Published in Sunday Midday on June 26, 2011


Kalidas, the great Sanskrit poet, they say, was very market savvy. On his way to the court of Vikramaditya, he would stop in villages and hamlets. He would be asked to perform and he would sing bawdy songs, similar to today’s item numbers, to the delight of his audience. But in the king’s court, he would sing the most polished verses with the most sophisticated vocabulary, figures of speech, meter, melody and metaphor. When asked why, he said, “Nautanki is for the masses craving instant gratification. Natyashastra is for the patient aesthete, the connoisseur, the rasik; their numbers are very few.”

Nautanki responded to popular forces, Natyashatra aspired for perfection not popularity. Nautanki spoke to the lowest common denominator, and avoided making too much demand on the emotion or the intellect. Natyshastra sought the subtle, spoke to the soul, and demanded a lot from the audience. Nautanki pleased the tired flesh after a day’s work. Natyashastra sought to address the questions of the soul. Nautanki took us towards Prakriti, connecting with our natural instincts. Natyashastra strove to take us towards Sanskriti, towards the sophistication and nobility that humanity is capable of.

For centuries, both flourished. Each one had its place. Each one had its relevance. Nautanki thrived in bazaars and Natyashastra in temple compounds and royal courts and the courtyards of noblemen and courtesans. But in the 20th century, the rise of Communism, led to attacks on the Natyashastra for being snobbish, arrogant, Brahmanical, pandering to upper class hegemony. It became noble to focus on the masses, to democratize the arts. The 20th century also saw the rise of Capitalism, where market forces determined which art would survive. Considering its mass base, Nautanki would clearly win. So both ideology and economics, have put Natyashatra on the backfoot. The patronage is gone. And only the very determined survive.

So today, we have Bharatnatyam dancers dancing to Bollywood numbers and 2-minute Kathakali performances. Yes, that really happens. If you criticize, you are reprimanded for stifling innovation, for being Brahmanical, for being a snob, for being out of touch with the youth and the masses.

In a party I attended recently the discussion revolved around the latest from Bollywood, “I am your dog. You are my bitch”. Those who moaned at the collapse of decency, and the rise of crass buffoonery in films were cornered with the lines, “You may think it is stupid, but look at the money it made.” And you realize there is a new code in social circles: If you want to appear cool and democratic and with the masses, you must not display any displeasure at crass buffoonery especially if it is a commercial success.

So imagine my horror when while flipping through channels I saw an anchor of a talk show, famous for her stylish pretentiousness, also submitting to crass buffoonery while conversing with a ‘desirable’ star. Nobody expects a talk show to be ‘deep’, but this ‘shallow’? I mean, come on.

I refuse to make Nautanki aspirational. Not because Natyashastra is ‘better’ but because Natyashastra seeks to push the boundaries of human capability and capacity. It seeks to uplift, not merely to entertain. It demands faith and patience and rigor and there is absolutely no guarantee of critical or commercial success. It needs to be pursued for it’s own sake, like prayer. Like Kalidasa, some of us may have to pursue Nautanki on the side, to pay the bills, or to stoke the ego with popularity. But validation and veneration of crass buffoonery – I draw the line there.