Krishna Kumari Mathur (b. 1948) is an eminent nautanki practitioner, widely recognised for her excellence in singing, acting as well as direction. (Courtesy: Deepti Priya Mehrotra)

In Conversation with Krishna Kumari Mathur: Life and Times of a Nautanki Artiste

in Interview
Published on: 02 June 2020

Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Deepti Priya Mehrotra is an independent scholar. A social scientist with inter-disciplinary interests, she has taught at Delhi University, TISS-Mumbai, and elsewhere. Her books on Irom Sharmila, Gulab Bai, single mothers and freedom fighter Jaggi Devi are widely read. She is presently writing a book on street theatre as part of the Indian women’s movement.

Krishna Kumari Mathur (b. 1948) is an eminent nautanki practitioner, widely recognised for her excellence in singing, acting as well as direction.

She worked with several companies during the 1960s and started her own group, the Krishna Kala Kendra, in the early 1970s. The group performed thousands of shows across North India, especially helping raise funds for schools, colleges and other public institutions. Krishna Kumari Mathur received the UP Sangeet Akademi Award (2019) and Devi Ahilyabai National Award (2013) and has performed regularly on All India Radio in Mathura and in Agra. She has been invited as a performer, director, teacher, trainer and music director by the National School of Drama, Hindi Akademi, Indian Council of Cultural Affairs and other cultural institutions.

Krishna Kumari Mathur lives in Shikohabad, some 70 km from Agra. Following is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, on November 15, 2019, in her house in Rahat Gali, Shikohabad. Conducted in Hindi and translated into English, this interview traces her journey as a nautanki artiste, and is an insiders’ view of the genre, its past, present and future. 


Deepti Priya Mehrotra (DPM): Krishna Kumari Ji, you have been a nautanki artiste for over 50 years. What propelled you to join nautanki? 

Krishna Kumari Mathur (KKM): As a child, I enjoyed singing—folk tunes, film songs, whatever I liked. I studied up to class 7 or 8, but I was interested in singing and play-acting, not in studies. The director of the Hindustan Theatre happened to hear me sing and asked me to join. The theatre had girls who could act but found it difficult to get girls who could sing. I was 14 or 15 years old when I joined. After a year, the Hindustan Theatre folded up and I moved to the Pannalal Theatre. Later, the director of the Braj Lok Manch, Giriraj Prasad, came home and asked me to join them. That is how I began doing nautanki. It was my voice that took me everywhere.

The funny thing is no one in my family was a singer or actor. I was born in Agra in a humble dwelling near Taj Nagari. My brother, much older than me, studied at St. John’s College [in Agra]; he would walk all the way [to college] and back home. When my brother got a job at the Income Tax department, my mother, along with my elder sister and me, moved to Shikohabad. I was a small girl at that time. I grew up in Shikohabad, in this very house.

DPM: Did you receive formal training in music or acting?

KKM: No, never! My voice is God-given. I picked up songs and tunes just like that. Guru Markandeya, the ancient Rishi, used to say he had 22 gurus—even a dog was his guru. After I joined theatre and nautanki, I learnt from many people and I taught them too. 

In Hindustan Theatre, I learnt finer points of music and acting by observing and listening to the director, Suraj Prasad Sharma, co-actors, and musicians. Hindustan Theatre was based in Bhagalpur. We did plays written by Agha Hashra Kashmiri, and I performed the heroine’s roles. I enjoyed performing at the Hindustan Theatre very much—it had elements of the Parsi theatre and was close to the Kanpur nautanki, with emphasis on the acting, costume, facial expression and so on. Perhaps if Hindustan Theatre had continued, I would not have come into nautanki, that is, the Hathras nautanki. 

In the Braj Lok Manch, we did Hathras style of nautanki. I kept learning, from the director, Giriraj Kishore, actor Chunnilal Master, and others. I introduced new tunes and folk songs within the dramas and taught the others how to adapt and improvise. When I set up my group, I taught my group members how to improve their acting, dialogue delivery, language, dress and make-up—all of which I had learnt in theatre. I was fortunate to work in different companies, so I could combine what I learnt. 

DPM: What are the distinctive features of the Hathras style of nautanki of which you are an exponent?

KKM: I generally do not like using the term nautanki because people think nautanki is something cheap. The Hathras style of nautanki is also called the Braj style of nautanki. In the Braj region, we still use the old term, svang, which is an ancient folk form. In the Kanpur region, svang was renamed nautanki. Braj or Hathras nautanki is similar to svang. Lord Krishna performed svang, singing with rhythm and dance. The Hathras nautanki is grounded in classical singing, while the Kanpur nautanki is closer to the theatre with more emphasis on acting and dialogue delivery. In the Hathras nautanki, it is difficult to express emotions—they get overshadowed by the singing. If we emphasise singing, the acting gets suppressed, while if we emphasise acting, the singing gets suppressed. 

DPM: Could you recount some experiences from your early years as a nautanki actor?

KKM: There was a public demand for nautanki. We travelled seven to eight months at a stretch, through UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, performing at melas, marketplaces and open areas within villages and towns. We performed a different nautanki every night. We worked extremely hard and, for our work, we received applause and accolades, which was the biggest reward. We would stand in the fields and eat dal-roti if needed. There was a huge demand for me but it did not affect me. I did not think of it at all; I was completely immersed in the art, the performing! At that time, we had no idea what an interview is or what is a newspaper, radio or television. While with Hindustan Theatre, we toured for full 10 months—we travelled to Assam, Bengal, Bihar—performing in Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Siliguri, Guwahati, Bhagalpur, Jamalpur, Kharagpur, Mukaam Ghat…! With Braj Lok Manch, we went to Allahabad, Ballabhgarh, Hathras, Aligarh, Meerut…all over U.P., Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, even Punjab.

DPM: Would you like to share memories of some special performances?

KKM: With the Braj Lok Manch, I performed in Hathras as Rani Haadi in Amar Singh Rathore. Because of my years with Hindustan Theatre, people had heard of me. The crowd was huge—local newspapers covering the event wrote that 10,000 people watched the show. In 1966, we performed Raja Harishchandra at the same venue and again there was a very large audience. When we performed, they were silent, as if spellbound.

I remember many performances though I have forgotten many, too! There were songs which one could fully act along with. In the play Sardar Bhagat Singh, when Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar are leaving to throw bombs in the [Central Legislative] Assembly, a young woman, Shyama, ceremoniously bids them farewell; I would sing: Doon vidai kis tarah, rok loon gar bas chale, door manzil reh gayi, par door mujhse tum chale, mujhko na jaana bhool panthi, mujhko na jaana bhool [How shall I bid you farewell, if I could, I would keep you here, the goal is far away, but as you go far from me, do not forget, O traveler, do not forget me ever]. 

There was another play, Dahej. At that time, my niece, my brother’s daughter, had died—she had been burnt to death by her in-laws. I did the play with great emotion. In Dahej, a man has two daughters Gayatri and Savitri, and they are very poor. A time comes when he is in debt, because of which he is consumed by anxiety. Savitri, the younger daughter, thinks, ‘Let me commit suicide, it will lighten my father’s burden,’ and she kills herself. Meanwhile, the moneylender weaves an evil design and the police arrests the father; Gayatri sings: Kya raha jaane ko ab, ab kya hamara jayegaKaisa insaf tera, sab kuchh luta haimera!Duniya ke malik,bata tu kahaan hai?Aankhein hain teri, ye suraj ye chanda, sab kuchh tu dekhekya karta hai banda,tere sahare gagan chal raha hai,tere sahare pawan chal raha hai,ban jaaye baat meri,reh jaaye shaan teriDuniya ke malik,bata de tu kahaan hai? [What is left now to lose, what can we lose now? What kind of justice is yours, I have been looted of everything! Lord of the world, tell me, where are you? These are your eyes, this sun and this moon, you see everything people do, the sky rests on you, the winds rest on you, I hope I win, and your glory shine! Lord of the world, tell me, where are you?] On one side lies Savitri’s corpse, on the other side the policemen drag away her father, handcuffed. After we did the play in Gorakhpur, some girls came into my tent and wrote down the words of the entire play, because they wanted to do the play in their college. I was so happy, I dictated the passages to them, and they kept writing down the words.

Once, I was returning at night after a show from Gwalior in my car when we heard gunshots. It was the Chambal ravines and the driver was terrified. I said, ‘Keep going,’ and we reached home. I was not scared because I was ignorant. Notorious dacoits Mohar Singh and Madho Singh were moving around that area with their gangs of hundreds of men! 

DPM: What prompted you to set up your own company, Krishna Kala Kendra, in the early 1970s? It is fascinating that you did shows to raise funds for educational institutions, hospitals and so on. Was not this very different from other nautanki companies?

KKM: I had worked in various companies for nearly a decade when I thought of starting my own group. My children were small and I was tired of being called away suddenly whenever there was a show; I felt it is not fair on my household. I thought, if I have my own company, at least I will be my own master. I knew so many artistes. I asked them to work with me. It began smoothly and did very well. We were invited by schools and colleges to raise funds for making buildings, classrooms, hospitals, even institutions for the disabled. We went to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Cuttack, Jamshedpur, and we were so busy we did not have the time to catch our breath.

I made available good clean entertainment, and I performed for the public good. In companies where I worked earlier, there were huge tents for living quarters, tin and bamboo enclosures for the audience, drop curtains, stage, dozens of musicians, actors, cook, electrician, tailor and so on—eight trucks carried the people and paraphernalia! In my group, when I was invited for a show, I sent word, everyone brought their costumes, musical instruments, a few props, and that is it. The organisers arranged the venue, usually within compounds of schools or colleges, places within a boundary wall, not completely open. The organisers sold tickets; it was not our headache. During the 70s, tickets might have been for Rs 100/-, Rs 50/-, Rs 10/-; collection from tickets would add up to Rs 30,000/-. Apart from that, organisers raised donations for the programme. I kept my fees, and enough to pay all my group members—everybody had households to run! The rest of the donations went towards the cause, organisers could use it. For some 25 years, up to the mid-1990s, we were in demand, and fully occupied.  

DPM: What was the situation after the mid-1990s?

KKM: There were fewer invitations for performances. The scenario changed. I personally did not mind doing less work but I was concerned because there was decline in demand for nautanki and, in fact, for all our folk arts, that was a concern. And my artistes also needed to earn.

DPM: Would you like to tell us how your family life coexisted with life as a nautanki practitioner?

KKM: The 40 years with my husband were the best years of my life. My childhood was full of hardship and the present is full of hardship, after my husband’s death a few years ago. But I have always led a double life, one as a performer, the other in the family. I lived in two worlds! The two worlds are completely distinct. Sometimes, I feel, either I should not have been a performer or I should not have married.

My husband, Doctor Sa’ab, adjusted a lot. He usually accompanied me for shows. We travelled [to the place of performance] by car, and after the performance, travelled back home, whether it was midnight or 2 or 4 am! I wanted to be back because of the children, and he because of his work. He was a doctor. I could sleep next morning but he had to reach his dispensary. Even if a performance was far away, I went by car, he insisted upon that. 

My husband was keen that I do a nautanki on Doordarshan. When the opportunity came, I did Amar Singh Rathore. We felt nervous about responses from our own town, Shikohabad, and were relieved when everyone congratulated us. Thereafter, I did Puran Bhagat on Doordarshan. My husband and I went to Agra at least once a month, to see movies. We always saw two films, whenever we went! 

In the early days, before marriage, my mother travelled with me when I toured on work. Later, my elder sister looked after the children—my two sons—when I travelled for work. That is how we managed. I stayed in my own home. My husband had a first wife and children from that marriage. Both my mother and sister have passed away. My brother built a house in Meerut and settled there. He had six daughters; it was the one [on whose life the nautanki Dahej was loosely based] who got married in Agra who was burnt to death by her in-laws.

DPM: Were there other women in nautanki and within your group?

KKM: Much earlier, there were no women in nautanki, then Mushtari Bai, Shyama, Anno and others joined. My group had around 15 members, including four or five women. Kamini Sharma, Chandana Kumari, Asha, all worked in my group, but no one stayed on. They were all good but they left after two, four, five years. Most of the men in my group were from Mathura but women were from Bareilly, Pinahat, Mathura and many other places.

DPM: You continue to be active today. What are some of your preoccupations?

KKM: Past 15 years, I have not acted but I arrange and direct. I accept invitations for shows although it is not easy at my age to organise everything. I go if invited by the National School of Drama, Hindi Akademi and such organisations, as chief guest, or on a panel, or to do a show. When NSD did Othello in Hindi, as Maun Ek Masoom Ka, Raj Bisaria was the director and I was the music director. 

During the past few years, I have received recognition, and of course I am so very happy about this. I was awarded the Devi Ahilyabai Award by the MP government, and recently the UP Sangeet Natak Akademi has announced an award for me. 

I wonder sometimes how I came to be so different, so unique! I was born with this voice, this God-given gift, and it became my life. At that time, no one thought or planned [their career]; now, everyone plans. One of my sons is a doctor, my daughter-in-law, Jyoti, was a municipality member, an elected post, she is so active that people still come to her with all their problems. My granddaughter is an engineer; she works in Gwalior. My other three grandchildren are studying. Sometimes, I wish I had studied! Right now, my problem is financial, and it is quite troubling.

There is a book on my life now. Several people have interviewed me. I did not realise people may write down anything I say, so I was probably too frank, too simple… If I had known earlier about interviews and books, I would have kept records and documented our performances. Then I could have shown you evidence of thousands of shows!

DPM: What do you see as the future of nautanki?

KKM: There seems to be no future. Today, if there is demand, there is nobody who can perform. And if there is somebody who wants to perform, there is not enough demand. 

The past 10 years, I have been tutoring young people whenever there is a chance to do so. I find it very satisfying. Youngsters want to learn to sing but do not focus on it; they see no career, income or way of life as there was earlier. I am trying to keep the art alive. I teach groups of students; for instance, in 2016, I trained a group of school students in a 30-day workshop in Sona Gaon, Agra, to sing, act and put up a nautanki, Shrimati Manjari

I wish I could teach here, where I live, but there is no interest in my neighbourhood or town. Children and young people study, go for tuitions, think of careers and jobs. Who has the time or interest to learn, to take forward our own folk culture?