In the summer of 2015 I was working as a research associate for a book about the ‘History of Arts and Entertainment in India’ with a media veteran in Mumbai. That book didn’t quite come together but in the process I came across the seminal text by Deepti Priya Malhotra on Gulab Bai – the famed nautanki artiste. Little did I know then that the discovery will take me back to my roots in Farrukhabad and eventually to the mela where India’s first female nautanki artiste began her own journey. This is the story of my visit to the Makanpur fair.
Location and Commute
Makanpur is a small town situated some 50 kilometres from the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. One can easily find buses plying at regular intervals from Kanpur along the Grand Trunk Road to reach Makanpur in a couple hours. It is connected to Agra and Lucknow as well via the newly constructed Agra-Lucknow Expressway.
Alternatively, one can also board any of the intercity trains and get down at Aroul station. Sometimes the express trains do not have a stop at Aroul and one shall have to debark at the neighbouring city of Bilhaur. Tempos and buses are easily available from Bilhaur to reach the Makanpur fair.
We however took a car driving along the Grand Trunk road (Sher Shah Suri Marg) for a couple hours to cover a distance of sixty kilometres or so, then a short detour at the railway crossing in Makanpur and we had arrived at the site of the fair. An enormous concrete entryway embellished with the fair name and the year of hosting was easy to spot.
The Origins of the Makanpur Fair – Part History, Part Myth
Centuries ago a boy was born in the city of Halab in Syria. Growing up he came to be known as the Sufi saint Hazrat Syed Badiuddin Zinda Shah Madar and his tribe of followers came to be known as ‘Maddariyas’.
Shah Madar made multiple journeys to India via the port of Yemen gaining large following across regions of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and even in the adjoining countries of Nepal and Bangladesh. A more sociological exploration of his sect which grew enormously between 15th to 17th century shows that a majority of Maddariyas were dalit converts mostly belonging to the tribes of performance artists be it the Nats, Bedias, Kanjjars and likewise. The conversions were partly a fallout of the Mughal influence complemented by the oppressive treatment meted out to lower castes in Hinduism.
The word ‘Madari’ probably owes its roots to the Maddariya – as many were involved in street performances, magic shows, acrobats, singing and dancing arts. The Maddariya sect did not endorse idol worship and was stripped of extraneous superficialities that defined the religious preoccupations of mainstream Islam or Hinduism. Hence it’s characteristic appeal for the social outcastes and the economically weak.
It is another matter however that Shah Madar’s persona was itself imbued with miracles and various superhuman feats he is supposed to have accomplished during his lifespan of ‘400’ years. Stories of yore relate that Shah Madar was ordained by the Prophet in mid fifteenth century to visit Makanpur to dispel the shaitan (devil) Makan Deo who was ailing the local people. Like a true devotee, Baba Madar obliged, defeated the devil absolving the natives and using his magical prowess dried up a lake to make way for the building of the settlements.
It was here that Madar’s tribe grew, be it among Hindus or Muslims and it was here that he spent his last days in the year 1433 AD. A tomb was constructed close to his place of residence and ever since 1434 AD, his death anniversary or Urs is celebrated as the Makanpur fair in the months of February and March attracting followers and tourists from distant regions.
How Gulab Bai ended at the Makanpur Fair?
Some 6 centuries later nautanki, the north Indian folk art of song and dance performances was maturing and gaining popularity among the masses. Although debatable the form is said to have come into its own in the akhada of Ustad Natharam Gaur in the city of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
Still considered bawdy and criticised by the high castes, the then low brow art form found more and more takers among dalits and the north Indian gypsy tribes. One of its earliest public practitioners and company founder, Ustad Tirmohan Lal was a Kurmi boy from Kannauj who had run away to Natharam’s akhada during adolescent years to learn the Nautanki around 1902. When he came back he founded an akhada in his hometown.
As Tirmohan’s retinue of followers grew along with the popularity of the medium, he shifted to the city of Kanpur founding a company along the likes of Shrikrishna Pehelwan and Lalmani Numberdaar. In Kanpur, nautanki found the patronage of landed aristocracy, traders and merchants alongside a newfangled popularity among audiences from higher classes.
But of course just like early Olympics, initial years of cinema, and all other social domains that required significant public involvement, women were barred from theatrical arts. Men practised and performed the roles of female characters in cinema as in theatre and folk arts like nautanki or tamasha. However with the introduction of women in cinema in 1910s primarily from courtesan families and dancing cults, all of that was soon to change.
Gulab Bai or ‘Gulabaiya’ as she was known among her peers was born in the village of Balpurva in my home district Farrukhabad. Growing up I had heard about nautanki as a folk art in decline and few passing mentions of Gulab Bai mostly on Doordarshan and an occasional write up in one of the Hindi dailies. So when I read Malhotra’s biography about Gulab Bai’s journey, during my post graduation years in Mumbai, it was an impetuous revelation, the kind that edged me to read more.
A couple years later while pursuing a fellowship I had the opportunity to return to my home district, Farrukhabad. My encounters with bureaucracy and the tribe of philanthropists were thoroughly enlightening to say the least. Amidst all the madness I somehow chanced upon an article about the fair in one of the Hindi dailies and that’s how I ended up at Makanpur. As Malhotra relates it was here that Gulabaiya began her arduous journey as a nautanki artiste.
Gulab Bai was born in Bedia community, known for the earning potential of women members through various performance arts. The men on the other hand lived off the earnings of females, pimping often both their talents and bodies.
According to Malhotra’s account, it must have been in 1928 that Gulab Bai visited the Makanpur fair. She was merely 12 years old. And it was here that her father negotiated a bargain to induct his daughter in Tirmohan’s nautanki troupe. The first role that Gulab Bai was to play was that of Rohit , the son of the righteous , royal epitome Raja Harishchandra – a tale fairly popular for cinema and theatre at a point of time.
In 1928, although Tirmohan’s company was doing well, he was facing fierce competition from other established companies in Kanpur. Allowing women into nautanki was still frowned upon by the leading practitioners of the day and men were allotted female roles owing to the widespread conservatism. A practised artiste as well as a shrewd businessman Tirmohan knew exactly the risks he was taking by allowing Gulabaiya on stage. It was a gambol that played off really well and gave India its first renowned onstage female nautanki legend and paved the way for the entry of many more. In 1990, Gulab Bai was awarded a Padma Shri by the Government of India for her extraordinary contribution to theatrical arts.
“I was captured in the net of desire and lust…and the secret contained in the ancient writing of fate was revealed and suddenly in that shrine I committed a terrible piece of impropriety…God granted to some of the relatives of the beloved to overcome me, from whom I received nine-sword wounds in succession on my head and hand and back…”
~ Abdul Qadir Badauni, Historian and translator (1540-1605)
The Attractions of the Makanpur Fair
Contrary to the wild accounts of historians like Badauni, the prolific descriptions of the use of local intoxicants, the adventurism attributed to the fair; I found the fair thoroughly tame and toned down. While we hardly spend an entire day at the fair and visited before the Urs began, I can vouch for the fact that the fair has drastically changed over the centuries.
Entering the fair one is welcomed first by the aroma and then by the rows of stalls selling Sohan Halwa, imartis, and kheer (types of sweet dishes).
Enormous quantities of sweets were being prepared under a tent close to the parking lot. It wasn’t probably the most hygienic setup, which I know is an understatement. But the rule about food is – the less hygienic it is, the more tasteful it should be.
Surrounding these are numerous stalls selling lobaan, itar (perfume) and kajal (kohl). Kannauj one of the remaining cities that prides itself on the legacy of organic perfumery is near by, and it is where most stock comes from.
Inside fixed price shops for items of daily use seemed to be a big hit among the villagers. From general cosmetics, to items of clothing and bedding, there wasn’t much that wasn’t being sold. There were patches of congestion here and there. Something to decide upon the popularity of wares, I guess.
Nearing the tomb one comes across an array of food stalls offering the quintessential Mughlai delicacies- Biryani, Korma, Nihari, Kebabs and what not. Considering the cheap prices, this area is like a paradise for non-vegetarians. There were also the customary stalls for local takes on chowmein, dosa, aloo-tikkis alongside the usual north Indian dishes. So any incorrigible vegetarians planning to visit should not lose heart.
Shah Madar’s Tomb at the Makanpur Fair
While mostly the Makanpur fair is a temporary set up, the tomb of Baba Madar is an old concrete structure renovated over the years still carrying the embellishments of old style Islamic architecture. Shaded by large banyan trees that must have been over hundreds year old, the tomb is a square structure wrapped entirely in large decorative sheets immersed in perfume. There are small windows on each side wherein the devotees can send their offerings- mostly a piece of decorative cloth, a couple rose garlands and incense sticks that one lights outside after offering the prayers.
The way to the tomb is crowded by shops that sell packets of offerings depending on how much people can afford. One of the shopkeepers interestingly told us that since the Urs is yet to begin, the crowds visiting the fair are primarily natives and not that well off. But once the Urs will commence, the Makanpur fair will be frequented by ‘high class’ (sic) people and foreigners too. He beamed with pride discussing the number of foreigners that poured in year after year. It was good PR and he managed to sell more to us than what we had planned to buy. One may wonder if he was just a simpleton trying to advertise the fair and the only way he could do so was by deriding the locals. To me however, he was a seasoned marketeer.
Maddariyas from across the country flock to the Makanpur fair for cultural performances during the Urs. An animal fair is also held close to the village site. But we missed all of that and probably more because we had to get back the same day. I still regret not going there during its peak time. Perhaps I will the following year.
“ …(having) lived in the city for a long time , (you) need to feel that you have a hometown.”
~ Gao Xingjian
Find your own Makanpur
The thing about historical narratives, the popular ones and the not so popular ones, is that they are bound to lose credibility in due time. The Makanpur fair I visited was indeed not the same where Badauni had his sexual escapades or where Gulab Bai found a mentor in Tirmohan Lal. That said , it is such narratives that serve as trigger points for many of us who have had to migrate away.
Makanpur’s rustic take on cuisines, its peculiar small town ambiance, its historical legacy was far removed from the steadfastness that characterizes urban events . But perhaps being so far away from home for years and being accustomed to the gentrified congregations in cities I am unintentionally romanticizing. As Mr Xingjian says, “(having) lived in the city for a long time , (you) need to feel that you have a hometown.”
In the aftermath, Makanpur was important to me,just like my visit to the Ramnagria fair, because it gave me a perspective on what time does to people, places and numerous stories woven around them. And the one thing I would ask of my readers here is that each of you who have moved away and remained so for all these years is to take out a little time and get back…there is a Makanpur waiting for all of you back home. It may or may not fit the descriptions of itself you find in books or films, but that much you ought to find out for yourself.
- Mehrotra, D.P. (2006). Gulab Bai : The Queen of Nautanki Theatre. New Delhi: Penguin Publications
- Liebeskind, C. (1998). Piety on its knees: three Sufi traditions in South Asia in modern times. Oxford University Press.
- Bakshi, S.R. (2003). Advanced history of medieval India. New Delhi: Anmol Publications PVT. LTD
- (2016): Horse Expo at Makanpur Mela. Accessed from https://navbharattimes.indiatimes.com/state/uttar-pradesh/kanpur/horse-expo-is-the-charm-of-makanpur-mela/articleshow/50928470.cms (on June, 15, 2018)
- Dargahs of Kanpur. Accessed from http://www.aulia-e-hind.com/dargah/Kanpur.htm (On June, 15, 2018)
- History of Shah Madar. Accessed from http://www.madareazam.com/history/ (On June, 15,2018)
- Photograph : Gulab Bai. Retrieved from http://www.akhandbharatnews.com on 15-6-2018
- Photograph : Gulab Bai. Retrieved from https://www.livemint.com/ on 15-6-2018
- Photograph: Tomb of Shah Madar. Retrieved from https://cdn-az.allevents.in on 15-6-2018