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A Tribute to Indian Street Theatre and its Music

By Soumya Jha 




Introduction


This is the second of the four-part blog series on Music and Justice. 


India boasts of a rich and diverse history in street theatre, a critical component of which has been its music. This blog post discusses Indian street theatre and the diversity in the music it has employed over the years. This is an important field of exploration to understand the role Indian street theatre and its music have played in posing critical questions concerning socio-economic justice, as well as creating awareness among people about their various rights. It therefore has time and again been strongly demonstrative of the link between justice and music & art. 

 


What is Street Theatre?


Street Theatre’ is an expression of revolutionary political and nationalist movements that not only entertain its audiences but has a deep-rooted role to play in social change. It attempts to be a reflection of society through art, drawing inspiration from society, depicting its shortcomings through drama and music, and thereby raising and posing to its audiences, relevant questions concerning socio-economic issues, to ponder and act upon. Its ‘stage’ is the streets and public spaces- markets, villages, parks, slums, schools, residential areas and office complexes. 

   

Indeed, street theatre, especially in India, a country with low literacy and a high population, has provided a low-cost and immediate means of reaching out to people about important issues. It has therefore been used extensively as a means of attaining social change since colonial times, until the present, by NGOs, social activists, theatre personalities, grass-root groups, and even corporations, and the government


An important element of street theatre in India is its rich music. Music’s crucial role in Indian street theatre is fascinating. Utilised differently in different theatre styles, music has served as an effective tool to underscore messages communicated in street plays.  


In this blog, I touch upon the rich heritage of street theatre in India, emphasising the crucial role music has played in contributing to it.   

 


History 


Workers’ rights have recurrently been addressed through street theatre both internationally and domestically. Street theatre originated in the mid-nineteenth century during the European Industrial Revolution. Subsequently, during the Suffragette Movement in the United Kingdom, women started actively participating in street plays. This art form soon became a means of expressing discontent towards social injustices like racial discrimination, wars, workers’ rights and women’s liberation, globally. 


Street theatre in India developed during the Indian freedom struggle, focusing therefore on themes of nation-building and anti-colonial sentiment. Over time, it has tackled many issues concerning the environment, mental health, women‘s issues, workers’ rights etc. 


Indian workers took inspiration from Brazil’s Augusto Boal’s ‘Theater of the Oppressed’, to perform street plays on issues faced by them. This style employs ‘forum theatre’, whereby actors present problems and invite the audience to provide solutions. It encourages audiences to become ‘spect-actors’ from being mere spectators.     

  

Indian Street Theatre and its music


Nukkad Nataks


Contemporary street theatre which emerged in the 1970s, also known as nukkad natak, is low cost, with no elaborate sets, costumes or equipment. Music, playing an important role, is also low-cost, yet effective. Actors rely on their voices being loud enough to reach long distances, without the need for microphones. 


They also use basic musical instruments like a dhol, tambourine and maybe the Indian harmonium during the performance. A dhol beat followed (loosely) by an announcement, “Suno, suno!”..“Aao, aao, aagey aao” ..“Yahaan ki baatein sunte jao”..“Yahaan se jaake sab ko samjhao!” [“Hear, hear! Come forward! Listen to us before walking away! Once you leave, spread our message to everyone you meet!” ] has often proven to be an effective tool for drawing public attention to a nukkad natak. This usually addresses important socio-economic justice issues that concern the spectators, i.e., the public, to generate public discourse and action on the issues. 


Indian People’s Theater Association


Historically, India boasts of a rich musical heritage of compositions performed in street theatre. Street Theater during the Indian freedom struggle culminated in the setting up of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) in 1943, an organisation integrating and popularising cultural movements alongside the freedom struggle. Quite aptly, IPTA’s logo, designed by Chittaprasad, is a drummer or Nagara Vadak


IPTA welcomed writers, musicians and artists to unite and dedicate themselves towards nation-building through culture. It initiated a modern singing choir that led ‘janasangeet’ or people’s music to new heights. As part of this, renowned sitar vadak Pandit Ravi Shankar composed Iqbal’s ‘Sare Jahaan se Acha’, formally known as Tarānah-e-Hindi. This was followed by compositions in different languages by artists like Bhupen Hazarika, Binoy Roy and Sahir LudhianviBinoy Roy travelled across India presenting with his cultural squad, their choir’s song ‘Bhookha hai Bengal’ to raise funds for Bengal Famine victims in 1943. The troupe’s music was complemented with folk songs by Amar Sheikh in Marathi, and Magai Ojha’s Assamese folk instrumental music. 


Hemango Biswas, another prominent IPTA member, strongly believed music’s power could bring social change. He, a Bengali artist, alongside Bhupen Hazarika, an Assamese artist, and their cultural troupe played a pivotal role in ensuring peace in riot-stricken Assam, facing linguistic conflicts between the Assamese and the Bengali in 1960. The two legendary figures composed a ballad, ‘Haradhan-Rongmon Kotha’ sung in both Bengali and Assamese, which was based on the story of two poor peasants, one Bengali and one Assamese, whose lives were equally devastated by the riots. Their performance, watched in riot-affected Assam, eventually led to the situation surprisingly calming down. The drum beat of Moghai Ojha’s dhol became the clarion call of this cultural troupe.  

  

Habib Tanvir, another stalwart, extensively employed folk music in his theatre, working with Chattisgarhi tribals and including indigenous performance forms like Nacha in his street theatre. The music in his street plays, based broadly on socio-economic issues of the time, was never a filler but an organic part of his plays, integrating, disrupting and creating pause for reflection.  

 

Jan Natya Manch’ established in the 1970s, symbolises nukkad natak in its truest sense. JANAM, inspired by IPTA, took their theatre to the streets, performing on price rise, women’s rights, workers’ rights etc. Their street theatre style found inspiration in German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s style of theatre. While Brechtian theatre has been amply written about, the employment of music in Brecht’s plays is fascinating. Brecht aimed for music in his plays to not reinforce emotion but to drown it out, to compel an intellectual, and not an emotional, response to his plays. He wanted his plays’ music to possess unintentional incompetence, so his writings wouldn’t be mere material for music, embraced without critical reflection. This style, quite interestingly, utilises music differently, as a tool, and not a medium, to break the flow and not accentuate, and to prevent the audience from being involved emotionally. As Safdar Hashmi, the founder of JANAM put it, his style, Brechtian in nature, opposed theatre that manipulates people’s consciousness and rather appeals to people with reasonable argument.   

   

Street theatre is also prevalent in different languages across India. In the 1960s-70s, Indian theatre in vernacular languages like Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and Bengali, was being revolutionised with talented writers commenting on social, gender and political issues. This was also deliberate, to resist and critique mainstream theatre practices which were Western, and in the English language. This phenomenon was known as ‘Third Theatre’. There was therefore extensive use of folk songs, and also popular (Bollywood) tunes to provide both entertainment and knowledge of contemporary issues.     


Some prevailing forms of street theatre in India have been “Rahs” in Punjab, “Nautanki” in Uttar Pradesh, “Jatra” in Bengal, “Beedi Nataka” in Karnataka, “Path Natya” in Maharashtra, or “Path Natika” in Hindi. While these were always intended to be solely for entertainment purposes, they did eventually delve into socio-economic and political discourse over time. 


Nautanki, for instance, while being entertaining, also provided ethical, political and social education. It adopted an operatic theatre style combining music, dance and humour with the story. As the play began, the sutradhar would render a musical synopsis of the entire story. Ragas bhairavi, bilawal and khamaj were predominantly used. Similarly, Jatra, especially popular with rural audiences, was used to preach nationalism, and then later to comment on the prevailing socio-economic injustices, like injustices against proletariats by the bourgeoisie. Music, again, played an important role, with a juri (chorus) sitting beside the stage and bursting into songs on cue. These plays would typically encompass twenty-five songs, melodic and hypnotic, yet informative and insightful.  

      

Despite the fervent popularity of Bollywood music, (some of which have been employed in street theatre, too) and more recently, a massive digital revolution building globally, street theatre continues to be relevant as an art form. It has been argued that nukkad nataks continue to reach people and places that other forms of media cannot. Yet, the coronavirus pandemic did challenge this assumption. Like everything else, street plays also moved online, at least the ones that could afford to. Yet they were unable to reach communities and nukkads as easily. Even in regular (non-Covid) settings, ground realities reveal that women are often unable to watch street plays due to domestic responsibilities. The absence of women may also be attributed to public places generally being designed to exclude women. Some interesting research on this has been carried out. 


Conclusion 


The vast musical heritage of this art form, only a fraction of which has been discussed here, seems to have lost value in today’s digital age. Remnants of it exist, but only in rural settings, that too with a bleak future. There is an urgent need for this heritage to be preserved as well as showcased as important cultural work against the injustices faced in Indian society. An online repository of the music, including folk music employed in street theatre, as well as popular and historically relevant street plays since pre-independence days may be created. Nukkad Nataks, which continue to be performed across cities, should be provided with the means to have a wider reach and penetration, as they, apart from creating awareness, encourage critical thinking in the common man, which is the need of the hour.        


The author would like to thank Komita, one of the members of Delhi-based group Jan Natya Manch for providing wonderful insights on the subject of street theatre in India. 





     

   


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