Theater Culture In India: Then and Now

Posted on November 13, 2010 in Culture-Vulture

By Drishti Chhibber:

It’s funny how mindless comedies like Golmaal go houseful and our culture of theatre on the other hand is almost dying. Youngsters join theatre clubs in their schools and colleges but still equate theatre with boring. People don’t even know about the rich culture of theatre. It is one of the oldest forms of expressing one’s emotions. Though not originally from India, this form of art has thrived for centuries in our land of diversities.

Like Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ is considered to be the world’s earliest work on dramatic theory, India too has its own literary work on dramatic theory called ‘Natyashastra’ by Bharata Muni. It’s a Sanskrit text which outlines the rules of writing and performing music, dance and theatre. The origin of theatre in India can be traced back to the mythological age. It is closely related to the ancient customs and rituals of our country. In India, theatre began in the narrative form and then it encompassed our folk dances and music. Theatre culture of India can be easily classified into 3 periods – Traditional, Cultural and Modern.

Traditional Theatre was written and performed in Sanskrit as it was said to be the language of the Gods. 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 chief character of this play that is comical in tone but backs Buddhist teachings as its basis. Indian plays always focussed more on Ideas rather than realism. The playwrights took their ideas from epics, mythologies, history etc. Some of the famous playwrights of this time are Kalidasa, Sudraka and Bhavabhuti.

Cultural Theatre includes Folk Dance, Folk Songs, Puppetry, Shadow Theatre etc. Theatre came out of the urban centres into towns and villages. It was also during this time that Sanskrit died as a language and the evolution of vernacular languages took place. This was during the time when India was raided by various rulers who brought cultural influences of their own and shaped the history of Indian Theatre.

‘Kutiyattam’ of India has been declared as the oldest still surviving theatre form of the world by UNESCO. Originated from Kerala it is believed to be a 2000 year old art. It is still preserved because the traditional families performing this art still perform it in its orthodox manner.

Folk theatre was basically an oral form and still thrives in India with secular themes such as romance, heroism and cultural customs. Rajasthan has Bhavai and Khayal, Orissa has Daskathia, Maharashtra has Gondhal, Nautanki is famous in North India, Maanch in MP and many more.

The Modern era in Theatre came during the rule of the British as a source of their entertainment. The idea of Realism started seeping in from the West and theatres were based on London models. Post-Independence nationalism was intertwined with this art. The Modern Theatre was given a new shape, colour and flavour. 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.

Of course the advent of Indian Cinema proved detrimental to the Theatre. Nowadays there are hardly any eminent theatre personalities who have dedicated themselves solely to theatre. Theatre people have to keep some ties with Cinema to survive financially. But we can’t let this culture die. It’s one of the oldest sources of entertainment and we should resurrect it from its ruins. Catch a play at your nearest Theatre centre and be a part of your country’s glorious history.

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