Gammat Theatre and Pandvani Folk Ballads of Chattisgarh
Theater is known as Gammat in Chhattisgarh. Pandvani is one of the lyrical forms of this theater. Several acclaimed plays of Habib Tanvir, such as Charandas Chor, are variations of Chhattisgarhi Theater, and heavily use Chhatttisgarhi folk songs and music.
Padavani (Songs of Pandavas) is a folk ballad form performed predominantly in Chhattisgarh. It depicts the story of the Pandavas, the leading characters in the epic Mahabharata with musical accompaniment and Bhima as hero. This form of folk theatre is popular in the State of Chhattisgarh and in the few neighbouring tribal areas of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The artists in the Pandavani narration consist of a lead artist and some supporting singers and musicians. There are two styles of narration in Pandavani, Vedamati and Kapalik. In the Vedamati style the lead artist narrates in a simple manner by sitting on the floor throughout the performance. The Kaplik style is livelier, where the narrator actually enacts the scenes and characters.
Teejan Bai is most renowned singer of Pandvani, followed by Ritu Verma. The origins of this singing style are not known, and according to its foremost singer Teejan Bai, it might be as old as the Mahabharata itself, as very few people could read in those times, and that is how perhaps they passed on their stories, generation after generation.
Pandavani, literally means stories or songs of Pandavas, the legendary brothers of Mahabharat and involves the lead singer, enacting and singing with an ektara or a tambura (stringed musical instrument), decorated with small bells and peacock feathers in one hand and sometimes kartal (a pair of cymbals) on another.
It is part of the tradition of the tellers-of-tales present in every culture or tradition (like Baul singers of Bengal and Kathak performers), where ancient epics, anecdotes and stories are recounted, or re-enacted to educate and entertain the masses. Without the use of any stage props or settings, just by the use to mimicry and rousing theatrical movements, and in between the singer-narrator break into an impromptu dance, at the completion of an episode or to celebrate a victory with the story being retold, yet in its truest sense Pandavani remains an accomplished theatre form.
During a performance, as the story builds, the tambura becomes a prop, sometimes it becomes to personify a gada, mace of Arjun, or at times his bow or a chariot, while others it becomes the hair of queen Draupadi or Dushshan thus helping the narrator-singer play all the characters of story.
The singer is usually supported by a group of performers on Harmonium, Tabla, Dholka, Majira and two or three singers who sing the refrain and provide backing vocals.
Each singer adds his or her unique style to the singing, sometimes adding local words, improvising and offering critique on current happenings and an insight through the story. Gradually as the story progresses the performance becomes more intense and experiential with added dance movements, an element of surprise often used.
The lead singer continuously interacts with the accompanying singers, who ask questions, give commentary, interject thus enhancing the dramatic effect of the performance, which can last for several hours on a single episode of Mahabharata. Eventually what starts out as a simple story narration turns into full-fledged ballad.
Influences of Pandanavi can be clearly seen in the plays of Habib Tanvir who used folk singers of Chhattisgarh in his plays, creating a free-style story narration format, typical of Pandavani.