Reflections on Nautanki Performance: Mission Suhani

Mission Suhani CastOn a breezy evening in November, in a crowded Setnor Auditorium, over 200 Syracuse University students and faculty, both in the audience and on the stage, got to experience nautanki, a genre of North Indian musical theatre. On stage, the actors included nine students who ha been recruited by Dr. Devendra Sharma, Associate Professor of Communications at California State University, Fresno and a member of a long line of nautanki performers, to perform an abridged version of Mission Suhani, a nautanki that he and his father Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, had written. The play tells of Suhani, a confident young Indian bride, and her Non-Resident Indian (NRI) groom, who has taken her dowry and left her in India. Against familial and societal pressure, Suhani travels to the U.S. where she finds her husband, recovers the dowry, and pursues her own dreams.

For the students who participated, most of whom knew neither Hindi nor acting experience, preparin for the nautanki mean hours of practice, learning dialogues and songs, that were a mix of English and Hindi. Even SAC directors Carol Babiracki and Susan Wadley participated, playing harmonium and acting, respectively. “It’s been challenging but a lot of fun,” said one of the participants, “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

This exposure was one of the goals of Sharma’s ten day residency at SU. “One challenge I have faced in introducing Nautanki in America,” admits Sharma, “is that of course there are no traditional Nautank artists here. However, I am fortunate that both Americans and the Indian diaspora alike have shown a lot of interest in learning this art form.” Besides practicing for the performance, Dr. Sharma also visited classes to educate students about nautanki.

Before the advent of Bollywood, nautanki was the biggest entertainment medium in the towns and villages of northern India. Often, 25,000 to 30,000 people would gather to watch nautanki performances. Nautanki’s rich musical compositions, fine poetry, and humorous, entertaining storylines hold a strong influence over North Indian’s imagination. These performances, which often last through the night, are informal and interactive. Sharma says, “I have tried to retain the informal, interactive, and festive feel of Nautanki performances in the U.S.” 

Dr. Sharma’s residency and the Mission Suhani performance was made possible by an anonymous donor, the Bharati Memorial Fund, the Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies, Performance Live, Department of Art and Music Histories, and the South Asia Center’s Title VI grant, in order to mark the 25th anniversary of Professor Agehananda Bharati’s death. Bharati was a Professor of Anthropology from 1961 until 1991. A renowned scholar of Tantra and South Asia more generally, Professor Bharati was not onl SU's most famous professor of South Asia, but the priest for the local Indian community through the early 1990s. His love of music and India made this nautanki performance an appropriate memorial. Faculty, former students, and old friends gathered earlier that day in the Maxwell School to share their memories of Bharati. S. Wadley address Bharati Memorial group