Nautanki (Hindi: नौटंकी) is one of the most popular folk operatic theater performance traditions of South Asia, particularly in northern India. Before the advent of Bollywood (Hindi film industry), Nautanki was the single most popular form of entertainment in the villages and towns of northern India.
The pleasure of Nautanki lies in the intense melodic exchanges between two or three performers; a chorus is also used sometimes. Traditional Nautankis usually start late at night, often around 10 p.m. or so, and go all night until sunrise the next morning (for a total of 8–10 hours in duration). There is no intermission in Nautanki performances. The performance is often punctuated with individual songs, dances, and skits, which serve as breaks and comic relief for audiences.
Storylines of traditional Nautankis range from mythological and folk tales to stories of contemporary heroes. For instance, while Nautanki plays such as Satya-Harishchandra and Bhakt Moradhwaj are based on mythological themes, Indal Haran and Puranmal originated from folklores. In the first half of the 20th century, the contemporary sentiments against British rule and feudal landlords found expression in Nautankis such as Sultana Daku, Jalianwala Bagh, and Amar Singh Rathore.
Some of the famous Nautanki performers are Gokul Korea, Ghasso, Ram Swarup Sharma of Samai-Khera, Manohar Lal Sharma, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, Chunni Lal, Giriraj Prasad, Puran Lal Sharma, Amarnath, Gulab Bai, and Krishna Kumari.
In the last four decades, new Nautankis are centered on contemporary social messages such as health, HIV/AIDS, women’s empowerment, dowry, immigration, and family planning. They are of a much shorter duration—around 2 hours. This is to give audiences an opportunity to watch performances during a break in their daily routine.