The History Of Indian Theatre

by Annie Saxena on Feb 09, 2023

“Theatre is a voyage into the archives of the human imagination.”
– Natasha Tsakos

Indian theatre dates back around 5000 years. The earliest form of Indian theatre was Sanskrit theatre that emerged sometime around the 2nd century BC. It then flourished between the 1st and 11th centuries. Soon after, due to the Islamic conquests, theatre was banned and forbidden. Later, village theatre was encouraged across the subcontinent in an attempt to reassert indigenous values and ideas, developing in a large number of regional languages from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Modern Indian theatre developed during the period of British rule. Indian theatre has three specific periods: the classical period, the traditional period, and the modern period.

In early forms, theatre performances were often narrative and included recitation, singing, and dancing. The earliest contribution to the Indian theatre came from Bharata Muni, who wrote the 36 books of the Natyashastra. The Natyashastra describes a theory of theatrical performance based on style and motion. The classical period is dominated by the Natyashastra and Sanskrit dramas.

Since plays were based on stories the audience already knew like histories, folk legends, and epics, physical elements and movement were heavily incorporated into the dialogue and performance. Kalidasa is known as the pre-eminent Sanskrit playwright, and is known as the Indian Shakespeare. Some of his best work includes Malavikagnimitra, Vikramorvashiya, and Abhijnanashakuntala, that depict stories of royalty and myth in old-world India.

Bhasa is the oldest Sanskrit dramatist to give us complete plays, and the famous ancient Indian epic poem, the ‘Mahabharata’. In addition, Shudraka was a fifth or sixth century playwright known for a Sanskrit comedy, called Mricchakatika . An adaptation of this play was produced in New York in 1924 and made into a movie entitled Utsav in 1984.

The traditional period of Indian theatre introduced regional languages and improvisation. The plays were presented verbally rather than using written scripts. In this period, traditions and stories were passed down orally, and the theatre reflected this idea. Narrative recitation and singing were also included in the drama of the traditional period. The modern period, on the other hand is marked by the influence of Western theatre and the proscenium stage.

A proscenium stage is designed with an arch separating the stage from the audience, and the spectators watch the play’s action as if through a picture frame. With the British in India, Western theatre styles including realism and life of the common man were added to the Indian folklore theatre.

The pioneer of modern playwrite , Rabindranath Tagore wrote plays noted for their exploration that questioned nationalism, identity, spiritualism and material greed. His famous Bengali plays include Chitra (Chitrangada, 1892), The King of the Dark Chamber (Raja, 1910), The Post Office (Dakghar, 1913), and Red Oleander (Raktakarabi, 1924).

The rich chronicle of Indian theatre unveils the verity that theatre in India was always an important part of the rich Indian culture and tradition and is still the same. In recent times, Indian theatre has acquired a tinge of contemporary attribute in order to befit the modish requirement of the Indian society.