Folk Performances in India

A while ago, I’d written a post on Folk theater in India; a few weeks after I found myself in class discussing folk performances; you’ll be glad to know that folk performance and folk theater are pretty much the same, so before you read this post it might be good to brush up on what Folk theater is.

Anyway, getting back; folk performance is really the ‘act’ of carrying out folk theater, and what I’d particularly like to touch upon here are primarily in a sense, the ‘drawbacks’ of folk performances. What this does is that it exposes another side to folk performance that I’ve never explored, nor written about. For a quick read, I’ll put everything in points…not sure how quick of a read it’ll end up being, but I tried ūüėõ

Folk Performances: 

-can get repetitive (characters tend to be similar)

-no nuances seen–> characters seem stereotypical and stereotypes are as a result, often connected to folk performances

-there is melodrama seen and characters created are likely to be clearly “good” or “bad”

These tend to be applicable to most folk performances, however, what are the problems with a certain folk performance? In this case, let us take ‘Tamasha’.


-metaphysical, philosophical, connected to god and spirituality–> these are the central themes of Tamasha, and the “essence” of this folk performance

-In contemporary times, Tamasha has just become ‘entertainment’;people want women dancing, vulgar language and movement and seem more interested in the woman than anything else

-this supports and continues the objectification of women in India, as well as provokes and supports the creation of a social heirarchy where women rank low

-people performing lack training–> training centers for Tamasha actors are being set up but to reinforce the “rusticness” people want to avoid training which isn’t good–> due to this they don’t undergo memory and performance training which leaves them unprepared when it comes to actually performing on stage

Many times the question is asked, how are folk performances and traditions understood in an urban context? 

-folk performance and traditions tend to be understood in a very “elitist” fashion and isolated from the urban context itself; often people who talk of folk performance, or watch them, do so not with the intention of appreciating the form for what it is, but rather to “uphold tradition”.

Where has the “Indianness” associated with folk performance gone?-this “Indianness” is not seen in reading English, but actually appreciating folk theater and performances and reading regional languages, which were lost during colonial times

-the idea of ‘nation’ has always been vague for us, because we’re unsure of our traditions…but who is “our”? who is “we”?

The plight of the lower castes: 

-Folk performances are usually done by the lower castes, however do we really support the lower castes? If we don’t then why/ how do we support folk performance?

Under the name of folk performance traditions, are we really supporting them? is there gender/women exploitation seen? What are the roles of women in folk performance troupes apart from cooking and dancing? who are the real leaders?…these are all questions we don’t have answers to, and they question how we view folk performances in a very different light; yes, folk performances are rich in culture and heritage, but deep down do folk performances also harbor issues that need to be addressed?

One of the important questions that needs to be looked at is also:

HOW DO WE UNDERSTAND THE NATURE OF PERFORMANCE TRADITIONS IN POST INDEPENDENCE INDIA? In other words, how are we appropriating folk traditions for ourselves and what is the role of the state here? 

The state, without addressing any of the above issues dealing with folk performance, thinks of folk theater and performance as something that represents the nation, but is this correct?

No one seems conscious about what we’re inheriting, are we inheriting form, content, or the entire history that is associated with folk performance?

Now, we see folk performance traditions looked at as part of ‘developmental discourse’, and social developmental discourse, as well as heritage discourse in order to empower people in rural communities.

Badal Sircar 

-In post 1960’s there was a prominent movement to return back to original folk theater with original roots rather than continue with folk performance influenced by Western theater–> those who propagated this movement wanted to claim linguistic traditions through artistic practice and this movement flourished

Badal Sircar was an influential Indian dramatist and he is especially well known for his “third theater” in revival of folk performances. The different kinds of theater were:

1st theater: folk traditions (characterized by their liveliness and immediate connect with people)

2nd theater: urban theater (western theater, lacked what folk traditions had, but were more refined, polished and performed)

3rd theater: combination of both

Badal Sircar spread this “third theater” all over India; he traveled with his mobile theater group and didn’t charge for his performances-he wanted to move away from the ‘transaction’ aspect that money brought to theater. However, his theater was also economic—> there would be collection of money after performances and he accepted whatever amount the audience deemed fit for the performance.

Badal Sircar created lots of political discourse through his plays-wanted them to change society and address societal issues. => he proposed theater as aesthetic but also manageable. His performances also forge a connection with Brechtian theater as he performed some of Brecht’s plays which easily connected with folk traditions and performance.

Folk Traditions and the Dramatic Performance Act

Folk traditions are an integral part of drama in India, as modern Indian drama and society has evolved through traditions, primarily oral traditions—> we see that folk traditions and drama are closely interconnected and can’t be separated.

British education was very important for traditions in colonial times-it provided a base to differentiate between folk theater (tamasha, nautanki etc) and classic drama (sanskrit plays). Unfortunately, while classic plays were respected, folk theater wasn’t, which is a real shame because it truly personifies Indian culture.

To the British, folk represented “going back to the roots” of Indian culture and society. Folk traditions and plays were used by dramatists to talk about nationalism and was considered a way to address the ‘Dramatic Performance Act’–> it acted as a way of circumventing this act. No one could really object to folk traditions, and the realism within folk centric plays broach much deeper, socially relevant topics.

Folk theater and plays couldn’t be considered “real”-they explored the world beyond, a fantasy world or space, that wasn’t really tangible and certainly not “realistic”. Through this fantasy space, playwrights addressed their concerns directly to a person on most occasions–> satire was especially crucial in putting points across to the audience.

Although folk could bypass the Dramatic Performance Act, it was still affected by this new “law” imposed by the British. How?

A cleansing of folk traditions took place, and people started questioning the sophistication of plays–> suddenly they wanted properly structured, refined and sophisticated plays of the Europeans–> thus, the new tradition of “sangeeth natak” emerged.


Stay tuned for more posts on folk traditions and the dramatic performance act!

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?

Visit the following links for more information:

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