Folk Drama(Theatre) of Himachal Pradesh: Preserving Tradition Through Art

In the heart of the Himalayas, where nature's beauty meets the vibrant tapestry of culture, a unique form of artistic expression unfolds – Himachal Pradesh's Folk Theatre.


Folk theatre in Himachal Pradesh is an art form that has played an integral and significant role in the social and cultural life of the state. Various regions within Himachal Pradesh have developed their unique forms of theatrical expressions, each known by distinct names. This article delves into some of the prominent folk theatre traditions that have thrived in this picturesque state.

What Is Folk Drama?

Folk drama, as the name suggests, is a form of traditional theater that is deeply rooted in the culture and heritage of a particular region. It serves as a reflection of the society's beliefs, values, and way of life. In the case of Himachal Pradesh, folk drama is a mirror that reflects the soul of the state's people.

Variety of Names, One Resounding Spirit

These theatrical performances, known by different names in different regions of the state, have evolved over the years to become an indispensable aspect of the local community.

In Himachal Pradesh, the name of the theatrical game changes as you traverse the different regions. It is known as "Kryala" in Mahasu and Sirmour, "Harn" in Kullu, "Banthra" in Mandi, "Bhagat" in Kangra, "Harnatra" in Chamba, "Baura" in Una, "Dhaja" in Bilaspur, and "Haringapho" in Kinnaur. These distinct names symbolize the rich diversity of cultures within the state and how theatre has embedded itself in the local identity.

The Open-air Stage: Where Stories Come to Life

Himachal Pradesh's folk theatre finds its stage in the open air, amidst fields, marked by poles standing two or three feet high with cords wrapped around them. These humble stages set the scene for folk dramas, where eager audiences gather to witness captivating performances.

Female dancers play a crucial role in Himachal Pradesh's folk theatre. They not only dance but also sing songs, captivating the audience's hearts. It is a tradition for the audience to offer gifts of money to these talented performers as a token of their appreciation.

Banthra - A Form of Folk Theater in Mandi

Banthra, a folk theatre prevalent in the Mandi district, is deeply rooted in tradition and culture. The term "Banthra" finds its origins in the word "Bhand," signifying a clown or jester. The performers, known as Banths, form groups and often engage in friendly competitions to amuse feudal lords with their wit and quick responses.

This captivating theatre form, typically held around the time of Diwali, features lively performances accompanied by folk instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. One remarkable aspect of Banthra is its absence of scripts, stages, and predefined characters. Instead, the Banthra commences with humorous puns and local Mandyali dialect jokes, instantly captivating the audience.

Banthra has a fascinating history linked to King Veer Sen, the ruler of the erstwhile Mandi state during 1268-1303 AD. Faced with the challenge of educating the people, King Veer Sen sought the assistance of a musician named Nagendra. He believed that inspiring literacy through words and music would be more effective. His belief proved correct, and the performances were named "Vaani Thara," later evolving into "Banthra." As a testament to its popularity, Banthra artists were even granted access to the queens' palaces, reaching the zenith of their success in the early 17th century.

Kariayala: The Vibrant Theatre of Shimla District

Kariayala is a celebrated form of folk theatre in Shimla district, encompassing regions like Mahasu, Solan, and Sirmour. The name "Kariayala" may have originated from the village of Karyali near Theog. This theatre form comes to life with the onset of winter, coinciding with the Diwali festival.

Kariayala performances are characterized by the illumination of pine and deodar splinters, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere as they typically begin at night. The firelight is considered sacred, known as "Khanda," "Dhuni," or "Ghiana" in the local dialect.

The dialogues are sharp and often presented as epigrammatic statements or couplets, sung to the accompaniment of various musical instruments such as the dhol, nagara, shehnai, harmonium, ransingha, and cymbals.

Kariayala has deep historical roots, evolving as a form of worship when people needed to remain awake throughout the night. Its potential for addressing social issues, such as child marriage and the exploitation of women, makes it not only entertaining but also instructive.

ALSO READ ABOUT: Folk Songs Of Himachal Pradesh

The Buddha or Budechhu Theater Form

In areas like Sundernagar and Karsogh of Mandi district, the lower castes in society developed their own theatrical form known as Buddha. This innovation arose from the constraints that prevented them from participating in Banthra, reserved exclusively for upper castes. Buddha performances utilize lyrical renderings, with actors covering themselves in wheat and jute straw and donning headgear with three horns.

The act commences with a devotional song or "Bhakti geet" and unfolds with farcical characters like Buddha, Chandrauli, mascara, and rustic figures. The straw-clad actors captivate audiences with their unique portrayal of the human experience.

Hiran or Harnatra Theater Form

Hiran or Harnatra is the folk theatre of the Gaddi or shepherd tribes in the Chamba district. These performances take place in the spring season, coinciding with the Gaddis' emergence from the harsh winters in the higher regions of Himachal Pradesh. Key characters include Khappar, Chandrauli, Gaddi, Gaddan, Sadhu, Sahib, and Hiran.

Khappar, the central figure, wears a distinctive shredded woolen apron, uneven trousers, and a turban, along with a mask called "mohras." Holding a club, Khappar delivers captivating performances, while a male actor takes on the role of Chandrauli. The unique costumes and masks add a touch of mystique to Hiran or Harnatra theatre.

Bhagatan or Bhagat Theater Form

Chamba district and its neighboring regions, inhabited by the Dogra tribe of Jammu and Kangra, bear witness to the Bhagatan or Bhagat theatre form. This tradition draws its roots from the Raas Leela of Lord Krishna in Mathura and Brindavan, spreading to various parts of the country.

Notable for its simplicity, Bhagatan performances occur without a conventional stage, green room, script, or makeup. The performances are set on pastures or wooden platforms, relying on the wit and artistry of the actors. Mansukh, the play's central character, employs sarcasm and humor to illuminate the quirks and foibles of daily life, including religious, secular, and political hypocrisies.

In contemporary times, Bhagatia artists are becoming increasingly scarce, making their performances a rare and valuable cultural treasure.

Artists and Their Roots

Folk theatre artists in Himachal Pradesh typically hail from lower middle-class backgrounds and castes such as Sanhai, Sehsi, Cobblers, Weavers, and Jheers. Despite these backgrounds, there is no discrimination among the audience. The artists receive adoration and love from the community, transcending societal divisions.

Spectacles of Color and Tradition

In Himachal Pradesh, simplicity is the key. The dialogues in these plays are short and unadorned, fitting the occasion. The language is simple yet elastic, without embellishments. Himachali folk theatre is replete with dances and traditional songs, including Nati, Luddi, Gidda, Dangi, Dandaras, and musical forms like Jhanjhoti, Mohana, Gangi, Jhooriyan, and Laman.

In tribal areas, dance forms an integral part of community customs. Men and women stand in lines or semi-circles, singing and dancing throughout the night. This communal expression is akin to the theatre forms of Jammu and Kashmir. The entire valley resonates with the sound of music during these celebrations.

Preserving a Rich Heritage

Folk Theatre: A Cultural Legacy

Folk theatre in Himachal Pradesh has transcended time, shaping the cultural landscape of the region. Through the ages, it has seamlessly intertwined with the tapestry of rural life, becoming an integral part of the region's festivals, fairs, and ceremonies. These vibrant performances, rooted in tradition, draw inspiration from a rich and diverse heritage that encompasses myths, legends, history, religion, culture, and societal norms.

Folk Theatre: A Mirror to the Past

It serves as a captivating mirror to the past, reflecting the essence of an ancient and diverse culture. It encapsulates the collective memory of the people, preserving traditions that have been passed down through generations. These performances breathe life into the stories of the land, making them accessible to both the young and the old.

Messages Beyond Words

While providing entertainment and delight, folk theatre is not merely a form of artistic expression; it serves as a powerful means of communication. The performances carry important messages, conveying wisdom, values, and social commentary. They act as a bridge between rulers and the ruled, offering insights into the society's ethos and a platform to address contemporary issues.

Keeping Tradition Alive

In a rapidly changing world, the preservation of folk theatre is vital for Himachal Pradesh. It allows the region to retain its connection to its roots and safeguards the unique stories and experiences that define its identity. By nurturing these traditions, Himachal Pradesh ensures that the past continues to enrich the present and inspire the future.


The legacy of folk theatre in Himachal Pradesh is a testament to the enduring spirit of the region. It serves as a vibrant link to its history and culture, ensuring that the tales of the past remain relevant and cherished in the hearts of the people. These performances are not just artistic expressions; they are a living heritage, preserving a rich history for generations to come.

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