Tradition credits Kishan Lal Bhaat for laying the foundation of the present style of Swang about two hundred years ago. Since women did not participate in the dance-drama form, men have traditionally enacted their roles.
An hour or so before the show, the musicians of the orchestra begin to sing religious or other songs connected with the play in order to create the proper atmosphere for the play. The 'Guru' then appears and the artistes touch his feet to evoke his blessings. The play opens with a song bhait in praise of Bhawani, the Goddess of Knowledge:
Ay re bhawani baas kar maira ghat ka parda khol Rasna par basa kara bhai shudh shabd much bol
(Oh Goddess Bhawani, open the doors of knowledge to me. Live on my tongue so that all I speak is pure.)
With a brief introduction about the play, the performance starts. It consists mainly of mimicry, from which the name of the theatre form derives (swang means disguise or impersonation). Also featured prominently are long question and answer sessions between the actors. Much of the dialogue is improvised, and the actors must be able to trade quotations, puns, proverbs and songs at the drop of a hat. There is much singing and dancing and there is always a clown character called the makhaulia.
Swang theatre is traditionally restricted to men who also play the female roles, the latter often involving elaborate make-up and costumes. But female troupes are not altogether unknown. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the present, all women Swaang troupes performed in western Uttar Pradesh and the adjoining 'Khadar' area of Haryana. All parts in these troupes were played by women. Sardari of Kalayat (Jind), Natni of Gangaru, and Bali of Indri (Karnal) were some of the leaders of such troupes.
A single presentation of swang may continue for up to five or six hours. There is much song and music, especially the famous Haryanvi style of singing, Raagni.
Popular mythological themes include Prahlad Bhagat, Gopi Chand, Bharthari, Harishchander, Raja Bhoj, Kichak Badh, Draupadi Chir Haran, and other tales from old literature. Also popular are Punjabi romances like Pooran Bhagat, Heer Ranjha, etc. Historical and semi-historical themes include Raja Rissalu, Amar Singh Rathor, Sarwar Neer, Jaswant Singh, Ramdevji, etc. Other popular tales include romances like Sorath, Nihalde, Padmavat, etc.
In Haryana the most celebrated artiste is Dip Chand Bahman of village Sheri Khanda in Sonepat. He is still in public memory and is popularly styled as the "Shakespeare' or 'Kalidas of Haryana'. Semi-literate, he had a spark, a touch of genius. He polished the style of Ali Bux and gave a new color to this folk art. Dip Chand's style of performance incorporated elements from music, dance, pantomime, versification, and ballad recitation.
During the First World War, when Dip Chand's capacity for improvisation and adaptation was at its peak, the British Government made him a 'Rai Sahib' and granted him other favours. His catchy song-compositions with martial tunes attracted large recruits to the army. The haunting tune of one of his songs was on everybody's lips:
Bharti holai ra tara bahar khara rangrut Yahan rakhta madhham bana Milta ha phatta purrana Vohan milta hai full boot Bharti ho lai ra. . .
(Come and join the army; the recruiters are waiting outside your door: you have only old worn out clothes to wear here, but there-in the army-you will get full-boots.)
Among Dip Chand's many contributions to the folk music of swang, the outstanding one is that he opened the eyes of contemporary singers and music lovers to the prime importance of voice-culture and voice-modulation and the supreme value of emotion in music. He was truly the king of emotions. It was his genius that chiseled off all the harsh crudities and angularities of the old style of the stage and lent it a polish and glow. Among his talented disciples may be mentioned Hardeva Swami of Golar (Rohtak), Bhartu Brahman of Bhainsru (Rohtak), Qutbi Doom and Khema.
Hardeva skillfully polished his guru's Chambola style and made some improvements in Haryanvi ragni (folk song). Bjae Nai, disciple of Hardeva, beautifully mixed both the styles of folk music, thus creating a greater mass appeal. Pt. Nathu Ram, another well known Swaangi coached a number of talented pupils, which included Maan Singh, Bulli, Dina Lohar and Ram Singh.
Pt. Lakhmi Chand of Jatti Kalan (Sirsa) is known as Surya Kavi (Sun Poet) in Haryanvi Raagnis and is the most ever celebrated guru in this field. Majority of Swang Raagnis have stamp of his name in poetry itself and the legend says he composed them on stage in realtime. He improved the ragni style of singing. He possessed a very rich, melodious voice and was also a successful composer. The important Swang staged by him included Nal Damyanti, Meera Bai, Satyavan Savitri, Poorjan, Seth Tara Chand, Puran Bhagat and Shashi Lakarhara.
The large number of disciples he left behind included Pt. Mange Ram, Mai Chand, Sultan, Chandan and Rati Ram.
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