FRESNO STATE — According to Fresno State communication professor Dr. Devendra Sharma, nothing compares to the satisfaction and fulfilling experience of watching the nautanki, a North Indian form of opera.
His memories are enveloped by the beautiful singing backed by instruments and the presence of thousands of people standing on bullock carts and their roofs to reward the troupe with thunderous applause. Inspired by the colorful performance and ancient culture, he aims to create this beautiful vision for American patrons.
Sharma received a grant from the Hewlett 50 Arts Commission to present “Princess Nautanki,” performed by the Devendra Sharma Nautanki Folk Opera Ensemble. Sharma said the contemporaneously interpreted, woman-centered production will premiere in 2024 and be the largest ever staged in the United States.
The $150,000 grant is part of $8 million that, according to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is the largest infusion of funds to the folk and traditional arts ever. It is also among the largest received by a professor in the Communication Department. The grant is one of 10 in 2021 designed to bring world-class performing arts to communities across the San Francisco Bay Area. The commission supports the development of new works in traditional art forms and cultural practices.
“Nautanki is an operatic performance tradition of northern India. Before the advent of Bollywood (or the Indian film industry), it was considered the single most popular form of entertainment in Northern India. Rooted in the towns and rural society, this theater vibrates with lively dancing, pulsating drum beats and full-throated singing,” Sharma said.
Traditionally, nautanki performances can take place in any available open space in or around a village. The stage is elevated above the ground and is made up of wooden cots with a cloth backdrop. Other times, a small platform made with bricks in front of a house can serve as the stage. Musicians and percussionists sit on one side, and actor-singers occupy the center stage. The main instruments used in nautanki performances include the harmonium (reed organ), nakkara (drum) and dholak (two-headed hand drum).
Sharma is a seventh-generation nautanki opera performer, writer, director and guru. He has given more than 500 performances and directed many films illustrating Indian film traditions.
His father and teacher, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, 2014 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient by the president of India, is one of India’s most well-known nautanki performers.
“Apart from being a wrestler, my grandfather was a famous artist in a nautanki troupe. He used to tell me that my father grew up to become one of the biggest stars of nautanki. I dreamed of becoming a great singer like him, to be worshipped by audiences like he was, to be on the top of that stage,” Sharma explained. “Hence, I started performing at the age of 4 with my father.”
The nautanki will premiere in the Bay Area. After the premiere, Sharma intends to bring the opera to Fresno State through collaboration with other College of Arts and Humanities areas. He is looking forward to presenting the opera to students, colleagues and the larger Central Valley community.
“Dr. Devendra Sharma’s prestigious honor as a Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions recipient for his folk opera ‘Princess Nautanki’ is a wonderful recognition of the mastery of his craft and represents to the wider world Fresno State’s commitment to diversity and the arts. It will be a joy to see Dr. Sharma’s production here at Fresno State in 2024,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.
Sharma’s academic interests include performance and communication, persuasion for social change, popular culture, communication for community engagement and entertainment-education communication strategies.
In March 2012, he was awarded the Franklin Research Grant by the American Philosophical Society to research his upcoming book about swang-nautanki and its connection to communication and community engagement. He has also been an invited resident artist and visiting professor at institutions worldwide, including Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, Syracuse University, and Oxford University and the world-famous Theatre du Soleil in Paris.