distorted form of the Sanskrit word Kriyala, which means the theater. It is the most popular form of folk theater in Shimla district including the regions of Mahasu, Solan, and Sirmour. The theater form might have got its name from the Karyali village near Theog.
The Kariayala presents in rainbow colors, the pageant of hill folklore. It expresses the joys and sorrows, love and longing of the hill people. The main thrust of the folk theater is entertainment.
At the onset of winter near the festival of Diwali, the folk artists come to different villages on their own or on the invitation to regale the masses with their performances.
The splinters of pine and deodar are lighted in the form of several campfires for warmth and light, as the performance generally begins at night. The firelight is considered pious and called Khanda or Dhuni or Ghiana in the local dialect.
The dialogues are usually in the form of sharp and epigrammatic statements or couplets sung to the accompaniment of dhol or drum, nagara or big drum, shehnai or clarinet, harmonium, ransingha or karnal or trumpet and cymbals etc.
The farcical situations are devised to provoke laughter. It is an impromptu act without any written script and the dialogues are coined by the Karyalchis or the actors during the course of performance. Sometimes the biting satires reminiscent of Jonathan Swift and others the vulgar dialogues spice the proceedings on stage. In villages where the means of entertainment are few, such plays are highly popular. The artists spontaneously deliver the dialogues and satirize the dialogues of the audience to create humor.
Kariayala originated in Mandi and Mahasu as a sort of worship when the people had to remain awake throughout the night for wake etc.
Kariayala can be more meaningful, if social evils like child marriage, exploitation of women, female foeticides etc. are highlighted. This would make folk theater both entertaining and instructive.
The language is primarily Pahari, but Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English words are added for additional humor by concocting them. The dialogues are in verse, but in between, the folk dance and folk songs also appear. If a character fails to retort he simply gestures in an awkward way to create laughter.
The manners of English Sahib, Husband-Wife skirmishes, Nat-Nati male and female acrobat are also mimicked.
The performers in the past touched the pulse of the society and were bold enough to expose the failings of the state in front of the King in a satiric way. The grievances were immediately attended to by the Kings.
The Historical Background of Banthra
King Veer Sen, the ruler of erstwhile Mandi state in 1268-1303 AD, propagated Banthra as a medium to educate the people as his efforts to make them literate were becoming ineffective. Then Nagendra, a musician assured him that he could inspire them to become literate through his words and music. The king became happy with his success and named his discourses as Vaani Thara or the utterings from a platform. With the passage of time, Vaani Thara became Banthra. The Banthra artists were allowed to visit the palaces of the queens. Thereafter the form reached its zenith in the beginning of 17th century.
Later three independent schools of Banthra namely Sundernagar, Pangna and Mandi emerged in the state.
The artists exposed the workings in the corridors of kingdom including the corruption of courtiers, new trends and fashions, and hypocrisies of the society. As there was no one to tell the king about the real picture of his subjects, the artists were entrusted with the responsibility to convey the bad and good things in a humorous vein without annoying either the king or the public.
On the fulfillment of the wish, the people also arranged the performance of Banthra in temple complexes.
The Banthara Folk Theatre
This theater form is popular in Mandi district. The word has come from Bhand meaning clown or jester. In ancient times the feudal lords of petty kingdoms and the chieftains of princely states kept the company of clown to alleviate the tensions associated with governance. The ludicrous dialogues and funny gestures amused the lords.
With the fall of feudalism these jesters began amusing the masses and the form of Banthara folk theater emerged in the region. The artists called Banths formed the groups and often competed with each other for rewards in prompt reply to the queries of feudal lords.
As in Kariayla the Banths too appeared not on stage but in courtyards called akharas. This folk theater form is a blend of music, dance and drama. It is a form of comedy of manners and sometimes there is a comedy of action too.
It begins with invocation of Lord Shiva and then the forest gods are venerated. On the behest of the forest gods, Lord Ganesh, the son of Lord Shiva and the Goddess Sara Swati were venerated. There after the Banthra begins with the blessings of the gods.
The villages of Majhwar, Malwana, Karsonda, Karsogh and Kotla at Drang were the important centers of Banthara artists. At some places the theater form is still practiced during Jagaran or wakes in temples. Before the enactment the medium or Gour answers the queries of the villagers in a séance and then the Banths amuse the people.
The performance is generally held near Diwali festival and is accompanied by folk instrumentalists and folk singers or dancers.
The protagonist in folk theater is called Swangi or imitator who is humorous, though serious subjects are also taken sometimes to educate the masses, like the awakening during the Freedom movement of India under the leadership of Praja Mandals in hill states.
The false characters or caricatures or hypocrites were ridiculed to correct the folly through dialogues, actions and gestures. The dress of the artists also invoked humor, besides the profuse use of masks made of wood, cloth cardboard or paper. The jute was used and colored for long locks of hair called jatas of saints and sadhus. The abandoned nests of birds were also used as headgear to inspire laughter or mimic the sadhus.
The performers were expert singers, dancers and actors. Each scene was preceded by music and there was a blending of rhymed lyric, dance steps and dialogues to the tune of Shehnai or crude clarinet and Nagaras or drums.
It is interesting to note that the artists were great inventors as there was no script for the predefined dialogues. A scheme was planned for the act and the dialogues were invented during the course of the action. Sometimes when they fail to retort, they take refuge in gestures leading to laughter, or point towards some person in the audience be satirizing or ridiculing him. It is fun and frolic all the way. The audience too was encouraged to speak or put his query and answered in the same vein.
The subjects of theater included imitation of sadhus, mimicking the manners of English gentleman and Lady, dialogues of guru and chela or disciple etc.
This folk theater is very close to Kariayala with the only difference of place of performance, the name of theater form, language, and cult.
In the theme of Dau or tantric or mystic, a shepherd or gaddi visits the tantric to get his wife treated. The tantric lures away his wife and makes him blind with magic. Finally the matter is resolved when the tantric is given a lamb by the shepherd.
Banthra had staged a comeback and various NGOs are now using this powerful folk medium to spread the awareness about AIDS, literacy, social evils and corruption.
In the absence of script, stage, and characters, the Banthara starts with a pun or a joke in local Mandyali dialect to draw the attention of the audience.
The Buddha or Budechhu Theater Form
Budechhu, an oldest Folk Theater of Transgiri area of Sangrah at Shilai in Sirmaur District of Himachal Predesh.
The Buddha or Budechhu Theater Form
The lower castes of the society were not allowed to perform Banthara which was reserved for upper castes only. They were not allowed to satirize the deeds of upper strata of society. So they invented their own theater called Buddha without any direct reference and used lyrical renderings. This theater form was found in Sundernagar and Karsogh areas of Mandi district.
In Buddha, the lower caste actors were used to cover their bodies with the straw of wheat and jute with headgear of a cap fitted with three horns. The hands too were covered with straw gloves.
The act begins with a devotional song or Bhakti geet followed by the farces of Buddha, Chandrauli, mascara or the clown, Pahari or rustic etc.
Accompanied by music the Buddha enters the arena followed by Chandrauli. The lyrics of Chandrauli have the fragrance of the soil. When the jogi or sadhu enters the music changes and the maskara or the clown too enters. The maskara or the clown is the supposed paramour of Chandrauli. He amuses the audience with his actions, dialogues, and gestures.
Hiran or Harnatra Theater Form
It is the folk theater of the Gaddi or shepherds tribe of Bharmour, Chhatri, Bassu and Saho areas of Chamba district. It is performed in the spring season when the Gaddis or shepherds come out of the hibernating nightmare of winters in the higher ranges of Himachal Pradesh.
The protagonists of this folk drama are called Khappar, Chandrauli, Gaddi, Gaddan, Sadhu, Sahib, Hiran etc.
The Khappar generally wears a long shredded woolen apron wound with a woolen rope. He wears unusaal trousers and turban of uneven size and covers the face with masks called mohras. Khapper holds a club or staff in his hand and sways it in the air while dancing or speaking. Khapper is similar to Sadhu in Karyala and there may be more than three Khappers in a single performance. A male actor performs the role of Chandrauli
Bhagatan or Bhagat Theater Form
This theater form was practiced in Chamba district and the adjoining region inhabited by the Dogra tribe of Jammu and Kangra. It originated from the Raas Leela of Lord Krishna at Mathura and Brindavan and spread to other parts of the country like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and the Punjab hill states of Himachal Pradesh.
Earlier the clowns and jesters entertained the local courts of princely states but it was the actors of this theater form called Bhagatias who took upon themselves the responsibility of entertaining the masses.
Like Buddhas , hey too belonged to the lower castes and conducted their activities by going from one village to another to entertain the people and to spread their messages of social appeal.
Their acts were performed in the evenings when the rural folk got time from the hectic routines. On being invited by some landlord they were used to perform in day time or during marriage ceremonies too.
The performers like other theater forms were dressed in funny costumes like tattered or shredded gowns or aprons, funny headgears of grass, long locks of hair made of jute and patched pajamas to incite the humor just with their presence.
There was no stage for the performance of this theater form, but some pasture called chowgan or a wooden platform served the purpose. There was no green room, no script, and no makeup.
In the beginning , he drums were beaten as a sign for the villagers to get assembled. The pleasant sound of shehnai or crude clarinet or flute announced the beginning of the act. Then the characters create the atmosphere by entering the arena one by one. The play begins with dialogues and gestures. The subjects and themes of the play are selected to satirize the eccentricities of the society and to ridicule the universal and whimsical characters found in the locality.
In addition, the dances in the style of Raas Leela were also performed to the tunes of folk music. The act begins with dialogues between gopis or female friends of Lord Krishna, the part played by male characters. This is followed by the appearance of Lord Krishna and his friend Mansukh who get engaged in ludicrous conversation.
Mansukh is the protagonist or the soul of the play who ridicules and satirizes the ways of day to day life of common folk including the religious, secular and political hypocrites or mischievous characters who harm the social fabric for selfish motives. The sarcastic language is used to ridicule and amuse the audience.
A legend goes in Kangra that one Baba Maya Ram, the great artist of the theater form while organizing the performance had to launch his daughter as a Gopi as the male artist could not turn up. It is said that Lord Krishna Himself came to dance in the play on account of the melody of the separation song sung the daughter. Such was the devotion of the artists for the theater.
The Bhagatia artists are very few now and their performances are rare.