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INDIAN THEATRE: PAST PERFECT, FUTURE TENSE

By Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee


Theatre in India has a tradition going back to at
least 5000 years. It began with Rigvedic dialogue
hymns during the Vedic period.The earliest
book on dramaturgy anywhere in the
world Natya Shastra, i.e., the grammar or the
holy book of theatre by Bharat Muni
(approximately between 2000 B.C. and 4th
Century A.D.) provides detailed treatise on
drama, performance and visual art form. It talks
about rasa and using human body in kinetic
form. A long span of time and practice is needed for any art or activity to form its rules
and notifications. Therefore, it can be said with assurance that to have a book like Natya
Shastra, the Indian theatre must have begun long, long before that.
Theatre in India started as a narrative form with a distinct story line. Besides acting,
reciting, singing and dancing were integral elements of the Indian theatre almost from
the beginning. Theatre in India has encompassed all the other forms of literature and
fine arts into its physical presentation: literature, mime, music, dance, movement,
painting, sculpture and architecture - all mixed into one and being called natya or
theatre in English. This emphasis on narrative elements and integration of different
performing and plastic art forms made Indian theatre super sensory right from the
beginning.
Hindu theorists from earliest times talk of two theories: lokadharmi and natya
dharmi.[1] Lokadharmi refers to replicating common men and women and their
behavioural pattern. Natyadharmi refers to symbolic, stylised representation. Both the
forms found expression in different format throughout the country, the former in folk
form and the later in classical form.
Devendra Raj Ankur talks about the conceptual differences between the western and
Indian theatre[2]: The western philosophy of life is deep-rooted in the belief that there
is no life after death whereas the Indian philosophy, especially the Hindu doctrine, sees
life in continuity, i.e., there is no end even after death. Life keeps on moving as a
circular activity. Theatre in the West presents life as it is whereas in India it presents life
as it should be. In other words, this can be explained like this: Life in the West has been
www.medialearning.in | Indian Theatre By Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee

portrayed nearer to realism whether in theatre


or other arts but in India it has been
illustrated more in idealistic terms.
Indian Theatre, roughly, can be divided into
three distinctive but overlapping phases: the
classical period, the traditional period and the
modern period.
Phase I, the classical period includes the
writing and practice of theatre up to about 1000 A.D., almost based on rules, regulations
and modifications handed by Natya Shastra. They apply to the writing of plays,
performance spaces and conventions of staging plays. Playwrights such as Bhasa,
Kalidasa, Shudraka, Vishakhadatta and Bhavabhuti contributed to a great measure
through their dramatic pieces in Sanskrit. They based their plots on the epics, history,
folk tales and legends. The audience was already familiar with the story. Therefore, a
theatre language required a visual presentation through gestures, mime and movement.
The actor was supposed to be well-versed in all the fine arts. In a way, it was a picture
of total theatre. The noted German playwright and director Brecht evolved his theory of
Epic Theatre from these sources.
Phase II involves theatre based on oral traditions. It was performed from about 1000
A.D. onwards upto 1700 A.D. and beyond. Emergence of this kind of theatre is linked
with the change of political set up in India as well as the coming into existence of
different regional languages in all parts of the country. Several regional languages
emerged during this period. As the languages were new, it was too early to expect any
writing in those languages. That is why this whole period is known as folk or
traditional, i.e., theatre being handed over from generation to generation through an
oral tradition. Another major change in the domain of presentation also took place with
this kind of traditional theatre. The classical theatre based onNatya Shastra was much
more sophisticated and rigid in its form. It aimed at an elite audience with a heightened
sense of aesthetics. Folk or traditional theatre evolved out of rural roots. It aimed at
unbridled entertainment without much attention to the grammar and rules. Though
folk theatre used music, mime, movement, dance and narrative elements, it was more
simple, immediate and improvisational even to the extent of being contemporary.
Moreover, whereas the classical theatre was almost similar in its presentation in all
parts of India at a particular time, the traditional theatre took to different presentational
methods.[3] Another factor that contributed to the change was invasion. During
the Middle Ages, the Indian subcontinent was invaded a number of times. Unlike in
most other places of the world, the invaders here stayed on and made the sub continent
their home. This played a major role in shaping of Indian culture and heritage as
medieval India experienced a grand fusion with the invaders from theMiddle
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East and Central Asia. It impacted the theatre form too both thematically and
presentation wise. What emerged was a kaleidoscope of performing arts, known by the
umbrella term folk theatre.
India presents a colourful assortment of Folk Theatre. Variously known as
the Jatra (Bengal, Orissa and Eastern Bihar), Tamasha (Maharashtra),Nautanki (Uttar
Pradesh,
Rajasthan
and
Punjab), Bhavai (Gujarat), Yakshagana (Karnataka), Therubuttu (Tamil Nadu), folk theatre
reaches out to a large cross-section of the population. The decline of Sanskrit Drama
saw the emergence of the Folk Theatre in various regional languages from the 14th and
through the 19th century. Maintaining the basic conventions like stage preliminaries,
the sutradhara (the narrator), the vidushak (the buffoon), opening prayer song, etc it
achieved a quick mass appeal[4].
In several fold theatre form the actors perform in the open with gangways attached to
the make-shift stage. This helps immensely since the actors frequently converse with the
audience in the course of the play. Audience participation is an essential part of Indian
folk theatre. The stage is often a huge empty space which the actors deftly manipulate
with their dialogues and symbolic gestures. Loud music, dance, elaborate use of makeup, masks, and singing chorus are its hallmarks. Folk plays provide a valuable insight
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into the local dialect, dress, attitude,


humour and wit of the regions in which
they are staged. Although mythological
and medieval romances are their main
thrust, folk theatre acquires a timeless
appeal by improvising with symbolic
relevance to the current socio-political
happenings.
Phase III of theatre in India was again
linked with a change in the political set
up. The time span of about 200 years under the British rule brought the Indian theatre
into direct contact with the western theatre. For the first time in India, the writing and
practice of theatre was geared fully towards realistic or naturalistic presentation.
Realism or naturalism was not totally absent in our tradition. However, in this phase,
realism got an extra dimension. The usual storyline underwent a change. It was no
more woven around big heroes and gods, but had become a picture of common man. It
portrayed a new and immediate reality. This phase also saw theatre used as an
instrument of protest and mass uprising against alien rule. To resist, the British
Government imposed "Dramatic Performances Act" in 1876. From the latter half of the
19th century, theatre in India experienced both horizontal and vertical growth. But
ironically there were inner conflicts over several key questions like: a. the purpose of
theatre: entertainment or education, b. the form: realistic or stylistic, c. the narrative
style: Indian or western, d. the funding: state-sponsored or audience-paid. The conflict
grew after independence.
The theatre in contemporary India is in a strange state. It encompasses a combination of
the three different phases of its evolution. And it faces multiple challenges.
Challenges
i. Identity
With multiple theatrical forms in multiple languages, contemporary Indian theatre
is in search of its true identity. That in a way is the biggest strength of the theatre in
India, and also its biggest weakness. The diversity makes it different to determine
the identity of an Indian Theatre. When the theatre was being performed in one
single language like Sanskrit, it had a national identity of its own. But today the
picture is completely different. India, being a multi-cultural nation, cannot be
associated with a unique trend and feature in its theatres. In India, the concept of
National Theatre has to be seen purely in regional terms. All the regions have their
own language, history and culture and their theatre is also deeply rooted in those
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circumstances. Noted theatre personality KN Panikkar writes: We see that the


performing arts of our country even while maintaining their own specialities and
the differences in the details of structuring related to the form, operational style and
other aspects, evince at the same time a semblance, inter dependence and
interconnection. The unity of a well defined goal has never been affected by the
multiplicity of regional traditions.[5]
ii. Livelihood
Theatre in India has never been professional in the true sense of the word. Artists
associated with the production and presentations of theatre have not been entirely
dependant on it for their livelihood. It has always been a passion, at best a vocation
but hardly a profession. Though it seems that the theatre in India has been a
continuous activity, yet in reality it has not been so. Theatre has by and large been
performed as part of festivals or such other occasions. Even the professional theatre
groups perform for about six to eight months a year. In the rest of the year, the
people remain engaged either in agriculture or other vocations. They are involved in
some job or the other during daytime and only in the evenings they come to
rehearse or perform. But this is changing. India is moving away from agrarian
economy. People need to give more time on a daily basis to earn their livelihood.
Theatre on the other hand has become more demanding in terms of skill-level. It
requires artists to invest more time and energy, which the artists need to earn their
livelihood. This conflict could be resolved if the theatre persons earn their livelihood
through theatre. This could be done in two ways. One, by state sponsorship and
two, by making people pay directly.
Both have problems. If state sponsors theatre, there is an apprehension of state
appropriating the creative freedom of theatre and using it for its own purpose.
If theatre is made to survive and make money out of common people, there could
problems related to the aesthetics. When theatre has to survive on money collected
from the viewers, the obvious aim is to gather more audience. The easiest way to
achieve that is to play to the gallery, to cater to the want of audience. In the process
of attracting more audience, it targets lowest common denominator and aesthetics
is compromised.
iii. Emergence of other and more remunerative performing art platform
Besides theatre, several performing art platforms have emerged over the years.
Some of the platforms have become financially more remunerative and socially
more attractive; and for some emotionally more satisfying. Hence there has been an
exodus from theatre to other performing art platforms. The exodus from the theatre
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to films is not a new phenomenon. But of late,


television with its ever increasing reach and growth
has attracted many from the theatre. As a result,
theatre activities have suffered a severe setback in the
last quarter century or so.
Contemporary Indian theatre has to face and win the
challenges in order to survive. There is, however, a
sign of change for the better. The situation has started
changing slowly again in recent times. The audience
appears to be coming back to theatre again to
experience the super sensory pleasure as unlike in
film or television, theatre connects directly with the
audience. The civil society appears to be ready and willing to fund theatre. The Indian
State appears to be helping theatre without imposing its agenda. Indian theatre may just
survive the turmoil and continue to enthral the audience like it has doing for the last
5000 years.
***
(Contributed by: Prof. Mrinal Chatterjee, Head, Indian Institute of Mass
Communication (IIMC), Dhenkanal 759 001, Orissa

www.mrinalchatterjee.in

[1] http://www.culturopedia.com/Theatre/theatre_intro.html
[2] Indian Theatre: Inheritance, Transitions and Future options, PIB Feature
[3] There is, however, a pattern. All the folk and traditional forms in northern India are
mainly vocal, i.e., singing and recitation-based like Ramlila, Rasleela, Bhand Nautanki
and Wang without any complicated gestures or movements and elements of dance.
[4] http://asiarecipe.com/indfolk.html
[5] KN Panikkar, Indian Theatre- Post Independence, Canfest 2011, Souvenir ,
Paradeep, Orissa, p-15

www.medialearning.in | Indian Theatre By Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee