SANSKRIT OR CLASSICAL THEATRE
It is difficult to determine the precise origins of the Sanskrit drama.
Fragments of the earliest known plays have been traced to the 1st
century AD. However, scholars believe that a living theatre tradition
must have existed in India much earlier. Unfortunately, although the
Indus Valley people left behind an enormous wealth of archaeological
evidence, they give no signs of any theatrical activity. Dance and music
seem to have been their mainstay, perhaps as part of their religious
celebrations. A search of the Vedas, dating from approximately 1500-1000
BC, yields no trace either, although a few texts are composed in short,
The earliest phase of Sanskrit theatre includes the writing and practice
of theatre up to about 1000 AD, based almost entirely on the rules,
regulations and modifications laid down in the Natya Shastra. One of the
earliest plays written was Sariputraprakarana by Asvaghosa, who was part
of Kanishka's court from 78 AD to 144 AD. A courtesan forms the central
figure of this play that is humorous in tone but espouses Buddhist
teachings as its cause. Bhasa came soon after, and thirteen of his works
survived, the best-known being Swapanavasavadatta. Bhasa took his themes
from different sources like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and
semi-historical tales. Sudraka was another renowned playwright of the
time. Mrcchakatika was one of his best-remembered plays. What
distinguishes Sudraka's plays from those of his predecessors is the
element of conflict introduced in them. Besides a hero (the Brahmin
Charudatta) and a heroine (the courtesan Vasantsena), there is also a
villain, one of the few in the Sanskrit drama.Kalidasa, one of the "nine
jewels" in the court of the famous Vikramaditya some time in the fifth
century, is the most widely known of all the Sanskrit dramatists. He has
left three dramas: Malavikagnimitra, Vikramorvashi and Shakuntalam.
Bhavabhuti falls into the category of writers who emerged in the latter
half of classical period. His Uttaramcharitra, written in approximately
700 AD, is known as the best dramatic play of its time.
Shudraka, Harsha, Visakhadatta, Bhasa, Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti were,
undoubtedly, the six outstanding Sanskrit playwrights of all times who
have contributed in a great measure through their dramatic pieces in
Sanskrit. Kalidasa's Shakuntala, King Harsha's Ratnavali, Bhasa's
Swapna-vasavadatta, Bhavabhuti's Uttara-rama-charita and
Mahavira-charita, Visakhadatta's Mudrarakshasa are some of the
outstanding Sanskrit plays.
There are said to be ten types of Sanskrit plays: Nataka, Prakarna, Anka,
Vyayoga, Bhana, Samvakara, Vithi, Prahasana, Dima and Ithamgra. The
Natyashastra focuses on only two of these types - the Nataka and
Prakarna. Swapanavasavadatta, Uttaramcharitra and Shakuntala fall into
the category of the Nataka. These plays deal with the exploits of a
hero, either a royal sage or king, who is always successful in the end.
The dominant sentiment is love and heroism. The plays range between five
and seven acts. Plays falling into the category of Prakarna narrate
stories that were invented by their authors. The hero is a Brahmin,
minister or merchant while the heroine is a courtesan. Love is the
predominant sentiment. Anka (act) involves a change in the hero's basic
situation as the plot develops. It is made up of a series on incidents
that are related to the major character. Certain events are never
depicted in an anka, like a battle, marriage, death, loss of kingdom and
the pronouncement of a curse.
The Sanskrit plays were limited by certain conventions. Tragedy was
taboo and the end was always happy. There was no place for plays that
raised controversies (although Bhasa had shown death on the stage in one
of his plays). The basic plot in most Sanskrit plays centre around the
hero who struggles for (and finally obtains) the object of his desire.
The realisation of this goal in closely entwined with the three ends of
Hindu life - duty, pleasure and wealth. Thus there was an opening,
progression, development, pause and conclusion. Unlike French and German
neo-classical plays, both time and place were flexible.Within these
parameters however, it appears that most playwrights found enough space
for exerting their individualistic creative expression.
Sanskrit plays commenced with an elaborate ritual. Some twenty pre-play
ceremonies (purva-ranga) of music and dance were performed, nine of them
behind the curtain. The Sutradhara (he was the director, the chief actor
and the stage manager), clad in immaculate white, entered with his two
assistants and offered worship (Puja) to the presiding deity of the
theatre to ensure success to the producer and good luck to the actors.
After this the Sutradhara summoned the leading actress and opened the
play with a prologue which announced the time and place of the play and
introduced the playwright.
The theatre halls were carefully constructed and decorated according to
traditional rules of architecture.A theatre of medium size, according to
Bharata, could accommodate 400 spectators.Some of the stages had two
storeys, the upper storey being for the representation of action in the
celestial sphere and the ground storey for that in the terrestrial
sphere.Masks were not used, and the subtlest interplay of emotions was
conveyed through facial expressions, gestures and speech. The adroit
employment of the curtain made for heightened impact. The choice of
themes covered a wide range and the treatment of the theme also varied
greatly. Skits, comedies and intense melodramas were all written and
presented.The absence of scenic effects was made up by a versatile
Sanskrit theatre was characterised by its high degree of refinement in
performance technique. It followed well-articulated, aesthetic
principles, usually those laid out in the ancient dramatics texts. It
depended on a high degree of audience knowledge and expertise i.e., only
the refined sensibility could appreciate it. Religion played an
important role in drama as certain rituals accompanied most plays, and
even the stage was consecrated before a performance. Thus the Sanskrit
drama could be called an amalgamation of the religious, educational and
Koodiyattam (Koothiyattam) is derived from the Sanskrit word Kurd,
meaning to "to play", and is considered to have been introduced in India
by the Aryans. Koodiyattam is the oldest existing classical theatre form
in the entire world, having originated much before Kathakali and most
other theatrical forms. It is considered to be at least 2000 years
old.This theatre form originated in Kerala but the exact date of its
inception is not known. It is widely believed that Kulasekhara Varma
Cheraman Perumal, an ancient King of Kerala, was the creator of
Koodiyattam in the present form. His book 'Aattaprakaram' is considered
as the most authoritative work on the art form till date. The 10th
century chronicles of the Varman dynasty record the art form in its
advanced stages, pointing to its much earlier origin.The dance also
finds a mention in Ilangovan's 1500-year old Tamil Classic
Chilappathikaram as 'Kerala Chakkian Sivanadanam'.
Koodiyattam is the most prominent survivor among the forms containing
some essential elements of content and structural features of the
Sanskrit theatre. Experts consider Koodiyattam to be more advanced than
Kathakali, the better-known classical art form of Kerala, in aesthetics
and theatre practices. But it never captured the public imagination even
in its home state and was limited to a few koothambalams or temple
theatres. Koodiyattam has survived over the years because practising
families have maintained the tradition in an orthodox manner. At the
same time, they have adapted the art form to suit a wider audience by
using local dialects and secular texts. Koottu (Chakiar Koottu) is
considered as the precursor of Koodiyattam.
Traditionally, Koodiyattam is presented by Chakyars, a temple caste of
Kerala, and Nangiars, the women of Nambiar caste. Koodiyattam, unlike
the most other theatre forms allows an active role for women. The
Nangiars recite shlokas and play female characters. Recently, a Nangiar
called Margi Sathi created history by penning an attaprakaram (guide for
actors) for the play Sriramacharitham
Koodiyattam was traditionally a part of the temple rituals, performed as
a kind of visual sacrifice to the deity and is normally performed in
koothambalams or temple theatres that are decorated with exquisite
carvings. Conventional in its make-up, costume as well as form, it is an
elaborate blend of symbolic gestures, stylised movements and chanted
dialogue and verse in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Malayalam.Sanskrit plays of
the 7th or 8th century AD like Bhasa's Abhishekanatakam, Mahendra
Vikraman Pallavan's Mathavilasam and Kulasekhara Varma's Subhadra
Dhananjayan are among the most commonly enacted Sanskrit plays in
Koodiyattam. Plays of the 11th century AD like Kulasekhara Varma's
Subhadra Dhananjayam and Sakthi Bhadra's Ascharyachoodamani are also
staged. The musical instruments Mizhavu and Edakka provide the
background music to Koodiyattam. Through sound modulation, the
percussion instruments augment the effect of acting in this dance drama.
In Koodiyattam, there is a Vidooshaka (Royal clown) who humourously
narrates the thematic development of the text, to the audience in
Malayalam. His words and actions convincingly portray the true character
of the protagonist. In the past he was a social auditor. His diatribes
against the establishment and those in power were a corrective force in
All the main characters in Koodiyattam customarily enact Nirvahana, a
recollection of past events in the story, to form a background for
stepping into the present. This is always a long drawn out affair and
might take anywhere from a few days to a number of weeks. It takes 20
days to enact an act of a Koodiyattam play, with 5 hours of performance
a day.Each act is divided into Poorvangam (preamble), Nirvahanam (solo
performances) and Koodiyattam (group acting). Each segment lasts four or
five days. The acting can be so elaborate that the Chakyar or Nangiar,
the actress, may need a day to interpret just one phrase.
The four-fold concept of acting dealt with in the Natya Shastra find its
due significance in Koodiyattam. Angika (hand-gestures and
body-movements), Vachika (verbal acting), Aharya (make-up and costuming)
and Satwika (facial expressions) in Koodiyattam are highly stylised. One
finds in Koodiyattam more of Natyadharmi (stylised Acting) compared to
other classical art forms.
The 84-year-old Ammannoor Madhava Chakiar is considered as the greatest
living exponent of Koodiyattam. D.Appukuttan Nair promoted this art form
in the middle of the last century by constructing two koothambalams at
Adyar (Chennai) and Kalamandalam (Kerala).He also started a Koodiyattam
course at Kalamandalam. There are four reputed centres of Koodiyattam:
Margi, Kalamandalam, Ammannoor's Chachu Chakiar Smaraka Gurukulam and
Lakidi (founded by P.K.Narayanan Nambiar, mizhavu expert).
In May 2001, Koodiyattam earned a rare honour when UNESCO declared it a
masterpiece of human heritage to be protected and preserved.There were
31 other 'contestants' from the world over, including Japan's Nogaku
theatre, China's Kunqu opera and Spain's Elche play, but it was Kerala's
theatre art that UNESCO selected as the endangered heritage art form
worthy of its support. The UNESCO jury in Paris decided to honour
Koodiyattam after watching 15 minutes of a 3-hour documentary film made
by the veteran film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan on the request of Margi,
a Thiruvananthapuram-based dance school.In its citation the UNESCO
mentioned that Koodiyattam represents a vital link to ancient heritage
and "is an outstanding example of tradition-based creation of a cultural
community".This was the first time that the UN body had conferred the
heritage status on an art form.
This was the second phase of the evolution of theatre in India, which
was based on oral traditions. This form of theatre was being performed
from about 1000 AD onwards up to 1700 AD and continued further until
today in almost every part of India. 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. The classical theatre was based on Natya Shastra was much
more sophisticated in its form and nature and totally urban-oriented. On
the contrary, the traditional theatre evolved out of rural roots and was
more simple, immediate and closer to the rural milieu.
Historically speaking, it was during the 15-16 century that the folk
theatre emerged forcefully in different regions. It used different
languages, the languages of the regions in which it emerged. Initially
these were purely devotional in tenor and typically revolved around
religion, local legends and mythology. Later, with changing times it
became more secular in content and began to focus on folk stories of
romance and valour and biographical accounts of local heroes.
Indian folk theatre can be broadly divided into two broad categories --
religious and secular -- giving rise to the Ritual Theatre and Theatre
of Entertainment respectively. The two forms thrived together, mutually
influencing each other. Although they are considered as Folk theatre
traditions, some of them have all the attributes of a classical
theatre.Most often the folk and traditional forms are mainly narrative
or vocal, i.e. singing and recitation-based like Ramlila, Rasleela,
Bhand Nautanki and Wang, without any complicated gestures or movements
and elements of dance. India is also rich in ballad-singing traditions
such as Pabuji-ki-phar of Rajastan and Nupipaalaa of Manipur.
While most of these theatrical styles have their own unique form
dependent on their local customs, they differ from one another in
execution, staging, costume, make-up and acting style, although there
are some broad similarities. The south Indian forms emphasise on dance
forms like Kathakali and Krishnattam of Kerala and actually qualify as
dance dramas, while the north Indian forms emphasise on songs, like the
Khyal of Rajasthan, the Maach of Madhya Pradesh, the Nautanki of Uttar
Pradesh and the Swang of Punjab. The Jatra of Bengal, Tamasha of
Maharashtra and the Bhavai of Gujarat stress on dialogues in their
execution, the latter two emphasise on comedy and satire. Puppet theatre
also flourished at many places in India. Shadow (Gombeyatta of
Karnataka, Ravana Chhaya of Orissa), Glove (Gopalila of Orissa, Pavai
Koothu of Tamil Nadu), Doll (Bommalattam of Tamil Nadu and the Mysore
State and Putul Nautch of Bengal) and string puppets (Kathputli of
Rajasthan and Sakhi Kundhei of Orissa) are some of the popular forms in
Dramatic art can also be found in some of the solo forms of Indian
classical dance, like Bharat Natyam, Kathak, Odissi and Mohiniattam, and
folk dances like the Gambhira and Purulia Chhau of Bengal, Seraikella
Chhau of Bihar and Mayurbhanj Chhau of Orissa. Dramatic content is even
woven into the ritual ceremonies in some areas, particularly those of
Kerala, with its Mudiyettu and Teyyam.
THEATRE OF ENTERTAINMENT
This form of folk theatre has secular themes ranging from romance, love
and valour to social and cultural traditions. Its sole purpose was to
provide entertainment for the masses. Nautanki, Tamasha and Jatra are
Bhavai : Bhavai is the popular folk theatrical form of Rajasthan and
Gujarat. The pioneer of Bhavai was a Brahmin known as Asait Thakore or
Ashram Maharaja, who lived in a village of Gujarat called Unjha.
Initially, the Bhavai performance was presented as a religious ritual to
propitiate the Goddess Amba and it took place only during the religious
festivals of Navratra. Very soon it got converted as an important form
of the theatre of entertainment. The Bhavai has a series of playlets
known as Vesha or Swanga. Each Vesha has its own plot and locale. There
need not be any continuity of homogeneity among them. The Veshas has
four broad category of themes i.e. mythological, social, royal Rajput
and contemporary. The Veshas of Krishna and Gopi, the Veshas
Zanda-Zulana and Chhela-Vatau, the Vesha of Ramdev and the Veshas of
Vanazaro and Purabio are examples of each of these categories. Asait
Thakore wrote over 360 Veshas. The music is a combination of classical
tunes rendered in folk style. The musical instruments used are Bhungala,
Jhanjha and Tabla. Dancing is an indispensable feature of the plays and
has its own style, which is quite different from other dances of
Gujarat. The dance, which is a combination of Rasa and Garba with traces
of Kathak, is used as a connecting link between Veshas and also between
different incidents within one Vesha. The performers are called Bhavayas.
Till the 20th century the men played female roles. The Sutradhara or
anchor of the Bhavai is known as Nayaka who sings, acts and directs. He
is also the producer of the performance. As a folk dramatic form, Bhavai
is specially known for its social plays, which are full of humour. It is
not merely a theatre form to be seen, but an atmosphere to be
experienced with the players themselves. The Bhavai of Rajasthan is more
musical and less theatrical when compared to that of Gujarat.
Daskathia and Chhaiti Ghoda: Daskathia is one of the several narrative
forms that flourished in Orissa. It is a performance in which a devotee
narrates a story dramatically to the accompaniment of a wooden musical
instrument called kathia. This is a performance of two narrators, Gayaka
(chief singer) and Palia (assistant) who is the co-narrator. The Chhaiti
Ghoda troupe of performers comprises of two players on the musical
instruments dhol and mohuri and three other characters. A dummy horse is
improvised out of bamboo and cloth and the dancer enters into the hollow
body and dances, while the main singer along with co-singer delivers
discourses, mainly from mythology.
Gondhal: In Maharashtra, the dramatic narration of mythological stories,
hero-lauds and folk legends form a part of a ritual dedicated to various
deities. This interesting ritual with its narrative performance has
deeply influenced the dramatic and narrative traditions in Maharashtra
and its neighbouring regions.
Garodas: In Gujarat the members of the Garoda community practice the art
of narrating stories with the help of painted pictures. It is performed
with a paper scroll with pictures painted in water-colours one below the
other and separated with a thick black line.
Jatra (Yatra): The popular folk drama form of Eastern India is the Yatra
or Jatra, as it is known in Bengal. It assumes different forms in
different regions within the eastern parts of India, which include
mainly the states of Assam, West Bengal and Orissa. Yatra literally
means a procession or a pilgrimage from one point to another. It is
generally an open-air performance. Jatra originated in Bengal as a
ritual theatre devoted mainly on themes relating to the life of Lord
Krishna. The illustrious Vaishnava saint and religious performer
Chaitanya used the medium of Jatra to propagate his teachings of Krishna
by inspiring his devotees to participate in communal singing and
dancing. Apart from the exploits of Krishna, the Jatras dramatised the
Puranic legends, folk-tales and episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata.
In West Bengal, famous playwrights or palas attempted to bring
structural perfection to the Jatra. These palas were called by various
names like Rama Jatra, Shiva Jatra and Chandi Jatra. Later Jatra adopted
more secular themes and historical romances, love stories and even
patriotic themes during the freedom struggle were added to the
repertoire. The most famous was Bidya Sundar, which started a new trend
in Jatra. In Orissa, a unique form of Yatra known as Sahi Yatra is
performed in the by-lanes of Puri as a kind of street theatre. Jatra
today is one of the most popular folk theatres in India. West Bengal
alone has to its credit 300 Jatra companies, and Jatra competitions are
held during the Durga Puja festival.
Kariyila: This is the most interesting and popular folk drama form of
Himachal Pradesh. It is most popular in the districts of Shimla, Solan
and Sirmour. The season of Kariyala generally starts after the festival
of Deepavali. Kariyala is an open-air theatre, which consists of an
entertaining series of small playlets, farces, skits, revues and
burlesques. It is generally staged during village fairs and on some
festive occasions. The Kariyala entertainment starts in the evening and
goes on throughout the night staging various popular items one after
other. The square-performing arena is called Khada. In the centre of
Khada, a bonfire is lit which is considered very sacred. A number of
musical instruments like chimta, nagara, karnal, ranasingha, shahanai,
basuri, dholak and khanjiri are used to provide background music.
Keertan: Keertan is the most popular narrative form which is prevalent
in almost all parts of the country under different names such as Katha
Kalakshepam and Harikatha. Keertan means to laud, extol, exalt,
worshipping of the deity by chanting his praises and celebrating the
praises of god with music and singing.
Khyal: It is a popular folk dramatic form of Rajasthan and is full of
dancing, singing and music. Khyal has assumed different names in
different regions of Rajasthan. It is also known as Tamasha, Rammat,
Nautanki, Maach and Swang.
Maanch: Maanch is an enchanting folk opera of Malwa region in the state
of Madhya Pradesh. It evolved about two centuries ago in Ujjain. The
themes are usually based on mythological events or romantic folk tales.
Nachya: It is an interesting folk theatre form of Madhya Pradesh, the
urbanised version of which reached the metropolitan centres and became
quite popular. The play begins with an invocation song sung in honour of
Lord Ganesha, Saraswati and other deities venerated by the local folk.
There are two types of Nachya theatre. One is the humorous Gammat Skit
and the other one is the Jokkad Pari performance.
Nautanki: Nautanki is an offshoot of the Swang or Sang. It is very
popular in Haryana and other parts of North India.
Oja-Pali: Oja-Pali of Assam is a very interesting form of story telling
which utilises many dramatic techniques to illustrate the narrative and
enhance its visual impact. This art form is associated with the worship
of Manasa, the serpent goddess of Assam. The performers take many days
to narrate the story, which is divided into three parts: Deva Khanda,
Baniya Khanda and Bhatiyali Khanda. The Oja is the main narrator-singer
and the Palis are his associates or members of his chorus. There is yet
another type of Oja-Pali parties in Assam, known as the Vyah-Gowa
Oja-Pali, which narrates stories from the Assamese version of Puranas
and the epics.
Pandavani: It is a form of story telling evolved by the tribals of the
Chhatisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh to amuse and instruct the people.
This narrative form was developed to tell the story of the five Pandava
brothers and considered to be of two types - Kapilak and Vedamati. A
team of Pandavani performers is composed of one main narrator-singer,
one or two co-singers, who also play on musical instruments like tabla
and harmonium. Pandavani is a performance of a story, which did not
quite develop into a regular dramatic form.
Picture Showmen: The Picture Showman in ancient India was known as Mankha, and this art of narrating the story with the help of pictures
was known as Mankha Vidha. This art dates back to 6th century BC.
Powada: In Maharashtra the narrative hero-laud is called Powada. The
first available Powada in Marathi was written on the thrilling episode
of Shivaji killing his adversary Afzal Khan. The tradition of Powada
singing was kept alive by the folk singers of Maharashtra known as
Gondhalis and Shahirs. The Powada is presented in a most dramatic
manner. High pitch singing and melodramatic acting is its soul.
Swang: The major theatrical tradition of folk entertainment in North
India, especially Haryana, is that of Swang. It is a musical folk drama
which enacts near similar stories in all its related regional
variations. These stories are in verse and are sung in different
classical, semi-classical but mostly in popular folk musical modes. A
number of musical instruments like the ektara, dholak, kharta, sarangi
and harmonium put flavour to the dialogues. Ali Baksh of Rewari, who is
regarded as 'the father of folk theatre in Haryana', is the pioneer of
the Swang tradition. Pandit Deep Chand, known as the "Kalidasa of
Haryana", modified and polished Ali Baksh style of folk theatre. Other
luminaries of Swang include Swami Har Dev, Qutabi, Dhoom, Pandit Bhartu
and Pandit Lakshmi Chand.
Tamasha: Tamasha evolved itself from the earlier forms of folk
entertainment in Maharashtra. It is known for its humour and erotic
singing and dancing. It is one of the rare folk theatre forms of India
in which women play the feminine roles. Naughty episodes of Krishna
Leela are invariably enacted in the opening part of a Tamasha play. The
Lavani songs, which are sung along with dancing, are delightfully
naughty and erotic.
Villu Pattu: Villu Pattu literally means bow-song. This form of
recitation (using a bow-shaped musical instrument) of Tamil Nadu
developed in the 15th century. There are seven to eight persons in a
bow-song party who form a kind of chorus that supports the main
singer-narrator. The stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas
are told in these ballad style songs.
PUPPETRY IN INDIA
Puppet Theatre as a form of entertainment is found practically in all
parts of the world. In Puppet Theatre various forms, known as puppets,
are used to illustrate the narratives. In India, the roots of the puppet
theatre lie in a dancer's mask. There are several Mesolithic paintings
that illustrate a number of masked dancers performing singly or in
groups. Excavations at several Harappan sites have revealed a number of
toys whose body parts can be manipulated with strings. There are
numerous references to different kinds of puppets in the Mahabharata and
a Buddhist work called Therigatha.
There are basic four kinds of puppets - glove, string, rod and shadow.
The glove puppets are found mainly in Orissa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
These puppets are worn on the hand and the puppeteer manipulates their
heads and arms with his fingers. The puppeteer narrates his story in
verse or prose, while the puppets provide the visual treat. The glove
puppet in Orissa is called Kundhei Nacha. The glove puppets of Kerala
are more ornate, colourful and resemble the actors on the Kathakali
stage in their make-up and costume. Their performance is known as Pava
Koothu or Pava Kathakali. The stories of this theatre are mainly Radha -
Krishna stories and episodes from the Ramayana.
String puppets are found in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Tamil
Nadu and Karnataka. In this, the stress is more on the manipulative
skill of the puppeteer. The Kataputali shows of Rajasthan, the Sakhi
Kundhei of Orissa, the Putla Nach of Assam, Malasutri Bhaulya of
Maharashtra, Bommalattam of Tamil Nadu and Gombeyatta of Karnataka fall
under this category. The Putual Nach of West Bengal and the Kathi
Kundhei of Orissa are the best examples of rod puppetry in India.
SHADOW THEATRE IN INDIA
Shadow theatre is a unique kind of performing art which is close to
puppetry, but differs from it in the sense that while in puppet theatre
the audience directly sees the puppet figures, in shadow theatre they
only see the shadow cast on the screen. There is a light source and a
screen and in between the manipulator inserts the flat figures by
lightly pressing them on the screen so that a sharp shadow is formed.
Usually, the figures in the shadow theatre are made of leather. They are
carefully stenciled so that their shadows suggest their clothing,
jewellery and other accoutrements. Some of the figures have jointed
limbs which, when manipulated, give the appearance of beautiful moving
India has a very long and rich tradition of Shadow theatre. According to
many scholars, this art originated in India. Reference to shadow theatre
is found in the Tamil classic Shilappadikaaram. Many Western Indologists
such as Pischel, Luders and Winternitz are of the opinion that the
well-known Sanskrit drama Mahaanaataka was originally written as a play
for the Shadow Theatre. This art form is, thus, at least one thousand
years old. Apparently it went to Southeast Asia, Turkey and other places
Shadow theatre is prevalent in the states of Orissa, Kerala, Maharashtra,
Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In the shadow theatre forms of
the first three states, the shadows are black and white while those from
Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are multi-coloured. The shadow
theatre in Orissa is known as Raavana Chhaya or shadow of Ravana. It is
rather strange that in this form, while the story is based on Rama, the
theatre itself is named after Ravana. The shadow theatre in Maharashtra
is known as Camdyaachaa Bahulye, meaning figures made of leather. It is
also known as Chitra Marathigaru. Here also the themes are largely drawn
from the legend of Rama. In Karnataka there are two styles of shadow
theatre, both known as Togalu gombeatta. One style uses very large size
figures ranging from 1-1.5 metres and the other style uses smaller
figures ranging from six inches to two and a half feet. The figures are
made of goatskin, which is first treated to translucency and then
stenciled and coloured. The themes are drawn from Ramayana, Mahabharata
and other Puranic episodes. It came into Karnataka from its organizer
Kattare Kalachari who hailed from Maharastra. The shadow theatre in
Karnataka is also referred as Killekyathru. There are several families
which perform in their respective areas and are known by different names
such as Gombberama Chakkai Gobbeyata, Togalu Gobbeyata. Thol Pava-Kuthu
or Pavaikottu, the shadow theatre of Kerala again thrives exclusively on
the stories of Rama. Andhra Pradesh has the strongest tradition in
shadow theatre, which is known by the name Tholubommalata. Here, the
figures range in height from 1.2 to 1.82 metres and are the largest
among the other shadow theatre forms.
Most of the leather forms of the shadow theatre are the masterpieces of
folk-art. Usually the deer skin and goat hides are used, as they could
be rendered transparent and easily absorb different colors and last for
centuries. The raw hides are first treated with solution of common salt
or caustic soda and are then dried. They are then painted with deep
colours extracted from locally available plants and rocks. Different
parts of a doll are obtained from these hides and are joined in such a
way that the body, limbs, head and hands could be moved with ease.
During a puppetry performance in a village, a rectangular stage is set
up by using split bamboo and woolen blankets (Kambli). The performance
is commenced with an invocation to Lord Ganesha and Saraswati. In order
to announce that the show is about to commence a pair of buffoons
Silekyatha and his hilarious wife, Bangarakka makes an appearance on the
screen. They attract the audience by observations, gestures, jokes and
comments on village affairs. The core of the performance is enacted
during which detailed and dramatically prolonged episodes from Ramayana,
Mahabharata, stories from Puranas and the Devi scriptures are presented.
The headman, his wife and children, gives the male, female, and children
voices respectively. The music is provided by rubbing a reed on the back
of a bell-metal dish, a mukha-veena or a harmonium. The themes depend on
the occasions for which the Puppeteers are invited. They perform
"Krishna Leela" on birthdays, "Girija Kalyana" on wedding days and "Swargarohana"
when a death takes place.
The development of Modern Theatre in India may be attributed to a change
in the political set up in India. The 200 years of the British rule
brought the Indian theatre into direct contact with the western theatre.
The seeds of Modern Theatre were sown in the late 18th century, with the
consolidation of British power in Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It
was in the thriving metropolises of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras that
they first introduced their brand of theatre, based on London models.
The initial purpose of the British, while introducing Modern Theatre in
India was to provide entertainment for the British soldiers and citizens
trying to acclimatize themselves to a foreign country. For the first
time in India, the writing and practice of theatre was geared fully
towards realistic or naturalistic presentation. The themes also
underwent a drastic change. They were no more woven around big heroes
and gods, but had become a picture of common man. Initially most
dramatic works were composed in three languages - Bengali, Tamil and
Marathi. But later plays began to be written in other languages like
Kannada, Gujarati, Hindi, Oriya, Urdu and English.
Modern theatre also reached the other states in the south by the
beginning of the 19th century. Ramashankar Roy, Basanta Kumar Mahapatra
and others were the pioneers of the Orissa Theatre. In Tamil Nadu, the
early exponents of theatre were Prof. Sundaram Pillai, Sankardas
Swamigal, Sambananda Mudaliar and others. In the recent times, V.
Gopalakrishnan won the respect and admiration of the audience and his
fellow artistes for his talent. Along with Suchalatha Reddy and Thambi
Kadambavanam, Gopi had started the Madras Players troupe in 1952 under
the auspices of the British Council and had acted in quite a few English
plays. He also founded the Gopi Theatres in 1971, which staged nearly 30
plays, which included Nittham Oru Yuddham.
The Malayalam theatre began as an offshoot of Tamil theatre. Ochira
Velukutty, Thoppil Bhasi and N.N.Pillai are among the contributors of
Malayalam theatre. Manipuri theatre has been benefited a lot by the
traditional folk dramas and modern theatrical techniques of Ratan Tiyam.
In the current times, the dynamic duo of Crazy Mohan and Maadhu Balaji
has produced several comedy plays under the banner of Crazy Creations.
Some of their plays are Allaudin and 100 Watts Bulb, Kishkinda Kaandam,
Marriage Made in Saloon, Return of Crazy Thieves, Beware of Maadhu,
Middle Class Murder, Madhil Mel Maadhu, Oru Babyin Diary Kurippu and
THEATRE OF POST-INDEPENDENCE PERIOD
In the middle of the 19th century the Western literature and the
feelings of nationalism and pride of the glorious past of the country
equally influenced Indian Theatre. Indian theatre and drama got a new
footing, when Sangeet Natak Akademi was started in January 1953. Later,
the National School of Drama under the directorship of Ebrahim Alkazi
did much for the growth and promotion of modern Indian theatre.
In the 1960s, by suitable mixing of various styles and techniques from
Sanskrit, medieval folk and western theatre, the modern Indian theatre
was given a new, versatile and broader approach at every level of
creativity. Among other pioneers of the dramatic revival are
Ranchhodbhal and Nanalla Kavi in Gujarat, Verasalingam, Guruzada Appa
Rao and Ballary Raghavachari in Telugu, Santakavi Varadachari and
Kailasam in Kannada, Laxminath Bezharua in Assamese, Kerala Varma
Thampuran and C.V.Raman Pillai in Malayalam, Ramshankar Rai and
Kalicharan Patnaik in Oriya and P.Sambandha Mudaliar in Tamil.
The year 1972 turned out to be a landmark for the Indian vernacular
theatre when Vijay Tendulkar's Marathi play 'Ghashiram Kotwal' made
waves by its brilliant use of traditional folk forms in modern
contemporary theatre. This led to the birth of a new breed of directors
like B. V. Karanth, Habib Tanvir, Bansi Kaul and Rattan Thiyyam. Feroz
Khan is another accomplished playwright who has to his credit several
outstanding plays like Tumhari Amrita, Mahatma vs. Gandhi and Salesman
Ramlal. The last play is a Hindi adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death of
In the recent years the country has also produced talented playwrights
who have chosen English as their medium. Manjula Padmanabhan was the
first Indian to earn international acclaim with her play 'Bitter
Harvest' , a futuristic play that deals with the exploitation of the
human body in the 21st century, which won the highest Greek honour.
Another talented upcoming playwright is Mahesh Dattani who has produced
thirteen plays, including one play called Do The Needful for the BBC. He
touched upon the sensitive issue of communalism in his play 'Final
Solutions', which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award.
Although the emergence of cinema had given an elbow jerk to the
popularity of theatre as the main medium of popular entertainment,
several film personalities themselves had contributed for the growth and
promotion of theatre. They include Arvind Deshpande, Vijaya Mehta,
Jabbar Patel, Satyadev Dube, Vaman Kendre, Dr Shriram Lagoo, Girish
Karnad, Pearl Padamsee, Amol Palekar, Shashi Kapoor, Satish Kaushik,
Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Jaya Bacchan (Dr. Mukta, Ma Retire Hoti
Hai) and Shabana Azmi (Tumhari Amrata, Waiting Room).
Theatre continues to attract a new bread of young and talented actors,
directors and playwrights. Anahita Uberoi, who is the daughter of the
legendary Marathi theatre artist Vijaya Mehta, is one such upcoming and
talented theatre personality who has acted in several noteworthy plays
like Glass Menagerie, Seascape with Sharks, Dancer and Going Solo.
Sanjana Kapoor, daughter of Shashi Kapoor, is another such artiste who
manages the Prithvi Theatre and provides a platform to several
newcomers. Her children's play The Boy Who Stopped Smiling has recently
completed 100 shows throughout India. Chetan Datar is a young and
acclaimed playwright and director of Marathi theatre. His Gandhi-Ambedkar
ran for more than 80 shows. Rajat Kapoor, who is associated with
Chingari, a leading theatre group of Delhi, has translated into Hindi
Waiting for Godot, The Taming of the Shrew and Jean Genet's The Maids
and Deathwatch. He has also produced a highly dramatized play C for
Clown. Tara Deshpande has acted in Once Upon A Fleeting Bird, which is
an English adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar's Ashi Pakhare Yeti. The play
was screened recently during the Indo-American Theatrefestival held in
Rael Padamsee, the daughter of Alyque and Pearl Padamsee, has a fancy
for producing plays targeted at young kids. Her important plays in this
category include Alladin and his Magic Lamp, Alibaba and the Forty
Thieves and Babloo the Bear. She draws the stars mainly from her
immensely popular 'Little Actors Club', which trains pre-teens for
professional acting. She also did plays with serious themes like
Betrayal, Games People Play, Acts of Faith and Extremities. Royston Abel
bagged the first prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for his role in
the play Othello -- A Play in Black & White. He is coming up with
another play called Goodbye Desdemona.
The All India Radio was also instrumental in popularising drama for a
long time through its national and regional broadcasts. The Television
also provided the much-needed succour to the theatre artistes by way of
Tele-serials and Mega-serials and Soap Operas. However, today there are
relatively few commercial theatre companies in India. Calcutta is said
to have the most, approximately 3,000 registered amateur groups, Mumbai
has around 500, and Chennai has about 50 while Delhi has got hardly a
dozen. Some serious theatre groups like the Indian National Theatre, the
Prithvi Theatre, Chingari and others are contributing greatly to
popularise theatre. Some of these companies, like the Prithvi Theatre
have gone online, making themselves known globally by utilizing the
explosion in the information technology.
FUTURE OF THEATRE
During any discussion about the future of theatre in India, people talk
about its marginalisation by the film world. The exodus from the theatre
to films is not a new phenomenon. But of late, television, video, film
and the satellite channels have attracted the maximum number of people
from the theatre to these options because of more money, glamour and
market opportunities. As a result, theatre activities have suffered a
severe setback in the last 15 years or so. The situation, however, has
started changing slowly again. The audience appears to be fed up with
the small screen. Theatre being a live and direct medium and always
operating on human level with its audience can never die. Even after
innumerable obstacles and upheavals in history, it has always emerged as
a winner in the end.
However, one pertinent question relates to the identity of Indian
theatre today. India being a vast country with 22 languages and as many
different cultures, the theatre cannot be identified with one uniform
element. In India, the concept of National Theatre has to be seen purely
in regional terms. In the post-Independence period conscious efforts
were made to evolve the concept of a 'National Theatre' by breaking
these barriers of language and region. Slowly many writers crossed these
barriers of regionalism and produced many good works at national level.
Badal Sarkar, Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Adya
Rangachari and Dharamveer Bharati are the few among them.
Today, it is not uncommon to find leading companies and organisations
supporting efforts like holding a theatre festival or carnival of plays.
The Prithvi Theatre has so far run twelve such festivals called the
Prithvi festivals. It was also able to organise the "Bol Jamoore" - the
national festival of Street Theatre - with the help of organisations
like Child Relief and You (CRY). These festivals are set to move from
Mumbai to other parts of the country like Bangalore, Delhi, Calcutta and
Chennai. Nandikar, Rudra Sengupta's well-known Calcutta group, has also
been putting up festivals of Indian plays for the last 12 years.
Thus, the theatre continues to show its survival instincts in the
contemporary times, as it has been doing so since the time immemorial.