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 😛

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!

Folk Theater in India

Folk theater in India is born from a rich legacy. In the ancient Vedic culture and even in some Buddhist literature, folk theater was an art form used to “illustrate the unedited realities of life”. However, while folk theater was known, it only rose to prominence in the medieval period, and slowly became a hallmark of Indian drama. Historically folk theater in India can be traced as far back as the 15th century, as drawings from the Puranas, historical epics like Mahabharatha and Ramayana, myths and fantastical texts. It was right after the huge success of Indian traditional theater as an art form, that the distinct style of the ‘Indian Natya’ changed and so developed a whole new theater form where Indian myth, dance, history, song, culture, mores, tradition and beliefs all gained a common platform on which to be displayed.

Much later, this theater form was given the name of ‘Indian folk theater’ and even now it continues to draw from the heritage and traditions in India. In rural society, which is still regarded as the starting point of folk theater, the first rudiment of drama is rituals; therefore rituals, with their different facets and importance in Indian culture and life formed the very base of folk theater in India.

Folk theater tends to usually be narrative in its form. This points towards the origin of the “age old sagas” of the sutradhara in the Indian Natya. The narrator or sutradhara, in order to make his visual art more appealing, slowly incorporated acting into his narrative, which then gave rise to the tradition of narratives in Indian folk theater. Folk theater has a clear narrative form, as well as a highly dramatic narrative style. Further, India has seen a long lineage of folk entertainers who either move alone, or in groups in rural India, performing wherever they go. Their music, religion, dance and songs all reflected their ‘folk culture’ and acted as a mode of communication in rural India. With its colour, vibrancy and musicality, folk theater in India goes beyond just entertainment, and aims to create “an environment of receptivity in which communication of ideas is an effortless process”.

Indian folk theater can tentatively be divided into two broad categories; the religious and the secular. While religious folk theater mainly draws from history, religion and myth; secular folk theater emerged as a typical form of entertainment. The two forms gradually began working together, whilst influencing each other, to “create a whole fresh enunciation in Indian natya”.

The concept of stage design of folk theater in India is just an example of its simplicity. The actors of Indian folk theater usually perform on a make-shift stage. This helps them connect and converse with the audience, and audience participation is essential in folk theater. The stage for the folk theaters is typically a huge empty space, and the actors make this space their own by employing witty dialogues,symbolic gestures, elaborate make up, masks, costumes, loud music and folk dance.

In folk theater forms there are special styles of dance that act as cues for entry onto the stage or platform, or contribute to the actors narrative of descriptive roles. A good example of this would be the ‘Bidapat naach’. Here, the emphasis is not on beauty but on the acting itself, and its narrative and descriptive skills. Dance as a narrative art is the base of folk theater, and can be seen in the theater forms of Bhavai of Gujarat, the Kashmiri theater form Bhand Jashn and even in Koodiyaattam and Ankia Naat.

In traditional theater, age-old forms, customs and the desire to improvise are intermingled. It is usually when the significant themes are enacted, that the acting restricts itself to traditional norms, not deviating from it. But, every time the theme inches towards the contemporary, the actors improvise as far as dialogue delivery is concerned.

In folk theater forms there are certain conventions of presentations depending upon and changing according to the form and size of the stage or the platform and other available situations. There is no formal setup governing the entry or exit of the actors. Depending on the situation or context, the actors enter into the stage and enact their role without being formally introduced. After a particular event or incident is over, all the artists make an exit, or all of them sit down on the sides of the stage or near the backdrop, conveying the change of a scene.

In folk theater characters keep changing their place on the stage to be more impressive and to give the situation a greater significance. This technique also reduces the chance of boredom through repetition and stillness. Dialogues delivery is usually carried out in a high pitch. This helps the actors in reaching out to a larger audience. The artists always add something or the other to the original dialogue on their own and the changes brought through improvisations, make the spectators ecstatic. Also, it establishes a direct relationship between the artists and the spectators.

Every state in India has its own distinctive forms of folk theater. Examples include:

  1. Tamasha in Maharashtra


2. Nautanki in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab


3. Yakshagana in Karnataka


4.Therukoothu in Tamil Nadu


and many more.


Some additional key features of folk theater include: 

-Songs: they say a lot about folk traditions

-the plays are not very rigid: actors have liberties with their lines

-the narrator or ‘sutradhara’ becomes very important and he has full control

-the plot becomes more important than the characters

-folk theater primarily based on myths

-stage settings and props are very simple

-the boys in the folk theater companies were important for dance and singing–> they were called ‘nachas’ as they were used for female impersonations

-demons came from among the audience and had to practice their scenes beforehand


With its sheer verve therefore Indian folk theatre is just not a theatre form but is a lot more. It unfurls the saga of the voyage of Indian drama from the eposes to the modish theatre pattern. It is the chronicle of Indian drama where for the very first time theatre broke the barrier of orchestra and pits and reached the mass in a whole new way through the quixotic brilliance of music, song and folklores.


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