Naqqals of Punjab, an art form on wane : The Tribune India

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Naqqals of Punjab, an art form on wane

Popular for enacting ballads & lampooning the powers that be with the conventional licence of clowns, their art form is on the wane

Naqqals of Punjab, an art form on wane

Mundri Lal, the legendary tumbi player, was an entertainer on and off the stage. Even at his home, he had pitched a tent on the roof, to practise at any given time. Photos courtesy: The writer

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry

Post-Independence, there was a fervent search for form and content that would define and also echo the spirit of nationalism. Many artists looked back at tradition for inspiration. Some sought stencils through which new identities could be forged. The training in most art schools in the late Sixties was persuasively reflective of western sources, forms and traditions. However, in the early Eighties, folk forms and traditions started being explored and valorised. The assumption was that there existed in these forms a theatrical vocabulary that would enable urban theatre to establish links with their forgotten past, and devise a method of training the urban artist.

When I moved to Chandigarh in 1984, I was fascinated with the concept of putting together a company that could, in a cross-cultural matrix, integrate a theatrical folk form by not only delving into history or ideology or politics, but the way in which modernity and tradition move.

Bahadur Chand, a female impersonator.

Trained at the National School of Drama, I was also influenced by the teachings of Stanislavski, but my four years of working with BV Karanth at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal had given me an insight into the rich local traditions that existed in each state of India. When I started working with the Naqqal performers, I was not really interested in the form as something ‘material’, far removed from my urban world, to be cited and imitated. Neither was I looking to create a patch and paste sort of experimentation. What interested me was how performers coming from different sides of the road could work together.

Naqqal is derived from the Persian word ‘naqal’, which means to imitate. They are also referred to as bhaands. The Naqqals as performers have a long lineage, but are paradoxically without a continuous or firm tradition. They enact ballads, sing, dance and lampoon the powers that be with the conventional licence of clowns.

Urban actors and Naqqals share the stage for the writer’s play.

In recent times, their considerable popularity has been challenged by cinema and television and they have had to survive by doing ‘disco’ dancing at weddings and community events, including jagratas. But, in my work, they appear along with urban performers, not as decorative ‘acts’ or even as a sign of cultural aesthetics, but to enable diverse and complex perspectives to emerge.

The Naqqals have been nomads and like all nomads, a trifle aloof and suspicious. Their background is mysterious as all claim separate genealogies even though they belong to the same family. Prem Chand, the self-styled ustad, said his family came from Rajasthan to Patiala on the invitation of the Maharaja. Tall and fair, with henna-tinted hair and gold loops in his ears, he looked more like a buccaneer than a musician. A compulsive talker, with a propensity towards exaggeration, he claimed that he was 100 years old and still virile. His passport put his age as 72.

Mundri Lal, the legendary tumbi player, claimed no such grand ancestry. Wrapped in a huge overcoat, even in mid-summer, with thick military shoes bought from the flea market, his favourite activity was sleeping and a stubborn resistance to bathing. At his home in Maloya (Chandigarh), his sons and wife lived in their 5-marla house, while Mundri Lal had pitched a tent on the roof — eating, sleeping and practising in rain and sunshine.

Harpal, a legendary algoza and tumbi player.

On performance tours within the country and abroad, he never carried any baggage. The required clothes were worn one on top of the other, making him look like a stuffed turkey.

The Naqqals are musicians who can play a variety of musical instruments and are trained singers. It would be no exaggeration to say that they are the repositories of qissas and the lost songs of Punjab. Karanth, an iconic music director, composed music with them based on lyrics written by Surjit Patar. He showed them how traditional instruments could be played in a non-traditional manner. Instead of playing the drums conventionally, they could also create sound and rhythm from the wooden walls of the drum. He made them recognise that anything that makes sound can be a musical instrument. In ‘Kitchen Katha’, a play about food, he created an orchestration of sound patterns using kitchen utensils.

I have seen at a village performance near Solan, Bahadur Chand, a female impersonator from the Naqqal tradition, sit on the lap of the patron and twirl his moustache in an attempt to extract money from him. Shows that are performed at night by a group of female impersonators, musicians and singers have a carnivalesque quality as these affirm and mock, celebrate and critique the prevailing definitions of what titillates and stimulates a predominantly male audience. The actors flaunt their bodies in shiny costumes, drawing their references from cultural stereotypes — the seductress, the goddess, the idealised wife and daughter. Often, their names suggest an inflated sexuality: Miss Sweety, Miss Rosy, Miss Hurricane, Miss Bulbul-e-Hind, Miss Chashme-Baddoor.

The spectators always present a version of masculinity that has the sanction of the dominant culture and as such, raucous and coarse behaviour is the norm at such performances. In the middle of a show, the female impersonator can lash out as a male to discipline an unruly spectator and without much effort slip back into the female role.

My meeting with the Naqqals was serendipitous and a combination of chance and choice. The first time I saw them perform was in 1986 while driving from Amritsar to Chandigarh. A car breakdown had me stuck en route. While the driver went looking for a mechanic, I waited. Suddenly, in the wilderness of a summer evening, I heard sounds of singing and laughter coming from the fields and followed the sound. The impact of what I saw was startling. A group of singers, musicians and dancers were performing, ad-libbing and telling stories. A mixture of pop art and natural fun was their chosen vocabulary. The stage on which they performed was made of temporary planks of wood laid on a trestle, lit by oil lamps that created giant shadows on a soiled white sheet strung haphazardly as a backdrop.

An actor entered the improvised stage and blew an antelope horn. Another sound that seemed suspiciously like a car-hooter was let out simultaneously to the beat of insistent drumming.

An ancient man with a mop of white hair appeared blowing fire from his mouth. It seemed as if some ritual was going on, and I was a trifle intrigued as no women were visible in the large rush of children and men. A group of singers entered and made social comments, interspersed with the dohas of Kabir and Baba Farid, before indulging in some risqué exchanges with a co-actor, with each punchline being underscored by a swish of a leather band.

After that, a group of female impersonators entered the stage and were gyrating wildly to the Hindi song, ‘ Jhumka gira re, Ravan ke darbar mein’ (I have lost my earring in the court of the demon, Ravan). Their performance was nocturnal, sexist and far removed from the precincts of the village.

The stories they enacted were pan-Indian myths conjoining local myths, transformed and renewed for local meaning. The gods they invoked rode bicycles, aspired for a sarkari naukri, and cursed like soldiers on a rampage. In the middle of a tragedy, a horse (an actor with a shawl flung on his back) appeared on the stage and broke into a song. In an episode of the famous love legend Sohni-Mahiwal, the matka or the earthen pot upon which Sohni is crossing the river Chenab, suddenly animates itself and starts to narrate the story.

This is a theatrical device that does not fit into any known grammar of realism, but is nonetheless completely acceptable to the audience. The actor represents the common man, and also functions as a social critic and commentator.

Naqqals were also hired occasionally by the Song and Drama Division, a governmental public relations wing that used performers to sell products, pass on social messages, and damage the reputation of a rival political opponent when necessary.

It is sometimes uncanny to see issues of dowry, birth control and female infanticide being rendered with such a declamatory flamboyance that makes these issues get a dash of the mythological. The Naqqal tradition provided a fount of stage conventions, concepts and technique. The beating of a metal kettle with a spoon to suggest war, the smearing of flour on the face to suggest fear — simple techniques, but powerful in their impact and loaded with suggestiveness.

While watching them perform, I understood the true meaning of the words ‘spontaneity’ and ‘openness’. To see a large number of people sitting out on a starlit night, responding to the mood of the performance was an enriching experience. To observe how the audience pumped energy and excitement into the performers was in some way to recognise that something real and precious was being exchanged. I then understood that tradition does not mean something back there, lost, but something constantly alive — living and expanding. I was completely hooked!

Mundri Lal died four years ago, but his performances and persona resonate loud and clear. The challenges are many, but the Naqqal show must go on.

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