Nautanki Production in San Francisco on Immigration, Dowry,
and Women's Empowerment
"Mission Suhani" follows Suhani, a confident young Indian bride, and Chaliya, her Non-Resident Indian (NRI) groom, who has taken her dowry and left her in India. Against familial and societal pressure, Suhani travels to the U.S., where she finds her husband, recovers the dowry…and more! Nautanki brings attention to serious social issues through music and humor. Nautanki "Mission Suhani" critically examines the phenomenon of some Indian men who live in America, go back to India to get married, take a huge dowry, and then return to the US, abandoning their wives back in India. According to Indian Express, a prominent newspaper in India, thousands of women in India are fighting for their rightful place with their husbands in America. Working with his father, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, a prominent Nautanki master, Dr. Devendra Sharma crafts a brilliantly entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving musical that examines women's empowerment.
Using Nautanki, a traditional musical theater form of northern India, Dr. Devendra Sharma communicated a contemporary and controversial social issue facing Indians and Indian diaspora worldwide. Dr. Sharma was the writer, director, and main actor for his original Nautanki production titled "Mission Suhani," which was performed for four consecutive nights to sold-out houses at CounterPULSE in San Francisco in November 2009 and October 2010. The production was co-sponsored by the University of California—Berkeley's Center for South Asia Studies, Narika, and Maitri, a Bay-Area based non-profit organization that empowers women from South Asia who are victims of domestic violence, emotional abuse, cultural alienation, and human trafficking.
Dr. Sharma was one of thirteen artists selected from across California to receive a grant from CounterPULSE, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that supports artists and activists. Dr. Sharma's original production premiered at CounterPULSE's Performing Diaspora Festival in 2009. Due to the success of the shows, Dr. Sharma was invited to direct and perform Nautanki "Mission Suhani" with his troupe at the University of California, Berkeley in May 2010. Further, Dr. Sharma was chosen to recieve a larger grant from CounterPULSE to expand and develop "Mission Suhani" into a longer piece in 2010. Dr. Sharma's work culminated in four consecutive full-house shows in October 2010. Due to the shows' success, Dr. Sharma was then invited by Inner Eye Arts to direct and perform "Mission Suhani" with his troupe in San Ramon, CA in November 2010.
Nautanki "Mission Suhani" critically examines the increasingly common phenomenon of Indian men who come to America to study or work, but go back to India and get married, either because of parental pressure or to get a big dowry (cash given to the groom's family by the bride's side). Many of these men leave their wives in India and lead separate lives in America, where they often have another wife or a girlfriend. Their wives in India sometimes do not see them for years and are crying for them. Because of societal constraints, they can neither divorce their husbands nor have sexual freedom. To make matters worse, the society leads women to blame themselves for their husbands' lack of interest in the relationship.
Indigenous performance forms such as Nautanki are very powerful because of their ability to spur interpersonal communication and raise awareness of important social issues in a non-forced, non-serious, and non-threatening way. Abuse and abandonment of Indian brides by NRI men is not an issue to be taken lightly. Through music and humor, "Mission Suhani" brings attention to this serious social issue in an entertaining and engaging way.
Dr. Sharma's innovative Nautanki script not only brings a contemporary social issue to light, but also helps Nautanki update itself as a performance form to emerging issues in contemporary society in India and around the world. "Mission Suhani" is the first Nautanki script ever written involving a global social issue affecting Indians and Indian immigrants alike. Dr. Sharma successfully and creatively experimented with Nautanki on three levels: first, on the content level, by introducing contemporary themes into the script; second, on the format level, by reducing the length and performing it indoors (traditional Nautankis are at least 8 hours long and performed outdoors); and thirdly, on the structural level, by incorporating a different language (English) into the script. By making the script bilingual, Dr. Sharma ensured that the performance could connect to American audiences, while still saving Nautanki's essence by retaining its colloquial Hindi. This innovation protected the traditional operatic and artistic elements of Nautanki while effectively communicating the story and contemporary social issue to audience members.
San Francisco's public radio station: Story covering the premiere of "Mission Suhani" at CounterPULSE in 2010
Article about "Mission Suhani" written by Dr. Devendra Sharma: "Giving Voice to a Marginalized Performance Tradition in Contemporary Society" (Presented at the National Communication Association's 97th annual convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 2011)
Interviews with Dr. Sharma about Nautanki & "Mission Suhani"