The Long and Amazing History of Theatre in India

Posted on 22 February, 2016 by Team Wishberry

History-of-theatre-in-India All the world’s a stage. And that of India dates back to at least 5000 years ago. Sometime between 2000 B.C and 4th century A.D. Bharat Muni wrote Natya Shastra i.e. the world’s first and earliest book on drama. It covers pretty much every aspect of a drama production, from stage design to makeup to music, dance and every detail about stagecraft. It also sheds immense light on every aspect of musical instruments. The Natya Shastra can be easily called the founding stones of fine arts in India.

The first millennium of Indian Theatre: 1st century to 1000 A.D.

Some of the most notable playwrights of the first millennium of Indian theatre were: Kalidasa, who wrote romantic plays like Malvikagnimitram, Vikramorvarsiyam, Abhijnanasakuntalakam which influenced Goethe’s Faust) Bhavabhuti, who wrote Malati-Madhava,Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita Bhasa, who wrote Svapna VasavadattamPancharātra and Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam Vishakhadatta, whose most noteworthy work includes Mudrarakshasa – a Sanskrit play full of political intrigue and action Most of these plays were based on the epics, folktales, legends and historical stories. All the plays followed closely the rules and instructions detailed in the Natya Shastra. Some of the earliest known plays also include Mricchakatika (The Little Clay Cart) by Sudraka. Heavily loaded with romance, sex, royal intrigue and comedy, a version of it was staged in 1924 in New York and adapted into a film called Utsav by Girish Karnad in 1984. However, by the end of 1000 A.D. the first wave of drama was at an end.

The second millennium of Indian Theatre: 1000 A.D. to 1700 A.D.  

During this time we saw the emergence of regional languages in theatre along with a deviation from plays based on ancient stories and epics. Oral stories began to influence theatrical works more and more, as regional languages were shaping up around this time too. It was too soon to produce written texts in regional languages, but the perfect time to pass on oral stories. Although the main elements of a theatre production in classical theatre (1st millennium) and traditional theatre (2nd millennium) such as music, dance, movement and narrative remained the same, the former was much more sophisticated in form whereas the latter was simpler, often to the point of being improvisational. Classical form of theatre remained standard in its presentation throughout all parts of India. However, traditional theatre was like a sponge, it absorbed the influences of the regions it came from. This marked difference stems from where both styles draw their references from. Classical theatre is constant across the country because it followed a written document i.e. Natya Shastra to the last letter. Traditional form, on the other hand, came from a tradition of oral storytelling. Stories and themes were passed from one generation to another orally instead of written literature. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that it is in the second millennium of theatre where one is most likely to find plays that are more vocal in the form of songs, recitations and poems devoid of complex choreography.

The 1700-1800s: the British Raj and influence of Western theatre on India

This was when the East India Company (and subsequently, the British rule) came into force in India. Two things happened during this era: Indian theatre was suddenly exposed to a whole new world of Western theatre, and now there were changes in the themes of plays. Indian theatre started gearing itself towards a style and presentation that was more realistic and took influences from day to day actions. This further developed into modern Indian theatre that we know of today. No longer were plays written with stories revolving around Gods, larger than life heroes and exaggerated plots. The common man and his struggle took centrestage instead. Availability of English education now meant more and more English plays too. In 1765, Qulokhnath a drama enthusiast from Bengal along with Russian drama lover Horasin Lebdef staged two English plays – Disgaig and Love is the Best Doctor. In 1831, Prasanna Kumar started the ‘Hindu Rangmanch’ in Kolkata and staged the English translation of Uttar Ramacharitam by Bhavabhuti. Girish Chanda Ghosh’s social dramas, D.L. Roy’s historical dramas and Rabindranath Tagore’s artistic dramas also came to the fore. In 1852-53, the first ever Parsi theatre company was started in Bombay by Postagi Pharmji. It is considered to have been the most influential forces on Indian theatre. During the same time, one of the most iconic names from the Indian literary scene, Rabindranath Tagore, started shaping up the modern style of drama by drifting away from translated works and western influences, and exploring elements of nationalism, identity, spiritualism and materialism.  His most prominent plays include Chitrangada in 1892, The King of the Dark Chamber in 1910  The Post Office in 1913 and Red Oleander in 1924. Excerpt from The King of The Dark Chamber
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Indian theatre in the 20th century:

By 1942, an association of leftist theatre artists called the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) with an aim to bring about a cultural awakening within the people of India. Against a backdrop of the Second World War, Bengal Famine of 1943 and the repression of the British rule, this association brought together legendary playwrights like Prithviraj Kapoor, Utpal Dutt, Shambhu Mitra, Bijon Bhattacharya, Ritwik Ghatak, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Salil Chowdhury, Pandit Ravi Shankar, S. Tera Singh Chan among others. The movement brought about by IPTA heavily influenced not only Indian drama but also cinema and music. In the 1960s a remarkable Indian playwright, Girish Karnad came to the fore. Although fluent in both English as well as his mother tongue, Konkani, Karnad wrote in Kannada – his adopted language. His plays saw immense use of history and mythology to convey messages and critiques relevant to contemporary times. His most popular works include Tughlaq (1964), Hayavadana(1971) and Naga Mandala (1988). Karnad has written one top notch play after another for four decades, thereby making his works one of the most critical contributions to Indian drama. In 1978, Mumbai’s most iconic theatre hotspots Prithvi Theatre came into being. Built by Shashi Kapoor in memory of his father Prithviraj Kapoor who long harboured a dream of creating a home and hub for his repertory Prithvi Theatres, the entire operation was run by Shashi’s wife Jennifer Kapoor until her death in 1984.
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No mention in this context is complete without two stalwarts – Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Dattani. Known as the angry young man of Indian theatre, Vijay Tendulkar wrote some of the most socially critical yet relevant plays for forty decades i.e.  between the 1950s and 1990s. His first play was Amchyavar Kon Prem Karnar? (Who Will Love Us?). He then went on to write some of the most remarkable plays such as Srimant (Rich) in 1956, Gidhade (Vultures) in 1961, Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (Silence! The Court Is In Session) in 1967, Sakharam Binder (Sakharam, The Binder) and Ghashiram Kotwal (Officer Ghashiram) in 1972. Ghashiram Kotwal went on to garner over 60,000 performances in original as well translated versions. To this day, it remains one of the longest running plays in Indian theatre. Tendulkar's powerful and radical storytelling of hard-hitting content led to a drastic change in storyline, presentation and sensibilities of modern Marathi theatre. Ghashiram Kotwal by Vijay Tendulkar
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  Mahesh Dattani, on the other hand, is said to have brought a sense of independent identity and status to the last quarter of Indian theatre. Mahesh Dattani's plays were seen as a medium to externalize the problems of the underprivileged sections of society in a realistic manner. Dattani's plays treaded where none ever did – into the territory of homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, child sexual abuse, eunuchs, differently abled etc. He started his own theatre group called Playpen in 1984. Some of his most memorable plays are Where There's a Will in 1988, Dance Like a Man in 1989, Bravely Fought The Queen in 1991, and his more recent works Where Did I Leave My Purdah in 2012 and The Big Fat City in 2012. A still from Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man
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  Over the course of time, many prominent theatre groups have come up in the country with invaluable contributions to this space. Some of the theatre companies worthy of mention are: ACE Productions started by Alyque Padamsee, Ashvin Gidwani Productions, Poor Box Productions run by Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, Motley Productions started by Naseeruddin & Ratna Pathak Shah along with Tom Alter, Lillete Dubey’s Primetime Theatre Company, Ansh Theatre Group started by Makarand Deshpande, Akvarious Productions by Akarsh Khurana, and QTP by Quasar Thakore Padamsee among the many. With dedicated top notch theatre festivals, international collaborations and a willingness to experiment with different styles of drama, we can only hope that the journey of Indian theatre ahead is long but extremely interesting!  

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