Street fairs and performers are common in India. In some national elections, where politicians have been limited by how much money they could spend on their campaigns, many turned to street theater to win supporters and get out the vote.

Street theater and village theater in India features impromptu skits used for political propaganda and to convey social and educational messages. Political street theaters satirizes corruption scandals with original songs, stinging jokes and clever choreography. Communists often employ street theater. One group was so influential its founder was murdered and 10,000 people showed up for his funeral.

The most well know traveling village theater groups are made up of West Bengalis that roam through northeast India in the cool months from September to April. They are peripatetic thespians who travel from places to place in buses and trains with steel trunks filled their gear. They perform Bengali dramas interspersed with songs, stage fights and fireworks. Shows in the early 2000s, featured men dressed up like Osama bin Laden.

The groups are particularly well-received in villages that have little else going on. It is not unusual for audiences of more than 10,000 people to show. With each of them paying 30 rupees for tickets, the profits can add up. Large groups have their own tents and buses. Sometimes the performances, known as “jatras”, last all night.

Folk Theatre in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “It is not always easy to draw a clear borderline between folk (desi) and classical (margi) theatre in India. Both branches of theatre adapt stories from the Puranas, the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, old Sanskrit dramas, and legends. Folk theatre, however, is more flexible in character, and so are modern love stories, and even the plots of popular movies have found their way into its repertoire. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Folk theatre in India is by no means always “vulgar “or “low” in its style. Sometimes intricate classical music is employed, while the theatre director or master of ceremonies, so common in many folk styles, is clearly reminiscent of similar characters in the Sanskrit dramas. Common to both classical and folk theatre are also the stage preliminaries, including prayers and other ritual elements. /=/

“In India there are, of course, numerous forms of folk theatre. One reason is the abundance of languages and local dialects, most of which have created their own types of folk theatre. Compared with classical forms, however, folk forms rely more on direct contact with the audience, and improvisation. Popular theatre must be entertaining and it must be brought near to the audience by relating it to current events etc. Although the themes may be religious, the plays, at the same time, may have humorous, or even frivolous, connotations. /=/

Describing pilgrimage theatre in India, Miettinen wrote: “Northern India has two great theatrical traditions intended to commemorate the avatars or incarnations of God Vishnu. They are raslila, which enacts the turning points of Lord Krishna’s life, and ramlila, which enacts the events of Prince Rama’s life. Both of them are closely connected to the North Indian bhakti movement. They are both performed by amateur actors, while pre-adolescent boys play the main roles. Thus the focus is neither on the artistry of the performance nor on the skills of the actors. The performances are, in fact, offerings and rituals. Raslila is rather small in scale, and was originally performed in temple courtyards, while ramlila may grow into a huge pageant covering one month and gathering together hundreds of thousands of ecstatically worshipping pilgrims.” /=/

Jatra, The Bengali Folk Theatre

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Jatra (to go in procession) is a form of folk theatre popular in Bengal, where it originated, and in the eastern states of Orissa and Bihar as well as in Bangladesh. It is a very living and vivid form of music theatre and draws its plots from several sources, such as Hindu mythology, popular legends, and even current events. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

There are several theories about the birth of jatra. It seems that it has its roots in the 15th century bhakti-related dance processions, which culminated in the temple courtyards. It gained wide popularity in the 18th century. During the colonial period, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was used to convey political messages. /=/

“Many writers have gained fame by writing texts for jatra. The themes are mostly derived from Hindu mythology and recount stories about Rama, Shiva or Kali. Later, historical romances and love stories were also adapted for the jatra stage. The scripts originally included songs and verse, while the prose dialogue was mainly improvised. Nowadays a jatra play lasts about four hours. It consists of dialogue and the songs, which form a very important element of the whole. Singing is rather complex, since the music combines classical ragas, semi-classical melodies and folk tunes; the last are often related to minor characters in the play. /=/

“The instruments used in the orchestra include two kinds of drums, flutes, a violin, and cymbals. The actors themselves usually sing. However, one speciality of jatra is a kind of “double singing”. It means that the actor starts the song but soon a singer sitting among the orchestra either continues the song or supports the actor’s singing. /=/

“Jatra is often performed outdoors on a square platform from which a gangway leads through the audience to the dressing room. The gangway also serves as an acting area when needed. The stage is usually empty. One chair may serve several purposes; it may be a throne, a mountain, a chariot etc. The few props needed are brought and taken away by stage assistants. Jatra has gone through several changes during its history. Men originally played the female roles too, but now mixed casts are popular. Due to the influence of movies the acting style aims at realism.The actors may come from different castes and professions. Many popular jatra actors have become wealthy stars. /=/

Bengali Village Theater Performance

Describing a Bengali group performing a play about Osama bin Laden in a village with 5,000 people, Phil Reeve wrote in the Independent, “The scene of the jatra was marked by what looked like a miniature version of the Millennium Dome. A vast tent made of jute and held up by poles, which protruded through the roof like cocktail sticks, had been erected on the dust-covered village football pitch. Every now and then, garishly-colored posters...illuminated the mud walls of the village.” [Source: Phil Reeve, The Independent, February 22, 2003 ~]

“The crowds gathered outside the tent for the performance...Some of the audience had walked through the countryside for several miles to be there...The show finally began at 11pm. Some 1,500 people, many of them women, had gathered in the tent...The audience surrounded a stage that looked much like a boxing ring, but with a cluster of microphones, hanging down from the canopy above it. Around the edge sat musicians...who began playing and did not stop for the following three hours.” ~

”The crowd watched in silence as the story unfolded. Scene by scene, they saw the fall of the Twin Towers, the ensuing assault on Afghanistan, the ousting of the Taliban and the escape of bin Laden, all interspersed with occasional songs and several hair-raising fierce explosions meant to denote gun fire...The upper echelon of the U.S. government were represented by...actors dressed in a clownishly ill-fitting jackets... The soldiers of the Northern Alliance were portrayed as grotesques: snarling beast who raped women and....urinated in the mouths of Taliban captives. Bin Laden and his small band of beared followers—though unpleasant and clearly fanatical—seemed relatively tame.” ~

Therukoothu, Street Theatre of Tamilnadu

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Thertukoothu (street theatre) is, as its name indicates, a popular form of theatre performed in the streets. It is getting rare and it is mainly practised in the poor areas of Chennai (formerly Madras). This operatic form is slightly influenced by the kathakali of Kerala. Therukoothu is, however, performed by amateur actors, who make a small financial contribution to the troupe in order to be able to participate in the performance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The stories are derived from the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana. Songs predominate, while much of the dialogue is improvised. The troupe consists of 15 to 20 actors, accompanied by a vocalist and the instruments of a small orchestra that include drums, pipes and cymbals. Most of the melodies are Karnatak (classical music of South India) ragas. An obligatory chanting section precedes the actual songs. /=/

“The performance is led, as in so many other Indian theatre genres, by a theatre director or a master of ceremonies, who in this style is called kattiakaram. He is present on the square acting area throughout the performance. The performance is preceded by obligatory ritual preliminaries including the veneration of God Ganesha in the form of an elephant-masked dancer. After that follow invocations to other gods. The play usually starts with a scene at the king’s court. The main characters are introduced from behind a hand-held curtain. Besides the leader of the troupe, another important character is kumali, the buffoon. The general acting style echoes the classical abhinaya mime, although, just like kathakali, hyper-realistic details, such as eating the entrails of the villain, are popular. /=/

“The fantastic costuming gives therukoothu its picturesque character. The upper body is covered with a jacket, while a knee-length skirt covers the lower body. Huge crowns, chest decorations and other ornaments are made of gilded wood and decorated with shining, coloured mirrors. Massive, wing-like shoulder decorations give the actors a kind of non-human, square shape. Bright colours dominate the make-up. Krishna’s face is green, while another character has bright blue make-up. The villains’ faces are covered with horrendous black and white three-dimensional dots. Some characters wear masks. /=/

Ramman, Religious Festival Theatre of the Himalayas

In 2009, Ramman, religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas, India was placed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “Every year in late April, the twin villages of Saloor-Dungra in the state of Uttarakhand (northern India) are marked by Ramman, a religious festival in honour of the tutelary god, Bhumiyal Devta, a local divinity whose temple houses most of the festivities. This event is made up of highly complex rituals: the recitation of a version of the epic of Rama and various legends, and the performance of songs and masked dances. The festival is organized by villagers, and each caste and occupational group has a distinct role. For example, youth and the elders perform, the Brahmans lead the prayers and perform the rituals, and the Bhandaris – representing locals of the Kshatriya caste – are alone entitled to wear one of the most sacred masks, that of the half-man, half-lion Hindu deity, Narasimha. [Source: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage]

The family that hosts Bhumiyal Devta during the year must adhere to a strict daily routine. Combining theatre, music, historical reconstructions, and traditional oral and written tales, the Ramman is a multiform cultural event that reflects the environmental, spiritual and cultural concept of the community, recounting its founding myths and strengthening its sense of self-worth. In order to ensure that it remains viable, the community’s priorities are to promote its transmission and to obtain its recognition beyond the geographical area in which it is practised.

The Ramman, religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas, India was placed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity because: 1) Ramman combines music, poetry, dance and crafts that form an expression of the religious and aesthetic experience of the community, celebrate the bonds between humanity, nature and the divinity, and give the community a sense of identity and belonging; 2) Inscription of the element on the Representative List would allow the efforts of the community and State to gain further momentum and boost the self-esteem of the tradition bearers, while contributing to the visibility and awareness of intangible cultural heritage at the local, national and international levels.

Storytelling in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “In India, as elsewhere in Asia, there are numerous forms of storytelling and puppet theatre traditions. Now, in the age of movies, TV and digital technology, many of them are in serious danger of extinction. Many of them live mainly in the village context. The storytelling tradition served, at least partly, as the starting point from which larger theatrical performances, based on the same oral material, later developed. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The process can roughly be outlined as follows:The starting point is the act of storytelling, i.e. the act of conveying the oral literary tradition. Gradually the storytellers started to employ different kinds of visual devices to illustrate their narration (panels, scroll paintings, shadow figures, puppets and, in some cases, even dolls). Storytelling was enriched by gesticulation, body movements, mime, dance, music etc. During this process the act of storytelling became more theatrical in character. /=/

India has several examples of theatrical traditions illustrating the different steps of the development. In Rajasthan, for example, there exists the phad tradition, in which the narrator, while telling his story, opens up a huge phad picture scroll on which the important scenes of his narrative are painted. The stories depict the life and deeds of Pabuji, a local heroic warrior god. Similar picture scroll traditions can also be found in Gujarat, Bengal and Bihar.” /=/

Balladeers today begin learning the art of storytelling, dancing singing and playing the 19-stringed “ravanhatta” at the age of ten or eleven. By the age of about 15 they become full-fledged “bhopas”, balladeers and to tell and act out a 14th century story about a Rajput chief named Pabuji. The story is traditional performed at night in front of a huge illustrated scroll and it can take up to a week to relate. [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]

Puppet Theatre in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The next step in the development of storytelling was shadow theatre, in which the figures of the ancient picture panels and scrolls are, in a way, cut out into flat shadow puppets. The themes of shadow theatre in India deal mostly with the Puranas and the great epics, the Mahbharata and the Ramayana.Tolpavakoothu shadow theatre is described below. Other shadow theatre genres can be found in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and in Orissa. The sizes of the puppets vary from some ten centimetres to one metre. Usually at least one hand of the puppets can be moved by a rod. Stylistically the puppets are linked to the traditional visual arts of their respective regions. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The forms of three-dimensional puppet theatre in India include rod puppets (operated from below with rods), marionettes (operated from above with strings), and glow puppets (operated with a hand inside the puppet). Puppet theatre usually imitates, in its repertoire, style, dramaturgy, and movements, the live theatre forms of the respective areas. Kerala’s phavakathakali glow puppet theatre, which imitates kathakali, is described below. Other forms of puppetry can be found in Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and West Bengal. /=/

The life or an India puppeteer is not easy. One puppeteer living in the entertainers camp at Shadipur Depot in Delhi told Smithsonian magazine: "Like me and others here, like their fathers and forefather before them, they live by their arts and skills. It isn't easy—not anymore. I, Bala Bhatt, should know; for I was one of the first to come here on the run, pitch my tent and make this home...But we wouldn't have been able to do this if we hadn't fought hard to save our puppets. If we lost our nerve, you'd have found us in the poorhouse." Wives of the puppeteers spend their time cooking meals on open fires, fetching water, looking after the children and embroidering fancy clothes for the marionettes. [Source: Veenu Sandal, Smithsonian]

Kathpuli Marionette Theatre of Rajasthan

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “One of the most famous of Indian puppet theatre genres is the kathpuli marionette theatre of Rajasthan. In older times, when courts and aristocrats acted as protectors of the arts, local, large epic stories could be staged as kathpuli plays. There exists even a small theatre house for marionette theatre in a palace in Jaipur. Nowadays kathpuli performances consisting of short, entertaining stock numbers are more popular. They include, for example, a dance scene imitating kathak dance, the tricks of a Bengali fakir, a snake charmer, and a juggler’s dance. Stylistically the kathpuli marionettes reflect the style of the Rajput paintings of Rajasthan. The puppets’ faces are carved of wood and painted, while their bodies are stuffed with cotton. Their dresses meticulously follow the conventions of older times.” [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

Some marionettes are 50 years old and dressed in splendid gold-inlaid costumes. Many are made in Rajasthan. The puppeteers can narrate 50 stories and their cast of marionettes includes court dancers, musician, horses stunt riders and other folk heros who come to life with the "jerk of their fingers and the beat of a drum."

Video: “Kathputli: The Art of Rajasthani Puppeteers, 1988, color, video, produced by the Smithsonian Institution of Folklife Programs. The video explores the unique and colorful world of kathputli puppet theater as it is maintained and performed by itinerant families in Rajasthan, India. Puppeteers demonstrate the construction and manipulation of the wood-and-string creations used in this ancient art form. (28 min.) Distributor: Pennsylvania State University, MTSS, University Libraries, 1127 Fox Hill Road, University Park, PA 16803, (800) 826–0132

Payakathakali, Kerala Kathakali-Style Puppet Plays

Pava Kathakali is a form of puppetry modeled after kathakali, the dance-drama-martial-arts of Kerala. It is traditionally performed in front of small, intimate audiences. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Pavakathakali is a mini kathakali adapted for glow puppets. It evolved in the 18th century when kathakali became popular in the Palghat region, which already had its own glow puppet tradition. The performers belong to the Telugu-speaking population, although the language of the performances is local Malayalam. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Nowadays the puppets are about half a metre high. Their faces, headgear, hands and feet are carved from wood and painted according to kathakali practice. A mini version of the kathakali costume, made of wool and cotton, form the body of the puppet, inside which the puppeteer puts his hand. The performance is accompanied by musicians, just as in real kathakali. All the performers sit on a small, elevated platform facing a mini-sized oil lamp. All in all, a pavakathakali performance requires at least six performers, including the musicians. /=/

“In the mid-20th century pavakathakali was a declining art form, but recently there have been attempts to revive it. It has also been performed in international puppet theatre festivals outside India. Now the trend is to make the puppets, in their tiniest details, resemble the actual kathakali actors.” /=/

Tolpavakoothu, The Ramayana of Shadows

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Tolpavakoothu (tol, leather; pava, puppet; koothu, play) is a shadow theatre tradition on a grand scale performed for Goddess Devi in the temples of Central Kerala. The performance may take three weeks to be fully executed. The puppets, cut from softened deerskin, are some 20–30 centimetres high, and they are operated behind a wide screen by several puppeteers. The language of the performance is mainly Tamil. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The text used in tolpavakoothu is based on the famous Tamil version of the Ramayana, the Kambaramayana. It is believed that the Kambaramayana was chosen as the text of the tolpavakoothu tradition some 800 years ago. The text is in Tamil, although some lines in Sanskrit have been added. The actual performance also allows improvisation. The ancient palm leaf manuscripts of the script are treasured by tolpavakoothu families. At the moment there are only some 30 tolpavakoothu artists left in Kerala. Tolpavakoothu forms an integral part of the annual festivals dedicated to Goddess Devi. It is performed in the temple precincts in permanent stage structures (koothu madam). The performance is intended to propitiate the Goddess and the performance is regarded as a form of worship. /=/

“Long, complicated rituals precede the actual play. The sacred flame is carried from the temple sanctum in order to light an oil lamp on the stage. The screen cloth is hung on the stage and 21 oil lamps are lit from the sacred flame. Drumming announces that the performance is about to begin. It is followed by prayers and the sanctifying of the stage, after which a shadow figure of the elephant-headed God Ganesha is placed on the screen. Finally the actual play starts. In older times the entire story of the Ramayana, from Rama’s birth to his coronation, was shown during 41 nights. Now selected scenes form a series of performances, lasting some 20 days.” /=/

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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