This essay illuminates cultural resonances between two widely viewed forms of theatre over the last century in North India, Nautanki and Ramlila. It explores some of their common elements, relating to presentation style and narrative content, ones that are common to many other regional forms of Indian theatre. Throughout the twentieth century, Nautanki reigned supreme as the predominant form of opera in North India. While its popularity has diminished somewhat in recent years, Nautanki and its less commercial, more religious "cousin," Bhagat, are still staged, especially in their geographic home in the Braj region. Contrasting one Bhagat play, Sundar kathā by Ram Dayal Sharma, and the parallel episode in Ramlila and the Radheshyam Ramayan (a literary source for Ramlila) by Radheshyam Kathavachak, this essay suggests that these performance forms are deeply interconnected and spring the same cultural soil. As with so many North-Indian performance forms, Ramlila and Nautanki entail charming music, poetry, dramatic acting, and backstage coordination by many people in the community. They are supported by local patronage, and sometimes performed by local volunteers as well. These are performance forms that create strong bonds within the local community. Amateur neighborhood Ramlilas, with their rollicking style and colloquial scripts, are much closer in style and spirit to Nautankis and Bhagats than staid, ritualistic Ramlilas like that of Ramnagar.

Devendra Sharma is a fifth-generation Nautanki singer, writer and director, who has performed in more than 1,000 performances. He was the first to introduce Nautanki to audiences in the United States and Europe, where he has performed extensively and trained many artists. He has played the role of Lakshman in an operatic production of Sāket, based on an epic poem by Maithilisharan Gupt, and Ram and the narrator in the Ramlila at the Parvatiya Kala Kendra (PKK) in Delhi. He has also assisted his father who has performed as the vyās (singer-symbolic director) at the Ramlilas of Ashok Vihar and Shalimar Bagh in Delhi. He has been an artist in residence and held visiting professorships at institutions including Theatre du Soleil in Paris, Columbia University, and the University of Oxford. Sharma is currently professor of Communication and Performance Studies at California State University, Fresno.


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