Odisha’s Theatre Art ‘Prahlad Natak’ Struggles For Patronage

Berhampur: ‘Prahlad Natak’, which once enthralled people with its real life-like performances, is on the verge of extinction due to lack of patronage and financial support.

The theatre art of Odisha’s Berhampur revolves around the popular mythological story of demon king Hiranyakashipu, his son Prahlad and Narasimha, the half-lion and half-man incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

It was written by Gaurahari Parichha (1798-1897), a poet and musician of Paralakhemundi. Parichha had dedicated the verses to the erstwhile Raja Ramakrushna Chottaray Jalantar, who popularised the dance form with his royal patronage. The king, who ruled for 48 years, was a passionate connoisseur of literature, theatre, music and dance.

After the end of king’s reign, who himself performed the role of Hiranyakashipu, the theatre tradition came to an end. However, the rt loving people of Jalantra remained unfazed by the onslaught of time and lack of patronage and continued the tradition. The scale of celebration decreased so also the popularity.

Many artists like the artists playing the role of Hiranyakashipu, (Raja), Rani Kayadhu, Prahlad and Sutradharas still chug on to keep the art alive with utmost dedication and perseverance.

What mesmerises the audience in this play is the extraordinary skill of word power in the verses, swiftness in the movement of the performers and the high-pitched voice of presenting the theme.

But, ban on use of brass-nails for Hiranyakashipu and live snakes for Prahlad for the last few decades following some mishaps was one of the major reasons behind further decline in the Natak’s charm.

Prahlad Natak also draws its charm heavily from the traditional music of Odisha, which, though influenced by both Carnatic and Hindustani music, has a distinctive character of its own. There are seven talas including ektal, rupak, jhumpa, triputa, adi, asta tal and dhruva. It uses 35 ragas, 42 Sanskrit slokas and 126 compositions in Odia. The play has 20 male and five female characters. The female roles are also performed by men.

Performed outdoors after losing royal patronage, Prahlad Natak is staged on a seven-step platform (mancha). Hiranyakashipu sits on a throne atop the ‘mancha’ and his ministers and officials sit on the steps as per descending order of their ranks.

The musical instruments used in Prahlad Natak are harmonium, mardal, gini (percussion) and mukhabina (like a sahanai). Both vocals and instrumentals are used to intensify the dramatic effect of Pahallad Natak, which consists of 127 verses.

John Emy, a professor at the US’s Brown University had conducted extensive research on this art form during 1980-82 and brought it to the notice of the world. The original manuscript of Prahllad Natak was traced in 1938 and it is preserved at the Madras Oriental Manuscript Library.

“There were as many as 172 troupes across the region during pre-independence period. The number dwindled to 57 in the 1980s, and now there are 35 troupes. In reality, however, there are just 10 professional troupes. It is time the State government must take measures to save this art form,” says Bighneswar Sahu of Ganjam and also the convener of the Odisha Folk Foundation.

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