The Evolution of Indian Theatre
- February 24, 2021
By Mehar Dhillon
A familiar definition of theatre is that it is a deliberate performance created by live actors and intended for a live audience, typically making use of scripted language. It initially began around the 15th century BCE, as a way to aid ritualistic practices. Evidence of this is present in Vedic texts, as dramas were enacted during Yajna ceremonies. However, the origins of Indian Theatre, to date, are the subject of dispute and debate. Though, it is widely believed that the art form finds its origins in Sanskrit drama and the works of Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudraka, Vishakhadatta, Bhavabhutti and Harsha. Sanskrit drama’s golden period began in the 2nd century BCE and its end in the 10th century CE was marked by several foreign invasions and rulers that banned this art form, thus causing its decline. The essence of Sanskrit theatre, however, continued to live on in the southern part of India, especially in the form of Koodiyattam.
Following the decline of Sanskrit theatre, folk theatre emerged in the 15th century AD. We had the Jatra in Bengal and Orissa, Bhavai in Gujarat, Nautanki in Uttar Pradesh, Tamasha in Maharashtra, Ankiya Naat in Assam and Yakshagana in Karnataka.
Radical changes in Indian theatre took place in the 17th century AD with the arrival of Britishers in India. The East India Company’s presence in Calcutta had a dramatic effect on Indian theatre and plays. They brought with them their own dramas and introduced ways through which theatre’s production value could be dramatically increased, such as the use of intricate sets and special costumes. Theatre groups took to adapting the works of Shakespeare, Brecht and Lessing for the entertainment of the growing urban and working classes. The effects of industrialization brought about a rise in urban entertainment and people flocked from all over to view these performances in Calcutta. This allowed for the Parsi theatre, a term used to describe an influential theatre tradition presented by Parsis, to flourish during this time. It employed captivating music, dance and drama in a very theatrical manner, making the viewing experience a very enriching one. A new method of performing plays surfaced in Maharashtra. Kathakars and kirtankars began singing certain parts of the story and dialogue in an attempt to enhance the performance and succeeded greatly. Annasaheb Kirloskar was a pioneer of this field, being the first musical dramatist. This era of musicals in Maharashtra was known as the Gandharva period.