Communication professor awarded Fulbright to research folk opera in India

Fresno State professor of communication and performance Dr. Devendra Sharma was named a Fulbright Scholar for the 2022-23 academic year. The award will take him to his home country of India to research and document the swang-nautanki, a folk opera tradition in Northern India, and its traditional akhārās, the swang-nautanki community performance groups.

A popular form of entertainment for hundreds of years, the traditional swang-nautanki and akhārās are quickly disappearing from Indian culture.

Through his experience in the Fulbright program, Sharma intends to form a larger performance-for-communication theoretical model that can be applied across cultures. This scholarship will add to his impressive collection of book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles and his upcoming book “Nautanki: The Musical Theater of North India,” expected to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing Company, England, in 2023.

Sharma’s Fulbright research will also focus on the communication dimensions of swang-nautanki, which has contributed to the identity and culture in Northern India. He intends to document the lessons conveyed within the performances to understand how the swang-nautanki functions as an effective channel for communication.

“I feel that my research is important on a national and international level and that it is useful in drawing out bigger communication lessons that can be applied to varied multi-cultural places such as South Asia as well as the Central Valley of California, as it deals with the communicative potential of traditional performance arts,” Sharma explained. “There are quite a few traditional arts in the Central Valley, and this Fulbright award will help me and Fresno State to contribute to the community around Fresno.”

Swang-nautanki performances occur in open spaces in or around a village. The stage is elevated above the ground and usually made of wooden cots with a cloth backdrop. Musicians and percussionists sit on one side, and actor-singers occupy the center stage. Performances generally begin around 10 pm and last until sunrise without intermission. In its prime, larger performances would draw crowds of up to 15,000.

“I am looking forward to getting more time and resources to immerse myself in the magnificent world of performance, communication and swang-nautanki and conduct world-class research that will add to my scholarship and my teaching in the classroom,” Sharma said.

Sharma is a seventh-generation nautanki opera performer, writer, director and guru. He has been part of over 500 performances and directed many films illustrating Indian film traditions. His father and teacher, Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, is one of India’s most well-known nautanki performers.

Last year, Sharma received a Hewlett 50 Arts Commission grant to present “Princess Nautanki” in 2024. He said it will be the largest swang-nautanki production ever staged in the United States.

Sharma has served as the chief creative consultant for the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in India. He assisted the Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs in developing a folk media campaign in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for women’s empowerment and health and has collaborated with the West Fresno Boys and Girls Club on a performance and study initiative aimed at reducing obesity among them Fresno’s defeated children.

Sharma is one of three Fresno State faculty members to earn Fulbright awards this year, joining political science professor Dr. Melanie H. Ram and music professor Dr. Benjamin Boone (full story to come). Recent biochemistry graduate Sydney Fox, a member of the track and field team, also won a Fulbright research award.

(Photo: Devendra Sharma performing as Mahoba prince Indal with Sharvari Deshpande as princess Chitralekha of Balk-Bukhara, at the South Asia Conference of University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015.)

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