The Indian theatre has a tradition going back to at least 5000 years.
The earliest book on dramaturgy anywhere in the world was written in India. It was called Natya Shastra, i.e., the grammar or the holy book of theatre by Bharat Muni. Its time has been placed between 2000 BCE to 4th Century CE.
Theatre in India started as a narrative form, i.e., reciting, singing and dancing becoming integral elements of the theatre. This emphasis on narrative elements made our theatre essentially theatrical right from the beginning.
That is why the theatre in India has encompassed all the other forms of literature and fine arts into its physical presentation: Literature, Mime, Music, Dance, Movement, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture – all mixed into one and being called ‘Natya’ or Theatre in English.
Classical Sanskrit Theatre
The earliest form of the theatre of India was the Sanskrit theatre. It began after the development of Greek and Roman theatre and before the development of theatre in other parts of Asia.
It emerged sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE and flourished between the 1st century CE and the 10th, which was a period of relative peace in the history of India during which hundreds of plays were written.
In ancient India, plays were generally of two types:
Lokadharmi: realistic depictions of daily life & human behaviour on the stage and the natural presentation of objects
Natyadharmi: There were conventional play through the use of stylized gestures and symbolism and was considered more artistic than realistic.
Famous Sanskrit Playwrights
One of the earliest plays written was Sariputraprakarana by Asvaghosa, who was part of Kanishka’s court from 78 A.D. to 144 A.D.
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. Mricchakatika 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 and a heroine, 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, 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 CE, 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 Uttararama-charita and Mahavira-charita, Visakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa are some of the outstanding Sanskrit plays.
Types of Sanskrit Plays
In classical Sanskrit tradition, plays were categorized into ten types – Nataka, Prakarna, Anka, Vyayoga, Bhana, Samvakara, Vithi, Prahasana, Dima and Ithamgra.
The Natyashastra describes only of these – the Nataka and Prakarna.
Swapanavasavadatta, Uttaramcharitra and Shakuntala fall into the category of the Nataka.
The plays range between five and seven acts. Plays falling into the category of Prakarna narrate stories that were invented by their authors.
Elements of Sanskrit Play
Sanskrit plays followed an almost ritualistic progression as described below:
Sanskrit plays commenced with number of pre-play rituals, also known purva-ranga in which music and dance were performed. Most of them were performed behind the curtain.
Following this, the Sutradhara (the director), along with his assistants 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 leading actress was summoned and opened the play with a prologue which announced the time and place of the play and introduced the playwright.
Decline of Sanskrit Theatre
The reasons for the decline of Sanskrit theatre include:
With Sanskrit playwrights began to diverge towards poetry, the lyrical writings started gaining popularity over the dramatic works
The rigid orthodoxy restricted the creative space of new playwrights who had to turn to toher forms.
It being confined to religious sphere also contributed to its decline.
With invasion of Muslim rulers, the Sanskrit theatre took the back seat.
Indian Folk Theatre
Folk theatre in India has a rich legacy. In the ancient Vedic culture and even in Buddhist literature folk theatre first made its presence felt as an art form to illustrate the unedited realities of life. However, it is only in the medieval period folk theatre gradually became an integral part of Indian drama.
Historically folk theatre in India did emerge back in the 15th or 16th century as illustrations from puranas, eposes, historical epics, myths and biographies of the celestial heroes.
Folk theatre boasts the rich history of Indian folk culture that dates back to the age-old antiquity.
Folk theatre in India is mainly narrative in its form. Folk theatre in India still has retained its age old narrative form while echoing a highly dramatic narrative style.
Every state in India has its own distinctive forms of folk theatre. Indian folk theatre with its sheer vibrancy since the age-old days has reached out to all.
Artistically, folk theatre in India eloquently exemplified the “nine rasas”of the Indian drama. Some of the folk theatres even depicted the true aura of the classical theatres amidst its artistry.
Elaborate make ups, masks, chorus, loud music and folk dance are indeed the hallmark of the Indian folk theatre.
With its sheer verve therefore Indian folk theatre is just not a theatre form but is a lot more. It unfurls the saga of the voyage of Indian drama from the eposes to the modish theatre pattern.
Indian folk theatre can be broadly classified into three categories as follows:
Theatre of Entertainment
South Indian Theatre
Theatres of Northern India
Traditional theatre form of Kashmir. A unique combination of dance, music and acting.
Biting satire, wit and parody characterize the form.
Music is provided with surnai, nagaara and dhol.
The actors of Bhand Pather are mainly from the farming community and the impact of their way of living, ideals and sensitivity in the drama is discernible.
Swang means impersonation.
Originally it was mainly music-based. Gradually, prose too, played its role in the dialogues.
It is popular Haryana and western UP.
The softness of emotions, accomplishment of rasa along with the development of character can be seen.
The two important styles of Swang are from Rohtak and Haathras. In the style belonging to Rohtak, the language used is Haryanvi (Bangru) and in Haathras, it is Brajbhasha.
Associated with Uttar Pradesh.
The most popular centres of this traditional theatre form are Kanpur, Lucknow and Haathras
The meters used in the verses are: Doha, Chaubola, Chhappai, Behar-e-tabeel.
There was a time when only men acted in Nautanki but nowadays, women have also started taking part in the performances.
Among those remembered with reverence is Gulab Bai of Kanpur. She gave a new dimension to this old theatre form.
Theatre form of Uttar Pradesh.
It is based exclusively on Lord Krishna legends.
It is believed that Nand Das wrote the initial plays based on the life of Krishna.
The dialogues in prose combined beautifully with songs and scenes from Krishna’s pranks.
Traditional theatre form of Madhya Pradesh.
The term Maach is used for the stage itself as also for the play.
In this theatre form songs are given prominence in between the dialogues.
The term for dialogue in this form is bol and rhyme in narration is termed vanag. The tunes of this theatre form are known as rangat.
Ramman in Uttarkhand.
It is a multiform cultural event combining theatre, music, historical reconstructions, and traditional oral and written tales.
It is celebrated every year in Baisakh month (april) in the courtyard of the temple of Bhumiyal Devta situated in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand.
Mask dance performed exclusively by the Bhandaris (Ksatriya caste).
Included in the UNESCO Representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Ramlila is generally performed during the festival Dussehra in Uttar Pradesh.
Ramlila is celebrated for ten days that ends on Dussehra festival.
This festival is celebrated for the victory of goodness represented by Lord Rama over Ravana representing evil forces.
At the time of the performance of the Ramlila, the Ramayana is constantly recited with its verses accompanied by dance and pleasant music.
It is an amazing mixture of dance, music, mime, Abhinaya and poetry that is represented in front of enthusiastic and religious audiences.
It is folk theatre of Himachal Pradesh.
It is open air folk theatre form, which is most popular in the Shimla, Solan and Sirmour districts of Himachal Pradesh.
Being entertaining in nature, Kariyala is based mostly on social satire. Depicting all shades of humour, this art form presents sharp and pungent satires about the bureaucracy and social issues very boldly.
Theatres of Eastern India
Ankia Naats are a class of one act plays performed in Assam.
The invention of the Ankia Naat is usually attributed to the medieval saint and social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva.
A particular presentation of an Ankia Naat is called a Bhaona. The plays are usually combine live instruments and singers, dance and elaborate costumes in production.
The Sutradhara of an Ankiya Nat plays an important role, since he recites slokas, sings dances and explains every act of the play in prose.
It is a traditional folk dance drama from the Assam region of India.
Ojapali is believed to have evolved from Kathakata tradition and is performed in a group.
The group member consisted of an Oja, who lead the performance and four or five palies, who supplements the performance with continuous rhythm by playing cymbal.
Many beliefs that Shankardeva also takes the inspiration from Ojapali to create his Ankiya Bhaona.
Muscial plays performed at fairs in honour of gods, or religious rituals and ceremonies.
This form was born and nurtured in Bengal.
Krishna Jatra became popular due to Chaitanya’s influence. Later, however, worldly love stories too, found a place in Jatra.
The earlier form of Jatra has been musical. Dialogues were added at later stage.
The actors themselves describe the change of scene, the place of action, etc.
It is the folk theatre of the state of Bihar.
Bidesiya is the story of a man who has to leave behind his village and family to seek a job.
Bhikhari Thakur is the founder of this art form.
It is primarily musical theatre, with most of the exchanges taking place through music based on existing Bhojpuri folk songs and tunes.
Bidesiya continues to be popular in Bihari villages, as its theme remains relevant, reflecting a reality of rural life where men have to migrate to the cities to earn their livelihood, leaving their families behind.
‘Prahalad Natak is a folk theatre originated in Ganjam district of Odisha.
Special enactments called ‘Danda’ make this folk art form hard task for the new learners.
Prahlada Nataka has only one play in its repertoire, the plot based on the myth of Narasimha, Vishnu’s manlion avatar.
Both vocal and instrumental music at appropriate points intensify the impact. Dialogue winged with music takes the emotive intent farther than realistic delivery.
Prahlada Nataka draws heavily upon traditional Odissi music.
Suanga is a musical folk theatre whose literal meaning is masque or farce .
This is most popular in coastal Odisha till the early part of the twentieth century.
The technique of Suanga also informs the spectacular Prahlada Nataka.
Theatres of Western India
Traditional theatre form of Gujarat.
The centers of this form are Kutch and Kathiawar
The instruments used in Bhavai are: bhungal, tabla, flute, pakhaawaj, rabaab, sarangi, anjeera, etc.
In Bhavai, there is a rare synthesis of devotional and romantic sentiments.
Traditional folk theatre form of Maharashtra.
It has evolved from the folk forms such as Gondhal, Jagran and Kirtan.
Unlike other theatre forms, in Tamaasha the female actress is the chief exponent of dance movements in the play. She is known as Murki.
Classical music, footwork at lightning-speed, and vivid gestures make it possible to portray all the emotions through dance.
Theatres of Southern India
It is the most developed theatre form of the Konkan and Goa regions.
The performers personify the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu – the god of preservation and creativity.
The ten incarnations are Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narsimha (lion-man), Vaman (dwarf), Parashuram, Rama, Krishna (or Balram), Buddha and Kalki.
Apart from stylized make-up, the Dashavatar performers wear masks of wood and papier mache.
It is the flok theatre of Kerala.
Came into existence in the middle of 17th century CE under the patronage of King Manavada of Calicut.
Krishnattam is a cycle of eight plays performed for eight consecutive days.
The plays are Avataram, Kaliamandana, Rasa krida, kamasavadha, Swayamvaram, Bana Yudham, Vivida Vadham, and Swargarohana.
The episodes are based on the theme of Lord Krishna – his birth, childhood pranks and various deeds depicting victory of good over evil.
It is the traditional folk theatre form of Kerala.
It is celebrated in the month of Vrischikam (November-December).
It is usually performed only in the Kali temples of Kerala, as an oblation to the Goddess.
It depicts the triumph of goddess Bhadrakali over the asura Darika.
The seven characters in Mudiyettu: Shiva, Narada, Darika, Danavendra, Bhadrakali, Kooli and Koimbidar (Nandikeshvara) are all heavily made-up.
It is a traditional and extremely popular folk theatre form of Kerala.
The word ‘Theyyam’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Daivam’ meaning God. Hence it is called God’s dance.
Theyyam is performed by various castes to appease and worship spirits of ancestors, folk heroes.
One of the distinguishing features of Theyyam is the colourful costume and awe-inspiring headgears (mudi) nearly 5 to 6 feet high made of arecanut splices, bamboos , leaf sheaths of arecanut and wooden planks and dyed into different strong colours using turmeric, wax and arac.
It is one of the oldest traditional theatre forms of Kerala and is based on Sanskrit theatre traditions.
The characters of this theatre form are: Chakyaar or actor, Naambiyaar, the instrumentalists and Naangyaar, those taking on women’s roles.
The Sutradhar or narrator and the Vidushak or jesters are the protagonists.
It is the Vidushak alone who delivers the dialogues.
Emphasis on hand gestures and eye movements makes this dance and theatre form unique.
It is officially recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
It is the traditional theatre form of Karnataka.
It is based on mythological stories and Puranas.
The most popular episodes are from the Mahabharata i.e. Draupadi swayamvar, Subhadra vivah, Abhimanyu vadh, Karna-Arjun yuddh and from Ramayana i.e. Raajyaabhishek, Lav-kush Yuddh, Baali-Sugreeva yuddha and Panchavati.
It is the most popular form of folk drama of Tamil Nadu
Literally means “street play”.
It is mostly performed at the time of annual temple festivals of Mariamman (Rain goddess) to achieve rich harvest.
At the core of the extensive repertoire of Therukoothu, there is a cycle of eight plays based on the life of Draupadi
Kattiakaran, the Sutradhara of the Therukoothu performance, gives the gist of the play to the audience and Komali entertains the audience with his buffoonery.
A storytelling technique used in villages of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The troupe consists of one main performer and two co-performers.
It is a narrative entertainment that consists of prayers, solo drama, dance, songs, poems and jokes.
The topic will be either a Hindu mythological story or a contemporary social problem.
Harikatha, also known as Katha Kalakshepa, is a variant which narrates tales of Lord Krishna, other Gods and saints.
In Telugu, ‘Veedhi’ means ‘street or an open place’. Since the plays on Bhagavan were performed in an open place, therefore, they were called Veedhi Natakam.
The plays were performed by Bhagathas, who were devotees of Bhagwan, so they were sometimes also referred as Veedhi Bhagavathams. It is the most popular folk theatre form of Andhra Pradesh.