Pandit Om Prakash Sharma is considered to be the face of maach folk theatre form in India (Courtesy: Mitali Trivedi)

In Conversation with Pandit Om Prakash Sharma: Tracing Maach, Malwa’s Musical Folk Theatre

in Interview
Published on: 02 March 2021

Mitali Trivedi

Mitali Trivedi has recently finished her M.Phil in Sociology from University of Delhi, and has been working with Abhigyan Natya Association, a theatre organisation, for over half a decade. Mitali directed her debut film, a short documentary titled 'Please Mind The Gap', produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

In this interview, Pandit Om Prakash Sharma traces the trajectory of the maach folk theatre form and its various components.

Pandit Om Prakash Sharma is considered to be the face of maach folk theatre form in India. He belongs to the Ustad Kaluram school of maach. Ustad Kaluram was his grandfather, and he has been practising the folk art of maach since his childhood. His contribution to maach is not restricted to its performance. He has written 18 new plays for maach in Malwi, produced several maach productions, composed and performed music for a variety of theatre productions and trained young artist in this folk art. The awards and honours he has received include the Shikhar Sammaan by the Government of Madhya Pradesh and the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his valuable contribution to maach. 

Following is the translation (into English from Hindi and Malwi) of the text interview conducted on October 8, 2019, in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh.

Mitali Trivedi: Since when are you associated with maach?

Om Prakash Sharma: My father, Pt. Shalugram Sharma ji, was a renowned classical singer. He started training me in both classical singing and maach style singing from a very young age. It has been more than six decades since I began singing and writing plays in the maach folk form. My grandfather, Ustaad Kaluram ji, was one of the pioneers of this folk form and wrote more than 22 plays in his lifetime for maach in the Malwi language. This folk theatre form is a part of our family’s heritage. For me, Ustaad Kaluram ji is not just my grandfather but also my guru.

MT: Could you tell us about the origin and growth of maach in the Malwa region? What is the traditional way of performing it?

OS: Firstly, maach is translation of the Hindi word manch meaning stage. Historically, maach has been performed around the festival of Holi and was a means of entertainment for people. 

Our elders tell us that around 175–200 years ago, there was a man named Gopal Guru in Bhaagsipura, Ujjain, who started performing maach for the first time. Although there is no documented record of his work or his akhaada  [local gymnasium], he is addressed as the pioneer of this folk theatre form in oral traditions. There were two gurus that emerged after him, one was my grandfather, Ustaad Kaluram ji from Daulatganj Akhaada, and the other was Ustaad Bal Mukund ji from Jaisinghpura Akhada. Both wrote many plays for maach which facilitated the growth of the tradition. The stories that they wrote were fictional, religious and historic in nature. Some of them were love stories too. There were around 250 artists from various religions in our akhaada, i.e., the Ustaad Kaluram Maach Akhaada. Soon, maach picked up and there was a time when it started taking place in every nook and corner of the Malwa region. Today, however, there are only a handful of people who perform maach.

The stage is of significant importance in maach as there are many rituals and traditions that are practiced in the process of building the stage. A pole called manak khamb  [a wooden pole believed to eliminate bad omen] is put in place at the performance area and worshipped by the guru and the artists a month before the performance. Earlier, the entire troop would pray to the gods with percussion instruments like dholak and nagaadaas in a procession. It was a way of announcing and informing the public and the artists about the upcoming maach performance. On the day of the performance, after paying respect to the gods and goddesses, maach would begin around midnight and culminate in the morning. Now everything has changed.

Earlier, maach was performed in the month of phagun of the Hindu calendar (February/March in the Gregorian calendar) and in this month the wind blows from south to north. I believe that the artists would perform facing north so the sound could travel farther, because there were no mics at the time. Similarly, the dholak used for maach were slightly bigger than usual dholak to enhance the sound so more people could enjoy.

MT: You mentioned many renowned maach akhaadas. Could you tell us why different groups performing maach are known as akhaadas?

OS: Maach was predominantly a male-dominated art form. It was performed by and for men. In those times, women were not allowed to perform in public and it was largely the case that all the men used to practice wrestling in akhaadasMaachoriginated as an art form to entertain men. It was in the form of a dialogue through the medium of songs or as questions and answers. So, an akhaada then became a place where men would practice wrestling and have conversations through songs to keep themselves entertained. This practice was called akhaadabaazi. But I would like to point out here that in our Kaluram Maach Akhaada, women were always a part of it and same is the case today. We have many women performers in our akhaada.

MT: Since maach is a singing folk theatre form, could you shed some light on its musical structure?

OS: Maach is essentially based on raag and ragini, the classical Indian melodies. One can sense the presence of raag jaijaivantipiluBhairaviasavari and many more in maach but it is particularly based on raag khamaj. And the taals used in this folk form are mainly roopchandikeharwarupak, and dadra. You can say that maach is a folk form derived from Indian classical music structure, which also became one of the reasons for its extinction because classical music takes years of training and practice. In my opinion, maach artists need to have classical music sensibilities in order to perform and that itself is declining. 

MT: Om dada, what are some of the musical instruments that accompany maach? Also, could you tell us why the tek (choir) sits in the middle of the stage during maach performances?

OS: Traditionally, maach was performed with sarangi, a dholak which was bigger in size than the normal dholak and an instrument named tota which was an altered form of shehnai. Later, the harmonium was also used. However, now there are very few sarangi players left, so we have started coupling two harmoniums for our maach performances.  

The literal translation of the word tek is taking aid. Maach performances take place at night, and go into the early hours of the morning, so the performers have to perform and sing for long periods of time. The choir sitting on the stage repeats or sings along with the performers to ease their strain and bring more clarity for the audience about the progression of the story. Also, when the performer is acting and singing, they cannot dance freely. Body movements are restricted, and the focus is on singing, but the moment the choir kicks in, the performers can dance and move around freely. I believe tek is the backbone of any maach performance.

MT: Dada, what is the relationship between the Urdu language and maach?

OS: Folk theatre or any folk art form is naturally performed for the people and in the folk language of particular community or region. Urdu language has been part of our administration as well as public and private spaces for a long time, so it is reasonable that maach also has a strong essence of Urdu. Bhishti [water-bearers who clean the stage with water] and Farassan [who spread the carpet on floor of the stage] perform small skits before the beginning of a performance and are Urdu terms which became an essential part of maach. For instance, before the performance begins, the performers pay their respects to the gods and goddesses, and there is a salaami [essentially an Urdu term which translates to  salute]. It refers to the verse that is sung by the choir to welcome the character that plays the role of Surajkaran, a mythical Hindu king of Malwa. The verse is:

Surajkaran ke mujre pe nigaah bani rahe,
Meherbaan salaamat.

(Hoping Surajkaran’s performance keeps you engaged, 
 long live, kind audience)

If maach was purely based on the linguistic structure of Hindi language then it should have been pranaam and not salaami. 

Another example is in the play Chandrakala-Surajkaran, written by my grandfather Ustaad Kaluram ji. Chandrakala [the protagonist] used to go to a madrasa to learn Farsi from a Maulvi. When Surajkaran learnt of this, he started going there with the intention to woo her. One day, Maulvi Sahib went to read the namaz and asked Chandrakala to teach Surajkaranuntil he returns. And this is how the conversation takes place;

Chandrakala says:
Alif aap kartaar dhani
[Urdu alphabets are full of wisdom]

Surajakaran responds:
Chandrakala se mhaare preet ghani
[I have immense love for Chandrakala]

Bey bahik tu saabit bol
[Pronounce the Urdu alphabet ‘Be’ properly]

Surajkaran responds:
Chandrakala de ghunghat khol
Chandrakala, come out of your veil]

We see how the Urdu alphabet is at the core of this musical dialogue. In our akhaada, my father and grandfather have written many maach plays in Urdu. Urdu is the ground upon which maach is built. 

MT: Has there been any religious, moral, or social purpose of establishing values or perpetuating notions through maach?
OS: While the basic idea of maach was to entertain, it is important to note that all the stories of maach had some kind of message attached to them. For example, in Chandrakala-Surajakaran play, the lead characters go to a madrasa to study, and as the story progresses, the importance of education is highlighted. The maach about Raja Rasalu [a popular mythical Hindu king of second century CE] portrays the characteristics of a leader. It shows how they should work towards the welfare of their people and its state. A competent, empathetic, loyal person makes a good leader. So, we can say that all the stories of maach establish some or the other kind of moral and social values. 

MT: Dada, your contribution in keeping maach alive is invaluable. As we come to the end of the discussion, I want to ask you how you see the future of maach.

OS: Honestly, seeing the adverse state of maach today, I truly believe that it will be an uphill task to firstly, preserve it, and further hope for its thriving future. Folk art forms require a great deal of patience to learn and then to practice. As I see around, the pace of the world has changed to embrace a folk theatre like Maach. On the other hand, I have consistently been taking up the challenge of narrating new stories, stories of the modern times, in the traditional maach style, without killing the soul of this folk-art form. For instance, I picked up a Sanskrit play named Hasya Chudamani, translated it into Hindi and re-crafted it in the maach style for the Kalidasa festival in Ujjain. Another time, I reworked the story of a renowned Hindi writer Harishankar Parsai titled Bholaraam Ka Jeev into maach. I co-directed that play with the eminent theatre practitioner Mr B.V. Karanth for National School of Drama. The aim is to narrate contemporary stories while keeping the form of the tradition intact. Finally, since most of the folk forms rely on oral history, it is important to document and record these art forms in order to preserve them. Recently, I wrote and recorded the notations of 85 rangats [melodies] along with taal of maach and submitted them to Adivasi Lok Kala Academy in Bhopal. I believe that preserving folk art forms is a service to the specific region’s culture and language