Life versus livelihood (Article in The Hindu)

14dfrKhyal_JPG_1_1755168gThe Kuchamani Khyal performance at Tilonia Lok Utsav was a rare chance to witness a theatre tradition that is fast fading. Ever since its inception almost two-and-a-half-decades ago, the Tilonia Lok Utsav has managed to create a rare space for the performing artists of Rajasthan to meet and interact with each other. This year was no exception. As the actors of Kuchamani Khyal played on stage, the Langa-Manganiar singers of Barmer watched them with keen interest. Enthused by their appreciation, the actors performed with added zeal and precision, unravelling gems from their repertoire, filling the surroundings with musical lustre. When artists know they are being understood, they delve to surprise further, rendering intricacies that are dazzling yet playful, because both nurtured skill and improvisation are then displayed at their best. This is also the beauty of the performance, the versatility of the artist being the sole glamour element that pulls the audience to the venue.

Kuchamani Khyal is a musical rendering of a narrative, wherein the singing is expressive of emotion. The base is a 14dfrMarwariKhel_J_1755169gpoetic text set to ragas and fixed formulations which are mastered over years of practice. The nagara is crucial to the performance as it sets the pace and mood of the scenes, and actors dance to its rhythm in between the singing. Dialogues are improvised and functional. However, actors suffuse them with everyday colloquial references so the audience connects to the narrative. Robust rustic comedy provides a base, then gradually moves into the realm of pure music as the night deepens; the noise around subsides and the story encounters the dark, dense realms of human experience, trial, tribulation and pain inflicted by destiny manifested as intrigue, disaster or vow fulfilment. Gradually as dawn approaches, the power of resilience and principles triumphs in all its glory and the greatness of the human spirit prevails. The story is the message: the khel (play) is the khyal (thought or philosophy). Lofty ideals and ideas are placed in everyday situations; earthy humour is juxtaposed with soulful singing.

That evening in Tilonia, the legend of Amar Singh Rathore was brought to life by the Khyal performers. It is amazing how this narrative which is centuries old has been kept alive by the performers and puppeteers of Rajasthan. It is true the story is basically about the Prince of Nagour, but it is also a tale that defines brotherhood as a bond between human beings based on trust, friendship and compassion, transcending the narrow confines of religion and kinship. At another level it is also about a prince who is granted leave to consummate his marriage and whose innocent desire to extend his vacation to be with his newlywed wife makes him a victim of court intrigue. Such a beginning strikes an immediate connection with the audience because the prevalent bureaucratic maze is also replete with such situations. The wife’s request that he value her youth over his duty and salary has been popularised by many film songs. However “Amar Singh Rathore” gave vent to such feelings much before Bollywood was born.

The episodes around the newlywed couple are full of humour, and comedian Mithulal’s support to these sequences as Amar Singh’s assistant kept up the fun. The leave-from-work situation is treated as a modern-day bureaucratic tangle of norms, jealousy and deceit, doing away with the niceties of court decorum. This is how the performers bring the story in the timeframe of the audience; they set history in the present by drawing on familiar references. The contemporariness then does not lie only in the thematic content of the narrative, but in the actor’s handling of the situations that build the narrative. The switch from bawdy humour to fine-tuned melody was often sudden and this kept the audience actively engaged with the performance.

The next day featured “Satya Harishchandra” by the same group at village Paner, about 30 kilometres from Tilonia. The stage was set on a cement platform in a corridor-like space squeezed between two buildings. Cement ramps from the platform connected with the audience area. The actors played this narrative also with humour and everyday 14dfrMarwariKhel5__1755173greferences, Mithulal trivialising the Gods and rituals with an irreverence that thoroughly amused the audience. In today’s context, the honesty of Harishchandra translated into the character of an incorruptible man who stands out for his dutifulness. Both Taramati and Harishchandra refuse to budge from the position they have received as orders from their present employer. This is also their predicament and sorrow. Harishchandra advises Taramati to beg from the residents of Kashi to collect money to pay the required cess for the son’s last rites, without which cremation cannot be permitted. The actor playing Taramati then held a thali in hand and walked into the audience, singing and begging. This singular movement transformed the plane of performance and startled the audience with the proximity of such misfortune. That the queen was no longer a queen became clear with all the implications that such a reversal would have in everyday life. The art of begging amidst the audience made Taramati less privileged than a commoner. The performer by moving into the audience pulled them into the illusion of the performance. They responded as residents of Kashi and money poured into the thali. They did not mime the act of charity, but willingly gave away currency they would have used elsewhere in their everyday life. They thus entered Taramati’s ordeal and with subdued quietness tried to relieve the distress of the character. This meeting of the unreal and real dissolves boundaries as performance melts into behaviour; spectators too become performers.

At the other end when the actor playing Harishchandra stood blindfolded with sword in hand as the obedient servant, ready to slay Taramati as per orders, he reminds us of the symbol of justice blindfolded, that must not see; for to see is to recognise. And recognition of the other as part of himself would make his sword tremble. Integrity to the master demands that he be the executioner. To grant mercy is the privilege of the king, the title Harishchandra has forsaken, and he must bear the consequences of his act. A prisoner of his vow, he has lost even the citizen’s right to claim mercy.

Amar Singh Rathore was not confined by the rules and Harishchandra stood by the rule to negate himself, his family and all happiness. However, there is an underlying belief in resurrection. Amar Singh’s body is salvaged by his nephew and a Muslim friend, Harishchandra by the Gods themselves. Despite this contrast, they both stand tall and are ideals because of their innate strength and commitment to principles.

While both these narratives deal with men as heroes, the women characters are no less significant and play crucial roles in plot development. This gives an interesting start to the performance because this is a genre where women performers are conspicuous by their absence. There is a long and serious tradition of female impersonation by the male actor who is very much at ease with this role and plays without exaggeration. The actors spend hours donning the costume of the woman and by the time they are ready, have altered their walk and gesture. Mangeylal who played the chief queen on both days is a seasoned actor who carries the woman almost as a part of himself and is neither coy nor bashful, addressing the male counterpart as an equal. He reminds us of Ugamraj who made his mark by playing the queen and made a statement by receiving awards clad in attire that made him famous. Bansilal, the leader of this team, also played female roles before moving on to male roles. Umaid, who played the central role in both the productions has earlier excelled as Meerabai. His voice has matured and his singing too has acquired a range and depth that could take him far. He is ready for a long journey ahead provided the road is cleared for Khyal.

Many masters (khiladis) are no more. This is one of the few groups that continues to survive against many odds. Perhaps it is the only one that has been able to keep together so much talent and is aware of the aesthetics of the form. Bansilal himself is a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient. That certifies his talent and contribution. However, he is finding it difficult to hold the group together because of financial difficulties. The actors love their moment of performance but face hardship and discrimination at many levels. A society fragmented by caste is yet to take cognisance of the talent of such performers who come from marginalised communities. Government schemes like pension and production grants have not reached them. In spite of the lack of support they keep the show going. But for how long? This is the question many artists asked during this festival.