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Saangit, folk or classical, it is indeed a remarkable journey of coming back!

Aparna Misra

Under the canopy of one star-lit night decades ago, when the mesmerised audience grooved and indulged in folklore being performed through various theatrical elements there sat a young boy, spellbound, just watching his father act on the stage. Little did the child realise, what he witnessed his father perform was to fade away soon and was to be swept away through the sheen of modern-day entertainment modes which were fast galloping the audience for traditional entertainment and he someday would become the exponent of resurrecting the dead art form called Saangit. The act performed under the glitters of stars which closely resembled Nautanki, was performed by the stalwart Pt Ram Dayal Sharma, father of Dr Devender Sharma who single handily has given a new life and recognition to Saangit.

Saangit has been a musically rich theatre performance based on literature and folklore patronised by the urban population which brought together classical art forms and folk music. Till the late 18th century, Saangit, used to be a popular mode of entertainment in Indian towns, especially the north. The art form had dedicated patrons across urban India where Saangit companies toured the towns and cities regularly and also on popular demand. Just like Gharanas, Saangit was classified in varied forms on the basis of the town it emerged from, while retaining the basic elements of theatre, dance, comedy, elocution and melodrama intact. For example, Saangit coming from Hathras, a small town in northern India was called Swang. Unlike Folk songs or acts, Saangit was a highly professional and organised form of theatre meant for audiences belonging to different sections of society.

Saangit has been a musically rich theatre performance based on literature
Photo: Dr Devendra Sharma

The existence of a large number of chapbooks proves that publishing Saangits once used to be a highly creative commercial venture in the 1800s and thrived on competitions organised through various akharas vied to be judged as number one!

Resurrecting the lost legacy

Dr Sharma was once asked to sing a few lines of Saangit, it was then that he realised the road map of his life unfolding. His ancestors were Swang exponents for at least four generations. He had his early training in the Swami Khera Akara from Pt Ram Dayal Sharma. He realised just making films on Saangit would not help reclaim Saangit the lost cultural space. He then decided to embrace his inheritance completely. After all, he came from the lineage that had performed in the court of Wajid Ali Shah, who had composed Radha Kanahiya Ka Kissa, on the lines of Saangit. His forefathers had contributed to the development of Rahas, which combined elements of Saangit and Raaslila.

After having seen his father put his life and blood into the art form it was painful for Dr Devendra to see Saangit being unfairly put down as non-Classical, or one of the many folk art forms. He decided to educate the world about the high degree of musical and literary creativity that went into a Saangit performance. For this, he realised, he needed to study the field in depth.

He was admitted for PhD prog at Ohio University and ironically he prepped the committee members with copies of Kathryn Hansen’s ‘Ground for Play! The providential breakthrough came when he travelled to London for his research work. The British Library in London threw open Ali Baba’s cave of resources on Saangit for his research and, mining those rich records, he realised his folly of having termed Saangit as Nautanki in a feature he had made.

It has now been established now that Saangit thrived as a multi-layered discipline, intellectually rich, musically eclectic and totally syncretic. Saangit was perhaps the earliest traditional theatre form which had opened its doors to women performers where they were treated with respect. It was one platform where the resounding beat of nakkara obliterated the caste boundaries.

The intoxicating hold of the memorable night which had a lasting impression on young Devendra Sharma took him across the globe on a long journey where he stands today as a Saangit artist himself like his father albeit in a new avatar as Dr Devendra Sharma, a Professor of Communication and Performance at California State University, Fresno.

How Saangit transformed

Initially staged on makeshift platforms with colourful festoons and lamp lights, the performances lasted all night. Samai-Khera school of Saangit focused on the melody and brought in Raasleela singing elements in Saangit. Many of its components like Makkhan Swami, Gopal Swami, and Dr Sharma’s father Pandit Ramdayal Sharma were also trained Raasleela performers.

Later, commercialism crept in with the coming of the Kanpur style, which was inspired by Parsi theatre. The performances became ticketed events and replaced traditional patronage patterns. New staging style, modern themes, and stories like Aankh Ka Nasha based on modern romances and social issues became popular. New instruments were used and Saangit came under the influence of Western-style proscenium theatre. It came to be staged in enclosed spaces, ads were taken out in papers and tongas and ekkas went about proclaiming the arrival of Saangits in towns.

If we look at the number of Saangit performances and packed shows in the 19th and early to mid-20th century, we can understand the popularity of Saangit. In Saangit performances, Prem akhyaan from the Middle East, religious theatre from Jogis, fantasies from Indralok, and Hero Ballads like Allha Udal, entertained nawabs and seths and chiefs and traders and workers alike.

Decline of Saangit

A Number of factors were responsible for the disappearance of Saangit; systemic onslaught by the British, the colonial knowledge system that divided art forms as Classical and Folk, declining patronage, the attitude of Western-educated elites of the country who supported the classification and the purists who wanted to promote certain Indian art forms as sacred, ancient and pure while ignoring the others. Collectively various such reasons unglorified Saangit as a boisterous, unsophisticated dance drama unfit for the ‘cultured’ people.

Some rebellious Saangits like Julmi Dayar or Sultana Daku were also seen as politically provocative by the British. And yet, despite the displeasure of the British, the 1930s was still a glorious period of Saangit!

Then came a lack of patronage due to the rise of the successively newer entertainments; Parsi theatre, cinema, television, and VCDs. After independence, the colonial hangover of segregating art forms as classical, modern, traditional, folk and tribal suffocated many arts.

Unsurprisingly the space vacated by Sangit was filled in by Bollywood and not by the so–called modern theatre! The generic Hindi cinema, with its song and dance routine, its melodrama, the tension between good and evil and the early historical or mythological figures, will understand the debt it owes to Saangit.

Is it possible for Saangit to make a comeback in the changed social-cultural framework?

Comeback of Saangit

A modest comeback has been witnessed in modern theatre works of playwrights who have borrowed elements of Saangit such as Habib Tanveer and Shanta Gandhi who used famous theatre elements in their plays to add more character and realism. No wonder, their plays resonated with the audience. Saangit has contributed to this artistic cross-fertilisation. Dr Devendra’s father acted in the plays of Shanta Gandhi and Habib Tanvir and brought in the elements of Saangit singing in staged dramas.

The immense emotional appeal of it makes it an important means of spreading social awareness. Devendra adds, ‘Nautanki… is an important communication tool at present for the illiterate and semi-literate people (even though it had an equal influence on educated during earlier times) to have a community dialogue on their local social conditions with dignity.”

However, this use of the art by urban directors and playwrights remained on the surface and did not lead to the revival of the form itself. For a momentous change to come it has to come from within Saangit’s ranks.

Devendra Sharma is wholly in agreement with the reinvention of Saangit for modern sensibilities. He has given more than 500 performances worldwide and has directed many films illustrating Indian folk traditions and culture. His NGO Brij Lok Madhuri worked with Johns Hopkins University for the Communications programme and the government of India, along with his father, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma and other veteran Saangit artists, and have been training folk troupes who regularly stage Saangit performances!


Edited by Binny Yadav
Picture Courtesy: Dr Devendra Sharma
The author is a writer on culture and heritage and has been an educationist.
(Views expressed above, solely belong to the author)

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