(Last Updated on : 07-08-2014)
Prahlad Nataka or Prahlad Drama is a stylized form of Oriya theatre widespread in Ganjam district, southern Orissa. The tradition is not very old. In the late nineteenth century, Raja Ramakrishna Chhotaraya, an Oriya feudatory ruler of Jalantar, conceived the first performatory edition. The first text was written in Sanskritized Oriya by Gopinath Parichha. He was a poet-dramatist who received generous patronage from the Raja. As a gesture of gratitude he not only dedicated the work to the ruler but also ascribed its authorship to him. Within a few years of its birth, Prahlada Nataka became so popular that it inspired rulers of neighbouring princedoms to prepare other versions. No matter which version, the plot remains the same, based on the myth of Narasimha, Vishnu's man-lion avatar. Thus Prahlada Nataka has only one play in its repertoire.
Similarities of make-up and costume suggest that Terukkuttu of Tamil Nadu and Yakshaganam of Andhra Pradesh influenced Prahlada Nataka. But the theatrical style is close enough to Suanga and Yatra of Orissa. It takes place as arena theatre, presented open-air and on level ground sometimes temple precincts. But a must for performance is a five- or six-tiered wooden platform some 2 m high. The top has an area of about 2 m by 1 m, on which rests the throne of Hiranyakasipu. Hiranyakasipu was a demon whom Narasimha kills at the end. The platform is usually collapsible, easily erected before and dismantled after a show. The acting area of about 4 sq. m is enclosed with ropes in front of the platform. About 6 m to the left from the platform there stands a hollow structure representing the pillar Hiranyakasipu smote. The accompanying musicians take their places to the right of the acting area, close to the platform. The band normally comprises three instruments. The names can be mentioned as a harmonium, a double-ended drum called mardal, and gini i.e. a pair of small cymbals. A few groups have started using violin and trumpet, adding a touch of glamour, but actually enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the music. This is the life-breath of Prahlada Nataka. It not only provides the base but also determines the dramatic structure. Both vocal and instrumental music at appropriate points intensify the impact. Dialogue winged with music takes the emotive intent farther than realistic delivery. Prahlada Nataka draws heavily upon traditional Odissi music, with over 100 songs. Each of these songs set to a raga and tala.
Since music dominates that the director must be a good singer. More often than not, he serves as the lead vocalist i.e. a 'singer'. This is not quite a character in the drama, yet the pivot on which the performance turns. Primarily, he leads the chorus, but acts also as interpreter, commentator, and conductor of the band. Although, usually, he does not wear make-up or formal costume, he has specific songs and dialogue. He sings eulogies of gods and narrates events preceding a dramatic situation or pertinent to the plot but not enacted. At times, he speaks a character's asides and comments on his or her mood and thoughts. He is entrusted with the responsibility of explaining to lay spectators the cryptic, pithy lines. His role resembles that of the Sanskrit sutradhara. Although songs predominate, there are also long prose passages, besides prose dialogue linking the sung passages.
The demonic role of Hiranyakasipu is the most demanding. The way he goes up and down the tiered platform with vigorous dance-like movements is indeed a treat for the eyes. The audience enjoys it a lot. More than one group at times, hires a professional actor who excels in this part. Though Narasimha appears only in the last, climactic scene and is seen onstage for only around fifteen minutes, his is also a difficult role. The actor fasts on performance days. Putting on the lion mask and tapered nails simulating claws, he stands amazingly transformed. The choice of an actor for this role is made with much care.
In some villages like Bokagaon near Chhatrapur, Narasimha's mask is worshipped in a temple and believed to have divine powers. Hiranyakasipu wears no mask, but his face is painted bright red to suggest ferocity. His moustache consists of thick ropes of black thread twined with golden zari or brocade and runs across the full expanse of the cheeks down to the nape of the neck. There it is tied in a knot. Both he and Prahlada wear colourful skirts and huge magnificently crafted headgear embellished with glittering glass beads. The major male characters sport shoulder decorations and artificial ornaments. Apart from female and minor characters, all are costumed in such an exaggerated manner that they seem masked head to foot. In keeping with the stylized make-up and dress, the acting is choreographic, having a strong dose of dance.
Prahlada Nataka is so popular in Ganjam that there are now more than thirty troupes. But this should be mentioned that all of these are not equally good. Simanchal Patro made a name as Hiranyakasipu, and Raghu Nath Satapathy as a singer-musician. To watch a performance by a really powerful unit is an unforgettable experience. Tuneful music, operatic songs, poetic dialogue, dramatic dance, vigorous acrobatics, stylized mime, elaborate spectacle, colourful costumes, and sumptuous decorations all combine to induce a hypnotic state of consciousness between wakefulness and dream. All these qualities have made Prahlad Nataka a unique one.