Folk theater in Colonial India: My First Assignment!

Hey guys! So it’s been a while since I last posted, far too long I know, but I cannot convey the pile of work I’ve been buried under. Blame the hectic class scheduling of college plus all those pesky assignments!

Anyway, I thought I’d start off by posting an assignment I wrote for the course; it pretty much focuses on folk theater during the colonial times, and what exactly happened to folk theater once the British came. It was a topic I was quite interested in, ever since we covered it in class, so it was great to be able to do some additional research for myself!

It is rather long, as most Literary and Cultural studies based papers are, but I’ve included my bibliography page so feel free to skip to that part if you just want some general information and don’t really feel like reading the entire paper.

Folk Theatre and Colonial India

India is known for its long and rich tradition in theatre, dating back at least 5000 years (Dharwadker 35). Over the years, scholars have established that the origin of Indian theatre is closely connected to the ancient rituals and seasonal festivities of the country (Dharwadker, 35).The Natya Shastra, believed to have written by Bharata (2000 BC to 4th Century AD) is perhaps the earliest and most elaborate text on dramaturgy written in the world, and gives a “divine origin” to Indian theatre, attributing it to the ‘Natyaveda’ or the holy book of dramaturgy constructed by Lord Brahma (Dharwadker, 36).

Theatre in India started as a narrative form, with recitation, singing and dancing becoming key elements of theatre (Mukherjee, 10).This focus on “narrative aspects” made Indian theatre, “theatrical” from the very beginning; this is why the theatre in India has included all the other forms of literature and fine arts into its “physical presentation”: literature, mime, music, dance, movement, painting, sculpture and architecture- all are combined into one and called ‘Natya’ or Theatre in English (Mukherjee, 11). Over time, Indian theatre became divided into three unique kinds; the Classical, or Sanskrit theatre, the Traditional or folk theatre and the Modern theatre seen during colonial times (Dharwadker, 36). It was during these colonial times that folk theatre, so popular with the masses, began dying out, forgotten and replaced by modern theatre practices (Dharwadker, 36). While Sanskrit theatre continued to receive some recognition, folk theatre was shunted and many playwrights began drawing from modern theatre to write their plays (Mukherjee, 11).

Before exploring how this occurred, and the various changes that proceeded as a result, it is important to understand what folk theatre is.

Following Sanskrit theatre was folk theatre which was primarily based on oral traditions. This form of theatre was first seen around 1000AD and its emergence was primarily linked with the change of political set up in India, along with the formation of different regional languages in all parts of the country (Mukherjee, 13).While the classical theatre, based on the ‘Natya Shastra’ was much more sophisticated in its form and nature, and entirely “urban-oriented”, traditional theatre evolved out of rural roots and was more “simple, immediate and closer” to the rural population (Mukherjee, 13). Indian folk theatre was further divided into two broad categories; religious and secular; these two categories then gave rise to the ‘Ritual Theatre’ and ‘Theatre of Entertainment’ (Mukherjee, 14). These two forms thrived together, and tend to be narrative or vocal-this means they are singing or recitation based, like Rasleela, Bhand, Nautanki and Wang (Mukherjee, 15). India is also rich in ‘ballad singing traditions’ like Pabuki-ki-phar of Rajastan and the Nuipaalaa of Manipur (Mukherjee, 15). These forms share differences in style, staging, and execution, amongst other aspects, and reflect the individuality of the state they belong to (Mukherjee, 16). There are south Indian forms like Kathakali and Krishnattam, as well as North Indian forms, for example, Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh, Tamasha of Maharashtra and the Jatra of Bengal (Dharwadker, 37).

Modern theatre was very different to folk theatre, even though it did draw partly from folk and classical influences.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the Europeans were discovering ancient Indian culture, while Indian elites were discovering modern European culture (Richmond, 319).This encounter gave rise to the new theatrical genre called the modern Indian theatre (Richmond, 319).The “designation”, modern Indian theatre, refers to a new genre that developed between the late-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries (Richmond, 319).

Shaped by the imperatives of empire, nationalism, and nativism, this was a “metropolitan genre” created by a bilingual high-caste bourgeoisie, who strategically adapted elements from a gallery of models that included the Sanskrit theatre, traditional theatre, and European theatre (Richmond 321). Ironically, it was only after the Orientalists had first “championed” Sanskrit literature and translated it into European languages that these Westernized Indian elites had turned to Sanskrit drama and revalued it as classical, as a part of their “nationalist aspirations” (Richmond, 321).

The modern Indian theatre began as renewed “cultural consumption” for the upper crust but developed into broad-based entertainment for large audiences in cities across the country and thus manifested itself in several different languages (Richmond, 321). Irrespective of its language, however, this theatre sought to project both modernity and “Indianness” in its style and subject matter (Richmond, 322).

It constituted a fundamental component of the Indian audience’s “grand nationalist enterprise to invent an identity that was modern but with roots in an ancient past” (Banerji, 559). Like the authors of the ancient Hindu epics noted earlier, “they were also trying to imagine, narrate and perform a nation into existence” (Banerji, 560). As a result of this origin the modern Indian theatre enjoyed great prestige among the cultural elites (Banerji, 562).Europeans keen to investigate India’s ancient past inevitably relied on Brahman priests and scholars who were by tradition the “sole preservers, transmitters, and guardians” of Sanskrit texts, whether religious or secular (Banerji, 563). The Brahmans’ pride in Sanskrit culture and belief in its superiority over all other Indian traditions coloured the early Indologists interpretations (Richmond, 322).

Many of the Indian Theatre historians have treated Sanskrit drama as synonymous with Indian Theatre, and ended up devaluing the existence and influence of traditional folk theatre which had been a hallmark of Indian theatre (Richmond, 323). Much of the Western research and criticism privileged Sanskrit literature over the “post classical vernacular traditions” and “gave drama a preeminent position among Sanskrit genres, making Indian theatre virtually synonymous with the poetically exquisite national theatre of the Hindus”- there was almost no emphasis on drama’s written in regional languages or the folk performances of different states (Richmond, 325). It was only in the later twentieth century that Sanskrit drama ceased to be the primary focus of Indian theatre studies in the West, and the interest among anthropologists, dramatists, historians and scholars shifted to genres of “pre modern” and “non modern performance” like Raslila, Ramlila, and other folk styles (Banerji, 564).

Modern theatre led to many changes in the theatre of that time. Theatre in India under British rule gained a “global contour” (Richmond, 325). Gone were the days of eposes, epics and “Loknatya” – theatre in India under British rule for the very first time geared up fully towards a systematic and natural presentation (Dharwadker,42). India, as a colony of the European empire used theatre to illustrate the likings and disliking’s of the “British raj” (Dharwadker, 44). The stylistic approach of theatre in India under British rule changed quite drastically and the presentation started focusing mainly on the day to day life and common people (Richmond, 327).

Theatre in India under British rule therefore became a structured way of manifesting the daily life (Richmond, 337).It was no more laced with the heroic deeds of the celestial figures; it was no more woven around powerful gods and mythological heroes-rather it became the portrayal of the life and style of common man; “an illustration of sufferings of the poor and the graphic presentation of the unedited realities of life” (Mukherjee, 17).

Theatre in India under British rule thus slowly became a logical expression of democratic ideas, beliefs and mores (Banerjee, 198). Theatre groups were formed during this time and theatre was then clearly divided into two distinct categories like the urban theatre and the rural theatre (Banerjee, 199).Although folk theatre was also there yet the colossal demand of altering the social, economic as well as the political set up of India was so prominent that the brilliance of the folk theatre was lost and somewhat faded away (Banerjee, 200).

The two most important changes in theatre involved the separation of the audience from the stage by the proscenium, underscoring the fact that what was being presented was a spectacle free of any ritualistic associations and which expected no direct participation by the audience in it (Mee, 4).  The other was the idea of pure entertainment in terms of immediate financial returns from the play through the ticket system (Mee, 6).

While theatre became much more realistic and perhaps even more relatable during British times, many criticized it for departing from folk theatre practices (Nag, 7). Some of the major criticism is directed to towards three major “formations” or developments of the 1850-1950 modern theatre period: the establishment of commercial “proscenium theatres”, especially in the colonial metropolises of Calcutta and Bombay; the emergence of Parsi theatre as a popular national institution, through both resident urban and touring companies; and the radical politicization of theatre in the decade of Independence by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Nag, 8). The novelist Mulk Raj Anand, along with the actor Balraj Sahni and the writer-critic Prabhakar Machwe, argue that “the colonial and late colonial theatre institutions are no longer usable” and anticipate a future of theatre radically unrelated to the culturally rich theatre in its pre-colonial past (Nag, 10).

The heavy attack on colonial theatre forms stem mainly from the perception that they were “imperialist impositions”, destructive of the indigenous aesthetic and performance traditions that had prevailed for more than a millennium (Mee, 6). Nothing portrays this process of displacement more powerfully than the conventions of “Western naturalism” and their “spatial embodiment” the urban proscenium stage (Nag, 12). “The most important problem of the modern era in theatre” Anand comments, “is the basic contradiction between the symbolism of the Indian heritage in drama, with its poetic realism, and the naturalism of the Western theatre, which percolated into India devoid of its own organic sensibility, poetry and mechanical perfection” (Nag, 12).

The arguments for the rejection of naturalism therefore become multiple and interrelated (Nag, 13). From the mid-nineteenth century onward, urban proscenium theatres created fixed and enclosed theatre spaces, which was quite different to the mobile, open air performance venues of Indian traditional and folk theatre (Nag, 13). The system of commercial ticket sales made theatre “subservient” to popular taste and destroyed older systems of patronage involving religious or landed elites and their institutions (Mee, 5). The naturalistic conventions of the prosceniums stage were fundamentally opposed “to the pervasive antirealism of indigenous forms” (classical, traditional, folk and popular) and imposed an “alien aesthetic” on the urban audience (Mee, 5). Anand goes onto dismiss naturalism as “thoughtless” borrowing from the West, while H.V Gupte argues interestingly that modern Indian drama developed haphazardly because of its distance from traditional Indian aesthetics (Nag, 13).Further, the strict separation of performers from spectators destroyed the actor-audience unity that precolonial theatre had emphasized through the figure of the sutradhar a character who manages the various “strands” of a performance, mediates actively between play, actor and spectator and addresses the audience directly (Nag, 15). Locating the theatres in the cities also created a division between urban and rural audiences that contradicted the social connections within a predominantly agrarian culture (Nag, 17). In discussing the relation between traditional and new drama, Balaraj Sahni describes the wedge between town and country as an “imperialist move on the part of the colonial government, calculated to disempower rural populations and devalue their aesthetic forms” (Nag, 17).

Tracing the development of modern Urdu drama, M. Mujeeb sums up the view of modernity and modernization as “extrinsic processes forced on a passive culture”- “Europeanisation had the support of political authority, of economic power, of scientific achievement. The result of its conflict with Indian tradition was not a synthesis of ideas and beliefs, not an organic change, but forced compromise, tacit acceptance of facts” (Hollander, 189).

The attack on Parsi theatre arose from the belief, widely held in the 1950’s, that commercialism and the profit motive are fundamentally incompatible with the art of theatre (Hollander, 189). The Parsi stage was an elaborate, highly profitable private enterprise “based on historically new relations between theatre, popular culture and the sociology and demographics of the colonial city” (Hollander, 190).Kathryn Hansen notes that between 1853 and 1931 “Bombay developed a lively theatrical culture grounded in the overlapping practices of the Parsi, Gujarati and Marathi theatres”; these theatres “participated in a commercial entertainment economy characterized by corporate ownership of theatrical companies, which arose in tandem with the city’s rapid population, growth and prosperity” (Hollander, 192). At the same time, many believe that Parsi theatre impeded the association between literary drama and the popular stage in two ways; firstly, the association of drama with the “performance of theatrical companies” was a deterrent to serious playwriting and production, even when the value of the drama “had been realised by the educator and the reformer” (Hollander, 193).Secondly, serious colonial era dramatists such as Bharatendu Harishchandra, Rabindranath Tagore and Jaishankar Prasad became largely ‘closet playwrights’ because of their distaste for commercial theatre (Hollander, 193).

Many dramatists and writers including Shombhu Mitra, Dina Gandhi and Mulk Raj Anand believe that organizations like the IPTA brought playwrights out of the “ivory tower” and gave drama a “populist base” by reviving some forms of folk drama during the colonial times, but he argues, like Kamaladevi that the quality of their productions remained “amateurish” and the pressures of party loyalty and propaganda “reduced Art to a handmaid of politics” (Dharwadker, 67). Anand describes the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as an organization incapable of dealing seriously with traditional Indian theatre and folk theatre and further goes onto say that the organization might have actually diminished the already dwindling audience for folk theatre (Dharwadker, 68).

Modern theatre swept through the nation, and even after India had moved on from the colonial period, this form of theatre continued to dominate over classical and folk theatre (Dharwadker, 69). However, there were some playwrights who decided to incorporate the folk forms actively into their own plays, as they believed that the rural folk theatre was still extremely important; three well known figures who experimented with folk forms at that time are Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Badal Sircar (Dharwadker, 71).

These playwrights along with a number of playwrights such as Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and Habib Tanvir, felt the need to develop a theatre that did not follow British models, but was in some way Indian (Mukherjee, 23).They were members of what is often referred to as the “Theatre of Roots” movement, and began to study Kathakali, Yakshagana, Chhau, and other traditional Indian performance forms to see what could be used in the creation of a modern Indian drama (Mukherjee, 24). As Karnad very clearly states, however, the attempt “was not to find and reuse forms that had worked successfully in some other cultural context” (Mukherjee, 27).The hope, rather, was “to discover whether there was a structure of expectations and conventions about entertainment underlying these forms from which one could learn” (Mukherjee, 28).

Tendulkar’s Marathi play ‘Sari Ga Sari’ was first produced in Bombay in 1964 (Hollander, 201).In writing the play, Tendulkar utilized the Tamasha form and its characteristic language patterns (Hollander, 205).The play contained the conventional gan, gaulan and povadd but characters such as Mukunda were given satirical treatment and references to contemporary urban life filled the dialogues (Hollander, 207).Tendulkar was particularly interested in capturing the feeling of spontaneity of Tamasha, and he discovered that the urban actors he used lacked the informality and improvisational skills of traditional actors (Hollander, 208). This problem highlighted for him one of the major differences between urban and rural theatre: the urban play depends upon the playwright, while in folk theatre, the actor is all-important (Hollander, 209).

Girish Karnad’s play ‘Hayavadana’, written originally in Kannada in the early 1970’s; based on the tale of transposed heads from the Kathdsaritsagarai, Hayavadana is a symbolic drama employing several conventions of Yakshagana, such as the half-curtain which is carried onstage to introduce new characters, and the Bhagavata or narrator, who introduces the story and comments on the action throughout the play (Mee, 17). The structure of the play as a whole, however, is not derived from any particular regional tradition, and its “philosophical exploration” of the “problems of wholeness and identity” has a decidedly “modern orientation” (Mee, 18).

Badal Sircar’s movement toward a “Third Theatre,” which he conceived as a theatre of rural-urban synthesis was another approach to explore folk practices within modern Indian drama. Sircar’s goals were to abolish the proscenium arch stage, to emphasize physical movement of the actors over words, and to rely upon only the simplest techniques of lighting, costuming and staging, emulating Grotowski’s Poor Theatre—all to build up the immediacy of communication between actors and audience. His 1973 Calcutta production of ‘Spartacus’ based on the story of a Roman slave revolt, incorporated these elements.

The Marxist theatre veteran Utpal Dutt also showed an abiding interest in the folk form of Jatra to reach out to the masses. In his forceful defence of jatra ‘In Search of Form’, Dutt praises jatra (yatra) for having the potentials for a “revolutionary theatre” (Nag, 19).  Forms such as yatra, “evolved over centuries and continued to adapt from and adapt to contemporary reality” says Dutt..Jatra, which Dutt argues persuasively, “has refused to die with the incursions of Capitalism into countryside” unlike “many other folk forms have been wiped out” is “theatre at its primitive best” (Nag, 20). Dutt himself experimented with the form in ‘yatra-plays’ as he calls them, like Sanyasir Tarabari (The Crusade), Tutu Meer and the critically acclaimed Tiner Toloar (The Tin Sword) (Nag, 22).

In the last twenty years or so, a new interest in regional cultural expressions and folklore has developed in India, leading to the rediscovery and “re-evaluation” of indigenous forms of literature and the performing arts (Dharwadker, 72). Nowhere is this more apparent than in theatre. The traditional theatres such as Yakshagana, Tamasha, Raslila, Nautanki and Bhavai, have gone through an amazing revival since Independence (Dharwadker, 79). Considered decadent and largely forgotten during colonial days, these regional theatres have recently received attention and a certain amount of governmental support from the national and state Sangeet Natak Akademis (Hollander, 208). Their status has been enhanced by an “intellectual reappraisal” which views them as the surviving fragments of the ancient Sanskrit dramatic tradition, on the basis of common features such as “preliminary rituals, stylized acting and gestures, stock characters like the stage director (sutradhdra) and clown (vidushaka), and abundant song and dance” (Hollander, 210). Through annual festivals held in the capital, folk theatre groups from all over India have performed for urban audiences, and Western scholars have also been attracted to study the traditions (Hollander, 211).As a result, greater familiarity with folk theatre forms has developed in the cities, and the urban attitude has shifted from scorn to curiosity and respect (Hollander, 211).

The rediscovery of folk theatre has in fact heightened the sense of a “rural-urban cultural dichotomy” among the educated elite (Richmond, 351). Urban theatre is perceived more and more as imitative of the West and “non Indian” while the term rural is acquiring the prestigious connotation of “indigenous” (Richmond, 352). Badal Sircar, the noted Bengali playwright, expressed this clearly; “Theatre is one of the fields where this [rural-urban] dichotomy is manifested most. The city theatre today is not a natural development of the traditional or folk theatre in the urban setting as it should have been. It is rather a new theatre having its base on Western theatre….whereas the traditional village theatre has retained most of its indigenous characteristics” (Richmond, 353). As a result, some dramatists are now beginning to reject Western influence and urge a return to village culture and traditions (Richmond, 354). The Urdu playwright Habib Tanvir stated “It is in its villages that the dramatic tradition of India in all its pristine glory and vitality remains preserved even to this day (Richmond, 356). It is these rural drama groups that require real encouragement… it is not until the city youth is fully exposed to the influence of folk traditions in theatre that a truly Indian theatre, modern and universal in appeal and indigenous in form, can really be evolved” (Richmond, 356).

Theatre in India has been vibrant and diverse, ranging from Sanskrit and folk theatre to Modern Theatre and Contemporary Theatre. Modern Theatre developed during the colonial times was a big departure from the classical and folk theatres seen in the precolonial times, and although Modern theatre introduced India to different experiences, many have criticized the pillars of this kind of theatre; these individuals include acclaimed writers and playwrights Dina Gandhi and Mulk Raj Anand amongst others. Yet, there are certain playwrights, who continued to prevail-after Independence when Modern Theatre still dominated the Indian stages, dramatists like Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Badal Sircar and Utpal Dutt continued to incorporate folk elements into their plays. The recent years have seen a revival of folk traditions and scholars are now displaying a renewed interest into understanding these important forms of theatre; this interest is further encouraged by many Indian playwrights, some of who are Badal Sircar and Habib Tanvir. Slowly, folk theatre is gaining momentum and the audiences are once again beginning to appreciate the brilliance and culturally rich heritage of folk theatres all across India


Work Cited

Banerjee, Utpal K. “Folk Theatre: Pageantry and Performance.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 1991, pp. 198–200. <>

Banerji, Arnab. “Asian Theatre Journal.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 2011, pp. 588–592. <>

Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava. Theatres of independence: drama, theory, and urban performance in India since 1947. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 2005. <>

Hollander,Julia. Indian Folk Theatres . London: Routledge, 2007.<–60VHi9Rc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDnZz-mNDRAhXGOo8KHZ9mDp8Q6AEIUDAI#v=onepage&q=indian%20folk%20theatre%20during%20colonialism&f=false>

Mee, Erin B. “Contemporary Indian Theatre: Three Voices.” Performing Arts Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, 1997, pp 1-50. <>

Mukherjee, Anuparna. “Acrobating between Tradition and Modern”: The Roots Movement and Theatre’s Negotiation with Modernity in India.” The Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities (2009): 1-18. Web. 11th Jan. 2017. <>

Nag, Baishakhi. “ROLE OF THEATRE AND FOLK MEDIA IN PROMOTING SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT.” Global Media Journal-Indian Edition 2nd ser. 4 (2013): 1-23. Web. 15th Jan. 2016.< DEC%202013/Commentary_6_Baishakhi_Nag.pdf>

Richmond, Farley. “The Political Role of Theatre in India.” Educational Theatre Journal 25.3 (1973): 318. Web. 13th Jan. 2017. <>




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s