Indian theater goes back to the 4th century B.C. All night dance-dramas, known “yaksgana”, are popular and held throughout India, particularly to mark major festivals. They combine song and dance and are based on the Hindu epics and mythology and typically feature a story with good winning out over evil.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “As is the case with dance and dance drama, the Natyashastra is regarded as the basic text of theatre (See Dance Drama). How the text is then employed and constructed varies greatly in different styles of theatre. It can be, for example, written as a drama script with dialogue combining prose and verse or it can be recited or sung by singers while the actors mainly mime the actions and reactions described in the text etc. The plots of the plays are regularly supplied by the Puranas, or the mythological stories, and the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, already described above. These corner stones of Indian thinking and imagery served the culture more or less similarly as the ancient Greek literature and mythology did in the Western world. They have been recycled and reinterpreted again and again for over two millennia.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“India is home to hundreds of living theatrical traditions. Some of them are archaic rituals that have been cherished by small rural communities for several centuries, some are age-old classical traditions of dance-drama related to the Natyashastra, the ancient Drama Manual, and some of them are popular forms of folk entertainment reflecting the changing tastes of their audiences. It is natural that only some of these traditions can be discussed in a concise text like this. /=/

“The classification of the Indian traditions into “classical” and “folk” forms is somewhat problematic. “Classical” tends to be an extremely value-laden adjective, which easily places the tradition in question above others. According to Indian terminology, the different types of theatrical traditions fall broadly into two basic categories, margi or classical (Natyshastra-related) and desi or folk/regional styles. Very few Asian countries originally had their own indigenous forms of spoken drama. Of course, the storytelling tradition may be regarded as a form of spoken theatre, but besides that most forms of Asian theatre, in India particularly, also involve music as well as dance or, at least, a highly stylised movement technique.” /=/

Classical theater survives in only in a few cities, but folk theater thrives in almost every region. Professional theater is confined primarily to the cities. Plays are in New Delhi and Bombay performed in both English and Hindi. Bombay has the most lively English-language theater. Delhi is known as center of Hindi-language theater. Most of the other theater is in local languages. Bengali Theater is famous. Calcutta has a modern theater established in the late 18th century. Madras has one full time Tamil-language professional company.

Early Indian Literature and Theatre

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Information scattered in early literature offers an enlightening and multifaceted panorama of the theatrical forms and practices of early India. There were, for example, various kinds of places where performances took place, from simple open arenas to large cave theatres, and brick-built amphitheatres, as well as several kinds of wooden theatre buildings. The early genres of performance included, among others, different kinds of rituals, and storytelling, as well as “picture showmen”, who employed either picture scrolls or panels to visualise their narration. Pure dances were popular, as were mimetic solo performances by a single actor-dancer. The more literary forms of drama could involve a large cast of both male and female actors, while all-male and all-female troupes are also known to have existed. In the early centuries A.D. the theory and the various practices of this rich and already mature theatrical tradition were formulated in the form of a shastra treatise, the Natyashastra or the Drama Manual. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Theatre and dance, which are inseparable art forms in Indian culture, are present even in the earliest works of Indian literature. The Veda literature, or the four Vedas, which forms the basis of early Brahmanism and later Hinduism, mentions dance and open-air theatrical performance. Otherwise, the Vedas mainly include invocations and hymns to the gods, ritual formulas, and short stories. /=/

“The Vedic tradition evolved orally through the centuries and received its written form much later in the post-Vedic period. Towards the end of the Vedic period, various gods, which were originally rather simple personifications of aspects of nature, began to acquire complicated mythologies, which personalised them. These mythologies were further elaborated in the early centuries A.D. by the Purana literature, while at the same these mythical stories became the main theme for much of the Indian theatrical arts. /=/

“Indian literary heritage includes several shastras or manuals (also code, theory, treatise) covering a vast range of subjects from cooking, elephant and horse breeding, and lovemaking, as well as several art forms, such as poetics, music, theatre, and dance. The earliest treatise for theatre and dance is the Natyashastra or the Drama Manual. Other shastra manuals also give information about theatrical practices, each according to their own specific viewpoint. The Kamashastra (Kamasutra), the treatise on love, informs us about the kind of role that theatrical performances had in the life of the upper class educated male citizen. The Arthashastra, the treatise on politics and administration, on the other hand, gives detailed information about the role of different kinds of performers in the ideal, yet highly hierarchical, society described in this manual written in the 4th century B.C. “ /=/

Bhakti, Medieval Ecstatic Love

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “During medieval times a new literary genre became a popular subject particularly for lasya (soft, feminine) style narrative solo dance forms. It was the ecstatic bhakti poetry. Bhakti was, and still is, an extremely popular form of Hinduism in which the complicated rituals, yoga systems etc. are replaced by loving devotion towards a god which is seen as the personal lover of the devotee, a bhakti poet, and the dancer enacting a bhakti poem. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Among numerous poets it was the 12th century Jayadeva who was the definite trendsetter for the whole bhakti movement. His Song of the Dark Lord or Gita Govinda (also Geeta Govinda) has enjoyed phenomenal popularity and influenced all genres of bhakti art all over the subcontinent. The most popular gods of the bhakti worship are Shiva and Krishna, the flute-playing dark, dancing youth who, in fact, is an avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Jayadeva wrote his poetic work, Gita Govinda, structured in 12 poems or cantos, in Sanskrit. It describes the passionate and stormy love life of Krishna and his main beloved, Radha. It is known that Jayadeva wrote it to be danced as a kind of offering to Lord Krishna. /=/

“Bhakti poems are most often simply sung while a solo dancer enacts the poem and assumes both the roles of the devotee and the beloved god. These abhinaya, or mimetic sections, often alternate with pure nrtta dances, as will be discussed later in connection with the famous lasya- style dance genres, such as baharatanatyam, mohiniattam, and orissi. Bhakti poetry, however, also inspired actual drama literature, for example, in the case of the krishnanatam of Kerala. It also served as a vital source for popular forms of pilgrimage theatre, such as krishnalila and ramlila.” /=/

Ramlila, the Traditional Performance of the Ramayana

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Ramlila refers to a ritual tradition of religious tableaux or short plays performed in northern India in September and October during the birthday festival of Prince Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic and an avatar of God Vishnu. The highlights of Rama’s life can be enacted as robust village theatre or as sketchy scenes performed by boy actors assisted by adult men. The most lavish ramlila takes place in Varanasi and its outskirts, where the scenes are divided to cover one month and they are enacted in various locations appropriate to the content of the particular scene. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The ramlila tradition is inseparable from the famous Hindi version of the Ramayana, the Ramacharitmanas, by the poet Tulsidas (1523–1623). He was a devotee of Rama; he was a philosopher and a composer, and has been regarded as an incarnation of Valmiki, the author of the Sanskrit Ramayana. Tulsidas’ vernacular Ramayana was strongly opposed by learned Brahmans. However, it gained enormous popularity, particularly in North India. Deeply inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana, he created his own version, which, in some details, slightly differs from the original one. Even during Tulsidas’ time, the reciting of Ramayana was regarded as an act of devotion. After Tulsidas’ death in 1623, his followers enacted the Ramacharitmanas during the Rama festival. The tradition spread to other parts of the region, and gradually the originally five-day performance grew into a lavish pageant lasting up to one month. /=/

In 2005, the Ramayana and Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana was designated by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of then Ramayana epic in a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across northern India during the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar in autumn. The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani. [Source: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage ]

“This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular storytelling forms in the north of the country. This sacred text devoted to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a form of Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all. The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last an entire month. Festivals are organized in hundreds of settlements, towns and villages during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile.

“Ramlila recalls the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is invited to sing and take part in the narration. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. All the villagers participate spontaneously, playing roles or taking part in a variety of related activities, such as mask- and costume making, and preparing make-up, effigies and lights. However, the development of mass media, particularly television soap operas, is leading to a reduction in the audience of the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their principal role of bringing people and communities together.”

Great Epics, Mahabharata and the Ramayana, See Literature.

Ramlila Characters and Music

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The main characters, such as Rama, Sita, and Laksmana are generally played by pre-adolescent boys under fourteen, who come from Brahman families. They must undergo a period of fasting and purification in a temple before the ramlila. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“For the performance, the boys’ hands and feet are layered with with sandalwood paste and their faces are covered with heavy make-up. Floral motifs decorated with glittering sequins are painted on their chins. They wear gilded crowns and an abundance of flower garlands around their necks. In fact, they are just like live versions of the religious imagery that is characteristic of the region. Many characters, such as Hanuman and Ravana, are played by adult men wearing masks. In street performances the masks are often made of papier maché, while in more grandiose spectacles the huge masks, for example Hanuman’s mask, are made of metal. /=/

“The nucleus of the whole pageant is the recitation of Tulsidas’ Ramayana. It is done by a chorus, the Ramayanis, who accompany themselves with small cymbals. The Ramayanis are seated on the ground in a kind of monkey position. They are led by one or several vyases, chorus leaders and masters of the ceremony. They also prompt and support the boy actors by openly reading their lines, which the child actors then loudly, almost shouting, repeat in an extremely stylised and slow manner.” /=/

Ramlila Performances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Almost every street in Varanasi has its own ramlila committee. The simplest ramlilas are erected in the streets. The road serves as the acting area and the good characters, i.e. Prince Rama and his army, occupy one side of the road and the evil characters, i.e. the Demon King Ravana and his army, the other. Simple costumes and papier maché masks are used. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Bigger ramlila spectacles employ several stages, on which different sequences of the Ramayana are enacted simultaneously. In fact, in Varanasi several ramlilas may be performed at the same time. They are, however, started on different days so that the spectators may criss-cross between various performances according to their taste. The most spectacular of all ramlilas is, without doubt, the 30-day mega-performance in Varanasi. Every day a new episode is shown in a particular location appropriate to the episode of the day. It can take place near the river, in a public square, in a forest etc. /=/

“In certain episodes, particularly those enacting Rama’s and Sita’s wedding and Rama’s return, wealthy families of the city display their heirloom jewellery as part of the scenes in the procession. The masks are huge, and Hanuman’s copper mask weighs several kilograms. The climax of this ramlila is the scene of Rama’s return and reunion with his brothers. As many as 300 000 spectators shout their praise and throw flowers on the platform on which Rama embraces his brothers. The action is frozen into a still tableau, which serves as a kind of temporary altar for the ecstatically worshipping crowds of pilgrims. /=/

“The maharaja of Varanasi then arrives on his elephant as the representative of God Shiva to meet Rama, the avatar of the other main Hindu god, Vishnu. This one-month devotional spectacle ends with the burning of the huge, firecracker-filled cardboard effigies of Ravana and Kumbakarna to seal the final victory of good over evil. /=/

“The above forms of ramlila bear all the marks of bhakti-related devotional rituals. There are, however, more secularised forms of ramlila. They may be performed in villages and towns, in temporary tents or theatre halls on a Western-influenced proscenium stage. The style of the performances can be that of melodramatic folk theatre influenced by Indian movies. They can involve dance sequences in various Indian classical and semi-classical styles or even in the glittering style of Bollywood musicals. Although they still serve as reminders of Rama’s virtues and victory, they are more entertaining in character than the devotional ramlilas.

Sanskrit Dramas

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “India also has an old and long-lasting tradition of full-length poetic plays, which are called Sanskrit Dramas because they were written mainly in Sanskrit. In fact, however, they combine both classical Sanskrit with Prakrit or different forms of vernacular languages. The tradition was maintained for nearly 1 200 years, which makes it the longest continuous performing tradition of any drama texts in the world. The tradition of performing Greek tragedies, for example, lasted only about half a millennium, while the continuous performing tradition of Shakespearean dramas lasted less than a century. The earliest Sanskrit plays were written in the early centuries AD and they gradually ceased to be performed at some time during the 15th century, when Sanskrit was no longer a living, spoken language, and the Muslims had invaded northern India, where the tradition had been thriving. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The earliest Sanskrit dramas date from the early centuries AD. The problem, however, with this genre is that the plays are almost impossible to date accurately. This also means that very little is known about the lives of their authors. The use of the Sanskrit language of the learned upper castes indicates that most of the Sanskrit dramas represent court theatre, which was probably created and performed under royal patronage. /=/

“The Sanskrit dramas cover a wide range of subjects and types of play. They include full-length poetic love stories, political plays and palace intrigues, as well as shorter farces and one-act love monologues. The foremost drama genre centred on the character of a noble hero. These “heroic dramas”, often with plots derived from tradition, are called natakas. Another important type of drama is a kind of social play dealing with various kinds of human relationships. These plays, mostly invented by their authors, are called prakranas. /=/

The language of Sanskrit dramas is characterised by the blending of classical Sanskrit with local Prakrit languages. The royal heroes and Brahman priests, ascetics and high officials use Sanskrit, while women, children and all low-caste characters speak Prakrit. Thus the plays, already at the level of language, reflect the social and gender hierarchies of their time. This intermingling of languages may also have been intended to make the plays understandable for those spectators who did not understand Sanskrit. Another characteristic of the dramas is the blending of prose and verse. The verses are mainly In Sanskrit. The alternation of languages as well as prose and verse widens the scale of linguistic expression from “high” to “low”, from noble to vulgar, and anything in between.

Bhasa and Kalidasa

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “T he earliest existing plays are attributed to Bhasa. The best known is a kind of political romance called The Vision of Vasavadatta. Other writers include the poet-king Sudraka, to whom three plays are attributed. The most famous of them is The Little Clay Cart, in which a love story and political intrigue intermingle. Ratnavali is a complicated intrigue set in harem by the poet Harsha, while Bhavabhuti is known for his Ramayana-derived play, The Latter Story of Rama, and a love story, Malati and Madhava. The Minister’s Seal, the only existing complete play by Visakhadatta, with its ruthless political plot, is a kind of thriller of its time. The most famous of all Sanskrit playwrights, both in India and in the West, is, however, Kalidasa. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/] “As is the case with most of the Sanskrit dramatists, very little is known about the life of Kalidasa, the most celebrated poet in the history of India. It is believed that he belonged to the priestly Brahman caste and that he lived in North India at some time during the late 4th to mid 5th centuries AD, that is, during the classical Gupta Period. /=/

“His known works include three lengthy narrative poems, and three plays: Malavika and Agnimitra, Urvasi Won by Valour, and the famous Shakuntala (also The Recognition of Shakuntala). Kalidasa’s poetry has been praised for its beauty and “limpidity” or a kind of transparency. It has been seen as reflecting the “ease and largeness of vision”, characteristics of the mature classical Gupta period.” /=/


Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The Recognition of Shakuntala, or more often just Shakuntala, is regarded as the epitome of Sanskrit dramas. The basic story of this lyric, fairytale-like play in seven acts is derived from the Mahabharata. It was certainly common practice to borrow and enhance elaborate characters and events from the epic literature. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Shakuntala tells about the love of King Dusyanta and a beautiful girl, Shakuntala, who is the foster daughter of a forest hermit (and, in fact, of semi-divine origin). They meet, make love, and engage in a secret marriage. As a token of his love, the king gives Shakuntala a ring. However, owing to a magic trick, the king forgets Shakuntala, and she is taken to the heavens, where she gives birth to the king’s son. Only when the king sees the ring he has given to the girl does he again remember their love. While visiting the heavens, the king meets Shakuntala and their son and they are finally reunited (synopsis of the play Shakuntala). /=/

“The play moves freely from the deep forest to the urban palace and from the earth to different levels of the heavens. Supernatural powers are at play, heavenly nymphs take part in the action, and the king is able to overthrow demons while flying with his airborne chariot. This fantastic and complex world is described with poetic brilliance and concentrates on the themes of longing and rejection, while the main rasa of the play is love. On a deeper level the conflict is created by the opposing forces of desire (kama) and duty (dharma). Desire versus duty was the standard conflict in many of the Sanskrit dramas, as it has, indeed, been in many Western and Chinese dramas too.

Characters in Sanskrit Dramas

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The characters of the Sanskrit dramas are types rather than individuals. The main types of character include the noble hero, nayaka, often a prince or a king, and the heroine, nayika. The villain of the play is called pratinayaka. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The clown or jester character is called vidushaka. Surprisingly, he may even be a highborn Brahman. Although he is possibly intelligent, he is usually lazy, while his humour is spiced with eroticism. Because of his social background he is able to move freely in the social hierarchy. Thus he can be a close friend or a personal servant of the hero. However, only he is allowed to add social and even political criticism to the play and he translates the hero’s Sanskrit lines into vernacular language. /=/

“The troupes included various professionals, from minor actors to make-up assistants, stage technicians, musicians and the conductor of the orchestra. Music had a central role in the Sanskrit dramas, but it is not known what exactly the genre of music that accompanied the plays was.The primus motor of a troupe, as well as the actual play, is sutradhara, or the theatre director. He was supposed to have expert knowledge of all aspects of theatre. He also took an active role in the actual performance by introducing the actors and the play to the audience, in the prologue, and often guiding and commenting upon the flow of the story.” /=/

Make up is typically applied by the actors themselves. It has traditionally been made of pigments mixed with coconut oil. Headdresses made of peacock feathers are commonly worn. Actor trainees often play the roles of buffons and wear black pajamas and have mango leaves in their hair. Actors impersonating women sometimes wear coconuts for giant breasts.

Sanskrit Drama on the Stage

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ One of the main questions in recent studies of the Sanskrit dramas is how they were staged and performed. There seems to be a consensus that the acting technique corresponded to the stylised natya, described in the Drama Manual or the Natyashastra, as has already been discussed above. Thus the rasa or the sentiment was conveyed not only by word but also through facial expressions, symbolic gestures and other stylised body language. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“It is possible, however, that different types of dramas employed different acting styles. For example, a heroic nataka play may have required a classical, Natyashastra-derived acting style, while a short farce may have been performed in a more realistic style etc. It is believed that the theatre houses in which the Sanskrit dramas were performed were rather small because abhinaya, or the mimetic acting style, with its facial expressions and eye movements had to be seen close-up. It is also believed that the stage was bare, and just as on the stage of Shakespeare’s dramas, movements, gestures, and dialogue signalled the locations of actions. /=/

“Many of the Sanskrit dramas include stage directions, which seem to support the above hypothesis. They also indicate that some stage props may have been used. They may have included various weapons, chariots etc, although it is also possible that these could have been indicated by movements and symbolic hand gestures. /=/

Sanskrit Dramas in the East and the West

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Of all Sanskrit dramas it is Kalidasa’s Shakuntala that is best known outside India. A Shakuntala manuscript was found in a monastery in coastal China, indicating close cultural ties between China and India. It is even possible that the Sanskrit dramas influenced the development of Chinese theatre during the times when the contacts were most active. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

Shakuntala was probably the first Asian drama translated into Western languages. It is also one of the very first Sanskrit works ever translated into English. The first translation was done by the famous orientalist, Sir William Jones, in 1789. Its publication was a sensation and it went into five editions during two decades. It was translated into German in 1791, and into French in 1803. Later it was translated into several other Western languages. /=/

“One of Shakuntala’s greatest admirers was Goethe, who was inspired by it while writing his Faust. He wrote a poem in praise of Shakuntala:
Wouldst thou the young year’s blossoms and the fruits of its decline,
And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured, feasted, fed,
Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine?
I name thee, O Shakuntala, and all at once is said. (Translation by E. B. Eastwick)

“Shakuntala became a kind of icon of the 19th century orientalistic movement. It inspired operas and ballets, among them Marius Petipa’s ballet La Bayadère. But most often Shakuntala’s story was very loosely referred to. It served merely as a source for various kinds of Eastern fantasies. Shakuntala is probably the most frequently performed Asian play in the West. One of the most important 20th century interpretations was by the Polish theatre guru, Grotowski. Sanskrit dramas and their acting technique are now actively studied both in the East and in the West.” /=/

Present-day Traditions in Indian Theater

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ During the 20th century it became established (although not all agree with this) that six major schools of dance were defined as “classical” styles. They are bharatanatyam (originally from Tamil Nadu), manipuri (Manipur), kathak (a Persian-influenced, originally North Indian style), kathakali (Kerala), kuchipudi (Andhra Pradesh), and odissi (Orissa). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

Proclaiming styles as classical has often had historical and political reasons. The manipuri style of the eastern state of Manipur on the slopes of the Himalayas, for example, was raised to a classical style by the Indian writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore. He “found” the tradition and adopted it in order for it to be taught at his own university. /=/

“Kathakali, from the state of Kerala, was chosen to be included in the classical traditions by the local nationalistic poet Vallathol, whereas the much older form, kutiyattam, has risen to international fame only recently when it was included in UNESCO’S List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage. Thus it is clear that one should be cautious when using the term “classical” although, to simplify things, the term will also be used in this text occasionally. /=/

“In this overview the genres of Indian theatrical arts are grouped according to their performance types. Thus mimetic solo dances are grouped together, as well as popular forms of sung and/or spoken theatre, communal pilgrimage plays etc. The following, first section is, however, an exception. It deals with the performing arts of one particular state of India, that of Kerala. This is because Kerala has a long and uninterrupted theatrical tradition, which gives an exceptional opportunity to observe how archaic rituals, Natyashastra-related “classical” forms and more popular forms have evolved, and have further been transformed into new forms.” /=/

Arrival of Western Spoken Theater in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Even as early as the 18th century, visiting Western theatre groups toured India to entertain Western colonial administrators and their families. Furthermore, Western plays, particularly those of Shakespeare, were staged by Indian Western-educated students and amateur groups in various university halls in Colcata (Calkutta) and other colonial centres. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Western spoken drama, with its proscenium-type theatre hall, was, however, brought to India by a Russian adventurer, linguist, and musician, Gerasim Lebedev (1749–1817). He joined a British military band and ended up in India, first in Chennai (Madras) in 1785 and finally in Colcata. There he established his theatre house specialising in Western dramas in the Bengali language. The group consisted of only local actors and actresses. The opening of his theatre in 1795 has later been regarded as the moment of the birth of “modern” theatre in India. However, Lebedev’s sympathy towards Indians annoyed the British colonial administrators. Soon two envious British men burnt down his theatre and in 1797 Lebedev was expelled from India. /=/

“As can be seen in the case of Lebedev and his Bengali Theatre, the arrival of Western spoken drama in India was already overshadowed by political issues. The first spoken drama in the Bengali language, written by an Indian writer, continued this line. It was Kulin Kulasarvasva by Pandit Ramnarayan Tarkaratnan. Although it was not aimed at criticising the British, it nonetheless criticised a certain Indian caste.’ /=/

Modern Western-Style Theater in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ The gradual birth of Indian nationalism, first among the Western-educated Bengali intellectuals, also gave birth to dramas that directly criticised colonial rule. The premiere of Nil Darpa by Dinabadhu Mitra in 1860 created a controversy and a sensation, as it revealed the repressed Indians’ feelings. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/] “Gradually, spoken drama spread among the urban, university-trained, Western-educated classes around India, and dramas were written in many Indian languages. The basic aesthetics of these productions reflected the period’s Western, realistic, even naturalistic, trends. A touch of melodrama came from the growing Indian film industry, which employed hundreds of actors using the melodramatic, even expressionist style of acting. This style, on the other hand, was deeply influenced by the urban, Western-influenced Parsi theatre of Bombay. /=/

Vijay Tendulkar is regarded as India’s greatest living playing. His most famous and influential work, “Sakharam Binder”, was banned in 1974. It is about a man who takes in several women who would otherwise be homeless and murdered and talks about how open minded he is while he rules over the women like a tyrant. Tendulkar is know as a fearless social critic. Effigies of him were hung after he lashed out against leader of Gujarat state, where more than 1,000 were killed in riots in 2002.

Bombay Dreams”, a Bollywood-style musical, was a hit in the West End of London. It is a story about a young man from the slums who becomes a film star. Some of the dialogue and lyrics leaves something to be desired but the music by A. R Rahman is quite original and uplifting. About half the songs are originals for the show and the other half are hits from Rahman’s Bollywood scores. It was produced by Andre Lloyd Webber.

“A Passage to India” was adapted to the stage in the 1950s and brought back again in the 2000s.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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