Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Contemporary Indian Theatre: An Overview

Sova Sen in Nabanna, 1944

Sova Sen in Nabanna, 1944

Theatre is an ancient aesthetic practice in India. Surviving play texts and treatises all suggest that theatre existed in the Indian subcontinent from the dawn of civilization. According to the Natyashastra (compiled probably between 2000 BCE and 2nd century CE) of Bharata, an exhaustive treatise on the art of performance, drama was a gift from the gods to the humans. The treatise evinces how sophisticated ancient Indian theatre must have been. The golden period of Indian theatre is said to have lasted until the 5th century, soon after which the flow of Sanskrit drama wanes. But even while dramatic literature receded, performance traditions thrived through dancers, musicians, singers, and storytellers, just as the basic aesthetics of Bharata survived, morphed into various variants, through the traditional folk and classical forms.

Modern Indian theatre, as we know it today, has a legacy that is influenced by and draws inspiration from various sources. Modern theatre, or historically, what can be clearly identified as the Western proscenium style of theatre, was not introduced in India before the late eighteenth century at time of the consolidation of the British Empire in various parts of India. It was through the British that Western proscenium style theatre reached Indian shores. However, the first indigenous performance with native actors happened in 1795 when a Russian violinist by the name of Herasim Stepanovich Lebedeff staged a Hindi and Bengali mixed-language version of a short play by Paul Jodrell. Although a significant event on its own right, it did not really galvanize a movement as such but planted its seeds. In the 1830s, under the patronage of the rich native families, we had the first Bengali-language theatre, which was outside the traditional format of indigenous folk performance genres. However, folk traditions, folk theatre and various other performative genres, indigenous to the soil have been available all through, if not an unbroken, at least as a fractured tradition, and there is of course the venerable tradition of the Sanskrit classical theatre that dates back far deeper in time. In the mean time, the British had established a small professional theatre outfit in Calcutta and it was here that for the first time an Indian actor, Baishnab Charan Auddy, played Othello in 1848. He was the second person of color in recorded history, after Ira Aldridge in the US, ever to play Shakespeare’s tragic Moor.