Around the world, indigenous music is struggling to survive in its original form and location. But sometimes, music that fades in one place, say, Northern India, shows up in another place, surprisingly far away. From Hayward, California, Lonny Shavelson has more.
Imagine acres of plowed farmland in India. Thousands of farmers and their families are sitting or lying on the ground. At ten at night, the crowd pushes back to make a circular clearing. Gas lanterns are lit, a dozen or so opera singers, actors and dancers prepare to perform until dawn - and you have a nautanki...a Hindi folk opera once wildly popular in northern India.
SHARMA: And you can imagine if you have to throw your voice so that thousands of people around you can hear each word, how much power you have to have in your voice.
But nautanki performer and director, Devendra Sharma, isn't in rural India. He's in a theater in Hayward California, just east of San Francisco. The professor of communication at Cal-State Fresno grew up in India with his father, a famed nautanki performer.
SHARMA: I cannot believe how a person can have such a powerful and energetic voice. So, yes, I grew up with him, in awe of him. Since the age of four I've been smitten by nautanki.
But nautanki is dying out in rural India, giving way to Bollywood cinema and cable TV. Sharma says his calling is to keep nautanki alive. But in this modern theater in Hayward, with its plush carpet and cushioned seats, nataunki isn't quite the same as in India.
SHARMA: It's more formal. But that's the challenge of modern times. And as a member of the newer generation of nautanki artists, I want it to thrive. So I'm kind of experimenting with different spaces. So what I want to present to audience is the melody of nautanki, how beautiful nautanki tunes sound.
The indoor theater wasn't the only challenge Sharma faced. While he had no trouble finding actors in the area's large Indian community, none had ever sung a nautanki.
SHARMA: Most of these people who are here in the Bay Area are engineers or doctors, software professionals. And they have been brought up in cities in India. So these young people here, they love Indian culture, but they don't know much about their traditions, particularly the rural folk traditions. So it has been an eye opener, because they're now for the 1st time knowing about nautanki. So I often joke with them, you are machines during the day, and then you become human beings in the evenings when you are performing nautanki. And they agree, they say, yeah, it's wonderful, we are artists.
It took three months for Sharma to teach the actors to sing the nautanki style and put on the opera Sultana Daku. The lead character, played by Sharma, is based on a real person born in northern India the early 1900s.
SHARMA: And he was a dacoit or a bandit and he used to rob rich people and help poor people like Robin Hood but then he became very famous because he challenged the British....so all the rural people they they thought him as a hero because he was challenging authority... Ultimately he was caught by British and he was hanged so he became a big symbol for Indian resistance in a very local and colloquial way.
Nautankis were originally performed for farmers and other poor people. At the opening last weekend in Hayward, the audience was decidedly more educated and affluent, but just as appreciative.
VOX POP: "Sound qualilty and stage direction is a lot better here because of the tools they have available but it's very close to the original nautnaki." "Initially it was difficult to understand because I've seen a play before but never a play sung. But once I got into the hang of it, it was good fun." "Truly only in the Bay Area you get to do this - it's awesome."
Director Devendra Sharma calls the production a metaphor of the immigrant experience.
SHARMA: "These people who has been in the U.S. for 10, 15, 20 years, and then I bring this indigenous theater from India. Some of them behave as if this is a foreign thing. And slowly, they got like round eyed, and they were so happy that they did this. Because it's the first time that they're being introduced to this musical tradition of India.
For The World, this is Lonny Shavelson in Hayward California.