A form of folk theatre involving imitation and clownery, Naqal is performed in the state of Punjab. The skits are based on Punjabi folk tales and performed exclusively by men from the Naqqal or Bhand community. The name of the form is derived from the Persian word “naqal”, meaning “to imitate”.
The origins of naqal are traced to the migration of the Bhand community to north India from Persia in the late mediaeval period. Early naqal performances were patronised by a variety of royal courts and local landlords, but they are performed mostly for rural audiences today.
The content of naqal performances is eclectic, often incorporating contemporary issues into larger narratives derived from folklore such as Heer-Ranjha, Puran Bhagat, Raja Bharthari and Sohini-Mahiwal. Naqal troupes frequently employ instrumental and vocal music, dance and impersonation. The musical instruments used include the dhol (percussion drum), harmonium, chimta , tumbi (a string instrument), gubguba (a small drum with a string attached) and matka (a small pot idiophone).
Naqals take place in the open air or sometimes under a tent, with the audience seated around the performance space. A typical Naqal begins with two actors who improvise satirical comments on society, politics and each other. The performance is interrupted by a group of women (played by men) with their backs turned to the audience. The women interact with the two men through bawdy dialogue and double entendres. Erotic dances, accompanied by fast paced music, may also be performed. The dance style employed has been compared to kathak. Naqal performances are also interspersed with dance and comedic interludes by a clown, who functions as a stand-in for the audience.
Naqal troupes are nomadic, and are either hired by households to accompany family festivities or perform in village fairs. The leader of a troupe generally assumes the responsibilities of a director, actor, playwright and musician. Outside of their role as performers, naqal artists are also sometimes hired to treat cattle with shamanistic rituals during the monsoon season.
In recent decades, naqal has faced significant competition from Punjabi and Hindi cinema. Coupled with a lack of institutional support, this has led to the form losing much of its popularity. In recent years, theatre director Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry has worked with naqal artists from Chandigarh in her theatre company The Company, and has incorporated elements from the form into her performances.
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