Musical theatre or opera depicting narratives from epics and folklore interspersed with music, song, dance and satire, svang is performed in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
The word svang and variations such as suang and sang occur across Apabhramsa, Prakrit and Sanskrit literature, and are used when referring to theatre from as early as the fifth century CE. The term was also used for various forms of folk theatre in the regions corresponding to present-day Uttar Pradesh in the nineteenth century, one of which later evolved into nautanki. Contemporary svang evolved from similar forms and has been compared to the other regional musical and theatrical forms such as naqal, bhavai, khyal and tamasha.
The narrative repertoire of svang include romances and secular narratives such as Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal, Saudagar and Sorath. Religious or spiritual narratives from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the stories of Nala-Damayanti, Gopichand, Raja Harishchandra, and local heroes may also be depicted. These narratives are presented as dialogic songs known as raginis.
A typical svang troupe, known as a khara, consists of about nine to twelve members including instrumentalists. They consist of members across caste and religious lines, led by a leader called a khareband. The khareband is responsible for setting up members of a troupe, arranging for performances and training the actors and young members of the troupe. They may also compose and select the raginis which the troupe will perform.
A troupe may be invited to a village by the chief or a prominent family. Performances take place in an open space, often the central area of a village, upon a raised platform constructed for the purpose. This stage is surrounded on three sides by cots or carpets for the audience, with the musicians seated on the other side.
Svang performances generally begin in the late afternoon or early evening. They begin with a recitation of dohas, followed by a bhet or an offering sung by the cast members. This is initiated by the clown or jester, followed by the rest of the cast. The khareband sings the final part of the bhet and commences the svang with introductory couplets introducing the story and central characters. The raginis from the narratives begin with a tek or refrain sung by the lead actor and backed by the chorus, accompanied by instrumental music. The chorus repeats the tek as the ragini reaches a climax, accentuating the emotional mood of the scene presented. Narratives are interspersed with evocative dances and bawdy humour. The actors improvise dialogues, with much humour and double entendre.
Svang was performed predominantly by men until the mid-twentieth century, when women began to act in and participate in some productions. However, most roles are still played predominantly by men.
Svang was the predominant form of entertainment in rural parts of northern India until the advent of cinema and television. Today, it is recognised as a distinct performative genre and a few svang troupes are still active in the region.
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