The Jaipur Tamasha - Traditional Folk Art in a Modern Context

Posted by Stefan Heil • Tuesday, March 9. 2010 • Category: People and Places
Some 250 years ago, during the rule of Aurangzeb in India, it wasn't the best of times for music and the arts. Aurangzeb, adhering to a very orthodox brand of Islam (in contrast to previous Mogul emperors like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan), is remembered for his uncompromising religious views, such as the discouraging of singing or music for Hindus and Muslims alike. When musicians lost their imperial patronage, they started looking for more supportive environments.

Photo by: Ben Weiss ( All rights reserved.

It was then, that a special kind of folk art developed in the area near Agra. This so-called ‘Khayal Tamasha’ was originally a form of poetic dialogue between two groups of poets. Being under pressure from Aurangzeb and his ‘muhtasib’ (a supervisor of bazaars and other parts of public life in medieval Islamic societies), these artists found a save harbour when the then ruler of Jaipur - Maharaja Sawai Jaisingh - invited them to his royal court, and made them settle in Brahmpuri (a part of Jaipur).

The most acclaimed of the lucky few who found a new home for themselves and their art were the members of the Bhatt family. Under the guidance of this clan, the once mainly poetic form of expression that was typical of the ‘Khayal Tamasha’ now developed into a new, distinctive art practice of its own. With poetry still being a pillar of the Tamasha, now acting, singing and dancing were incorporated into the performances as well. From an antique poetry-slam (excuse the lingo here), it eventually became more of a musical. This newly created ‘Jaipur Tamasha’ was based on traditional folk stories which were re-enacted by using the spoken word as well as singing and by acting and dancing - all happening in an open air area, where the audience sits in a circle around the (non-existent) stage in the middle where the actors, singers, and musicians perform the Tamasha.

Photo by: Ben Weiss ( All rights reserved.
Musically, the main ragas (melodies) used are ‘Bhupali’, ‘Aasawari’ (Komal Ishbh), ‘Jonpuri’, ‘Malkuns’, ‘Darbari’, ‘Bihag’, ‘Sindh Kafi’, ‘Bhairvi’, ‘Kalingda’ and ‘Kedar’, and the main instruments used are the harmonium (a keyboard instrument, similar to an accordion), the tabla (a drum), the sarangi (a string instrument), and ghugroos (chains of bells, usually worn around the ankles). The costumes worn also play a vital role for the performance: the ‘Tamasha crest’ together with the ‘kalangi’ (plume), the ‘gotedar bhagwavastra’ (a laced saffron garment), the ‘singi’ (a fish-shaped garment) and the ‘seli’ (a neck ornament) are among the chief costumes of the performance of Tamasha. Also a common feature of every Tamasha is, that the actors sometimes wear “imagined costumes” which they describe to the audience during the play, and that all women in the stories are played by male performers as well.

Since the beginning, this art managed to survive the subsequent changes of leaders and various different governments almost unharmed. Even 250 years after its conception, the Jaipur Tamasha is still happening. Usually there are performances on specific dates, such as the day before Holi, on Amavasya (the Indic name for a 'New Moon'; not on every Amavasya though) and on Ram Navami (the festival celebrating the birth of Lord Rama). The mode of performance - as mentioned already - did hardly change over time, and so still today every Tamasha starts with the so-called ‘Lahariya’ (a special dancing performance upon a contemporary rhythm which moves from slow to fast) and - like many ancient Sanskrit plays - also ends with a ‘Bharat Vakya Tamasha’ (a happy ending, the fulfilling of the wishes of the protagonist and the wishing for the welfare of all). This also underscores the foundation of the Tamasha as a narrative of solidarity, love and religious co-existence.

The sagas that form the framework of many of the famous Tamasha plays are ‘Tamasha Gopichand’, ‘Jogi Jogan’, ‘Roopchand Gandhi’, ‘Ranjha Heer’, ‘Jutthan Miyan’, ‘Chaila Panihari’ amongst others. The already mentioned nature of solidarity and peaceful co-existence is often inherent in these sagas. For example in 'Ranjha Heer', the protagonist Ranjha – although being a Hindu – goes to the Rajasthani city of Ajmer to visit the Sufi (mystical Islamic) shrine of saint Muinuddin Chishti where he receives the blessing of the ‘Khwaja’ in order to find his true love Heer, who appeared in one of his dreams before. And just to reassure you: of course he succeeds in finding her and they live happily ever after.

Photo by: Steph Roberson. All rights reserved.
However, even with the core elements virtually unchanged for the last 250 years, there are nevertheless many contemporary influences in the storytelling that entered the plays. These influences occur in form of references to actual events in present times (such as interweaving stories of political scandals or recent developments in sports [read: cricket!] or the use of imagined mobile phones as a means of communication between the protagonists) into the plot - even if the original saga is hundreds of years old. And this is maybe the reason, why even today in times of movie theatres, television and other means of entertainment, the Tamasha is still popular, especially in some selected places such as Jaipur, where the Tamasha still attracts locals - and sometimes also foreigners - to enjoy this old-but-new spectacle. And with the Bhatt family still in charge of affairs, it does not look like it would go extinct any time soon. The family is as much compelled to their heritage as 250 years ago, and they still feel the urge to spread the word of a peaceful co-existence of everybody. The best, however, is that they do it in such an entertaining and funny way - it's hard to imagine why it should not survive another 250 years.

* [tamāśā (A. tamāśī: P. tamāśā) / तमाशा = 1. show, spectacle. 2. amusement; fun; joke. 3. transf. sthg. trivial. 4. sthg. astonishing or curious]

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