Background of Colonial Theater

So this post is going to be a bit of a mash-up of my thoughts/understanding of colonial theater in India and the important events that have contributed to the formation, or shift from traditional Indian folk theater to colonial theater. I’m going to try and make it brief….but I’m probably not going to succeed.

The “logic of the outsiders” in colonial society in India was quite prevalent, and modern theater in colonial times followed such logic; for that reason much of the theater was performed in closed spaces. However, even though the English society and the Englishmen came in with a completely different culture, there was still a continuous flow of tradition in Indian society.—–> English was especially prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries.

India retained its status of a multi-lingual society and a flow of language and culture became particularly prominent during colonial times. Certain languages like Sanskrit and Persian became more important than other regional languages like Tamil or Marathi.


-most prestigious language—> rediscovered during colonialism by the Englishmen

“The Sanskrit language whatever be it’s antiquity is of wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either”-  William Jones (spoken at Asiatic society of Bengal, 1786)

-Sanskrit was spoken by the upper caste (Brahmin) and used by aristocrats

-William James went onto translate the very important Indian play ‘Shakuntala’


-Alas, Sanskrit theater wasn’t as popular as it seemed-when different languages gained popularity in India, people started moving away from Sanskrit, and towards languages like English and so on. Similar to the Renaissance in Europe, where English replaced Greek, Roman and Latin, this phenomenon of Sanskrit not being the “people’s language” anymore was inevitable.

-People’s theater stopped being performed from the 11th century onwards till ‘Shakuntala’ was translated in 1789—-> during colonialism was when the British started retracing Indian history, and they didn’t start with folk traditions, but with Sanskrit.

-Translations of Indian texts was done to better understand Indian society, to help the British with their governance of India. It seems unfortunate that they only focused on Sanskrit texts (primarily scriptures)-Sanskrit texts seemed the’ be all and end all ‘ of Indian theater and drama-the British missed out on a treasure trove of dramas and plays written in Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati; essentially the plays written in regional languages.

-German translation of ‘Shakuntala’ was seen in 1791–> this translation was based on the previous English one done by James. The British, in their translation, interpreted the play as a Hindu play when in reality it was much more; it was also the people’s and was rooted in folk tradition.



-Consisted of the Arabic language of the Quran and the Islamic Law.

-Persian: was the court language of the Mughal Empire

-the British didn’t appropriate Persian or Arabic: shows you how history+theater was reconstructed by the British


Then there arises the question:


-partially because its the root of the Dravidian languages…but then what about the Aaryan languages?

-mainly because the Brahmins were the leaders of education and the informers of the British government

Food for thought: How much has been lost because of only relying on Sanskrit texts?

-translation became very important in colonial times: Indian playwrights like Bhasa and Kalidas were translated, but side by side, even Shakespeare was translated.


So…where did languages place in Indian society at that time? 

-There was a “3 language” position that Indians were in; those who had access to Sanskrit had access to English+whatever texts were being printed at that time

-those who had access to vernacular languages had no access to Sanskrit or English texts; the vernacular language was considered the “language of slaves”–> vernacular texts were only orally transmitted, while Sanskrit transmitted via oral+written means

Food for thought: What made Sanskrit more important than vernacular languages? Was it only because the British deemed it so?


After getting a rough understanding into colonial society, what are certain events that shaped colonial society in India? 

1800—> Joshua Marshman, William Ward and William Carey-these three missionaries start a printing press in Serampore. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the first printing press to be set up in India.

-how has the printing press impacted theater?-due to the printing press people started writing down the vernacular languages

-The Dakshina Prize Committee was replaced by the British government who said they’d give prizes to scholars who translated texts rich in political/scientific meaning into English; slowly there emerged an Urban Elite class due to the surge in English language and education

-later different universities and colleges emerged and there was a conflict between Sanskrit, English and the vernacular languages seen

1835–> Macaulay’s Minute on Education

-proposed that Indian language be replaced by English

-Introduced tertiary play for education=big shift in way of looking at education

-Urban elite class: would receive English education

-We see: Vernacular vs. Sanskrit vs. English

1880–> The College of Fort William for British civilians was set up by the British


The background surrounding colonial theater in India raises many questions and makes us reflect on the fate of all those works not written in Sanskrit; what happened to them? It seems unfair that in a place like India, which thrives on diversity, the British relied on only one language to supply them with an understanding of India culturally, socially and politically. What happened to unity in diversity?

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Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share? If so, do comment!


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