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Emerging Trends in Indian English Theatre

Emerging Trends in Indian English Theatre

Drama is an important cultural performance of a society. Thus, the study of drama would enable to reconstruct the history, understand the society and comprehend its identity. When we consider Indian drama, obviously we are reminded of ancient drama. Let us now do a critical scrutiny of the journey of Indian drama from ancient times to modern times.

The Natyashastra

Drama is an important cultural performance of a society. Thus, the study of drama would enable to reconstruct the history, understand the society and comprehend its identity. When we consider Indian drama, obviously we are reminded of ancient drama. Let us now do a critical scrutiny of the journey of Indian drama from ancient times to modern times. Bharata’s Natyashastra in Sanskrit is the most pioneering work on Indian dance & drama. According to legend, when the world passed from Golden Age to Silver Age, people started getting addicted to sensual pleasures, jealousy, anger, and desire. Then Gods and demons inhabited the whole world. At that moment, Lord Indra requested God Brahma:

Please give us something which would not only teach us but be pleasing both to eyes and ears. God Brahma gave the pious idea of Natya Veda after meditation. He combined the essence of Natya Veda out of the four Vedas: dance from the Rig Veda, song from the Sama Veda, mimicry from Yajur Veda and passion from Atharva V

eda. It follows that only drama uses the eight basic emotions of love, joy, anger, sadness, pride, fear, aversion and wonder. Bharata Muni’s own concept of dramatic theory can be quoted in the sixth chapter of Natyashastra:

The combination called Natya is a mixture of rasas, bhavas, abhinayas, dharmics, vrittis, provrittis, siddhis, avaras, instruments, song and theatre-house. The selection of the plot (itivritta) is a significant aspect of a drama. In chapter XXI entitled Sandhyanga Vikalpa, Bharata mentions all the details of the plot and its development. Among many other disciplinary guidelines, selection of characters is a significant one. In chapter XXXIV in Natyashastra types of characters are discussed. The starting of a performance with a prayer, usage of sutradhara, who would narrate the story and many more instructions of Natyashastra exhibit the culture of those days and also the social structure of ancient times.

The Modern Theatre Movement

The Indian drama in English had to take its birth and grow in its own pace. The First Parsi Baronet, perhaps the earliest Indo-Anglican verse-play, was written by C. S. Nazir in 1866. Next we find a phase wherein plays in English like The Bombay Palkheewala and Bengali Baboo entertained some Hindu weddings and similar ceremonies of other religions. But in all such phases, the Indian drama in English could not face the challenge put forth by plays in vernaculars such as Marathi and Bengali. The theatre movement in Bengal had started with the presentation of Bengali plays adapted first from English and then from Sanskrit; but in this early period they could boast of only one play in English, i.e., Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Is This Called Civilization? (1871).

A question that triggers our attention is, though Indians have had a well developed and well sophisticated theatre history why did the ancient drama fail to attract the Indians? The reasons may be:

Firstly, the immediate availability of a role model, and Secondly, the cultural changes already taking place in urban India. These two factors influenced the Indian English drama to follow the western drama mainly in the aspects of stage and setting.

Problem with the English Language

As to the acceptance of the English language, M.K. Naik observes: One major hurdle which the playwright in English is supposed to encounter is that of language. It is often said that we have so few actable English plays, because a dialogue in English between Indians will not sound convincing, except when the characters are drawn from an urban, sophisticated milieu, or actually Anglo Indians whose mother tongue is (supposed to be) English.

During all these decades, English had been used only by a minority of the people in the country. Many playwrights, except a few like Currimbhoy and Ezekiel were not well-acquainted with the spoken word which could check the artificiality in dialogues. It has been really a task for them to adjust the foreign tongue to Indian characters and culture in their plays. In social plays, even if the characters were carefully chosen, could it solve the problem? For it means that only those characters who are supposed to know English, should have a place in Indo-Anglican drama. In that case, there would be too much of limitations; much more so in the case of characters from epics, mythology and history. There are innumerable works on these themes in various Indian languages and it is absurd to expect that such characters should know these languages. For instance, to demand a certificate of qualification in Kannada from Tughlak would be as foolish as to expect knowledge of English from Julius Caesar. So what one could expect is the use of a language in keeping with the dignity and decorum of classical characters. Further, a character would be expected to use the spoken word of his or her level. A servant, for example, in King Duryodhana’s court cannot be expected to speak the high-flown language of Drona or even of Duryodhana.

Even the English vocabulary was problematic as some English words were found incomprehensive to convey certain concepts of Indian culture, such as dharma and sanyasa. Some playwrights like Kailasam tried to overcome this difficulty by using Sanskrit or other Indian words themselves in their original form. In this connection, it may not be out of place to think of the methods used by some writers like Raja Rao who would rather have translations of local idioms to convey the Indian shades of thought and thereby impart a natural colour to speech. Thus the language problem in Indo-Anglican drama deserves a special analysis.

1920s, 1960s and Beyond

In the 1920s, a new drama in almost all the Indian languages came to the fore; it was a drama largely influenced by prevailing movements like Marxism, psychoanalysis, symbolism and surrealism. In the 1960s, by suitable mixing of various styles and techniques from Sanskrit western theatre, the modern Indian theatre was given a new, versatile, and broader approach at every level of creativity. Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad have contributed to the modernization of the face of the Indian theatre. They have used legends, folklores, myths and history with splendid results.

Recently the country has given us some brilliant playwrights like Manjula Padmanabhan and Mahesh Dattani. Manjula Padmanabhan was the first Indian to earn international fame with her Harvest, a futuristic play that deals with the exploitation of the human body in the 21st century. Dattani is taken to be the true successor of Girish Karnad and responsible for the revolutionary progression of English drama. He keeps women at the centre of his dramatic world.

Traditional Elements in Modern Indian Drama

In almost all the traditional theatre forms, we find the presence of social criticism; for example, in tamasha and jatra plays. Even in forms like Rasleela and Ankia Nat, which are basically religion and temple-based theatre, we have the contemporary life, and social and secular values expressed through the vidushak (jester) or minor characters. Thus we find that the traditional theatre has a close relationship with our modern theatre.

Actor-Audience Relationship

The most striking factor of the traditional theatre is the relationship of the audience with the actors. All the forms are performed in the open-air theatre where one does not have a division between the stage and auditorium like that of modern proscenium. It provides with a number of devices like the entries and exits of the actors from the audience, addressing the audience during the action of the play, commenting upon a situation while the action is continuing on the stage. In such circumstances, the audience cannot sit back and relax but he/she is constantly involved and at the same time studying the situations on a conscious level. In this respect mention can be made of Brij Mohan Shah’s Trishanku, Gyandev Agnihotri’s Anushthan, Adya Rangacharya’s Suno Janmejaya and Evam Indrajit of Badal Sircar.


The traditional theatre is full of two styles of acting: The day- to- day realistic acting, and along with it, The highly stylized action through dance, music, masks and half-curtain. In a play like Hayavadana, we find the use of all the stylized elements of Yakhshagana like the use of half-curtain in order to treat the story in the fantasy level because the main plot is taken from early legends. In the same way, in Pahela Raja, a number of incidents have been presented with the help of half-curtains because, again, the play takes its plot from a mythical source.


It is true that right from the classical Indian tradition up to the traditional forms, the utmost emphasis has been on the actor as a result of the presentational form of the theatre. But in modern plays he has been treated like a part of the total production just as the other elements like scenic background, lighting and make-up. But with the impact of the traditional theatre, we find that the modern theatre is also going towards the prominence of the actor in order to put forward the ideas of the playwright and the interpretation of the director.


The success of a play is to be judged mainly on the stage. In modern times, mere imitation of the West, unless warranted could not make our modern plays stage-worthy. What Adya Rangacharya remarks about the modern Indian theatre in general may be particularly applied to Indo-Anglican drama: Unthinkingly we opened our theatre and bewitched by the [Western] breeze we forgot it and just walked over to the Western theatre… Like parentage, it [the classical Indian drama] lives in us even in these days. We may denounce our father, but we cannot empty ourselves of his blood in us.

Total Theatre

In its basic form and structure, the traditional theatre presents an interesting picture of a total theatre, i.e., a theatre where all the other performing arts like music, dance, mime and painting are also a part of the organic whole. Thus the modern theatre is again going back to the same concept of theatre as it used to be in the classical Indian tradition. In the context of all these elements, the use of traditional elements in modern Indian plays is justified. They take a continuous tradition forward in the exploration of new ideas and themes.

Negotiating the Ethical Crisis

The question of ethics has become extremely crucial with the advent of postmodern and post-colonial consciousness. The uneasy co-existence of the global and the local has made the issue of ethics extremely complicated and problematic. In this section, I have undertaken a comparative study of the ethical crises of various postcolonial subjects in the dramatic world of Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani. Leela Benare, the protagonist of Vijay Tendulkar’s Silence! The Court is in Sessioncan be best appreciated if we treat her as a subject signifying both freedom and subjugation, a subject who would act freely but whose freedom is shaped and limited by social and cultural structures. She can be compared to Sarita in Kamala and Jyoti in Kanyadaan. All three of them are educated women, strongly aware of their rights, individualistic in outlook, but they are also constrained by the forces of tradition which chain and hold them back. The issue of concern here is however, that this oppression and constraint is considered legitimate by these women, being steeped in patriarchal discourses themselves. The protagonist of Girish Karnad’s play Dreams of Tipu Sultan is also on the horns of an ethical dilemma. Tipu Sultan knew that the English were thriving in India due to their clever political machinations and their stronghold in trade. He wished the Indians wake up to this fact and instead of letting Indian resources open to exploitation by the British, be their own master and earn profits by trading Indian goods: This land is ours and it is rich, overflowing with goods the world hungers for, and we let foreigners come in and rob us of our wealth! Today the Indian princes are all comatose, wrapped in their opium dreams. But some day they’ll wake up and throw out the Europeans. . . . It’s them or us. . . . But though Tipu was full of nationalistic and patriotic feelings, he could not help wondering at the European enthusiasm and energy and wishing it for themselves. In a dream, while talking to his father, he discloses his deepest fears and his admiration for the British in a long speech: But, Father, often, suddenly, I see myself in them – I see these white skins swarming all over the land and I wonder what makes them so relentless? So desperate? . . . They don’t give up. Nor would I. Sometimes I feel more confident of them than my own people. . . . They believe in the destiny of their race. Why can’t we? . . . But the English fight for something called England. What is it? It’s just a dream for which they are willing to kill and die. Children of England! He feels a kinship with the British in their undying love for their nation and their never-say-die attitude. But at the same time Tipu feels revolted by their apathy when the British demand his sons as hostages. He doesn’t want his sons to be influenced by the violence ingrained in their language: The danger is: they’ll teach my children their language, English. The language in which it is possible to think of children as hostages. . . . Tipu’s predicament is the predicament of a contemporary Indian subject, indecisive about whether to admire the developed countries of the world for their progressive ideas, wealth, work culture and propriety, or to look down upon them for their lack of what we call Indian values of trust, sympathy and love. What do ethics consist of? Do they mean that we must achieve our ends relentlessly without caring for means or do they stand for the eternal human emotions of love, bonding and fraternity? Tipu seems to be very clear about what to inculcate from the West and what to reject. A different plane of ethical considerations is provided by Mahesh Dattani’s plays based on the theme of alternate sexuality. In A Muggy Night in Mumbai, Dattani chooses to dwell on same-sex relationships crumbling under the exerting influence of social demands. The same hypocrisy and sham that Dattani rejects in A Muggy Night in Mumbai are presented as probably the only alternatives to maintain peace with the social convention without taking a risk of upsetting them in Do the Needful. The play raises serious ethical questions as to whether suppressing one’s real sexual identity could create long-lasting social well-being and happiness and whether it would not be better to come out openly once for all than making lives miserable. Tipu Sultan belongs to royalty and aristocracy, Leela Benare to lower middle class while Dattani’s subjects to an upper metropolitan class of society. By studying these three dramatists in a comparative analysis, we are able to address a diversity of subject positions and explore the possibility of a composite conception of ethical stand as we see it in contemporary Indian drama. Source:


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