Mister Behram by Gieve Patel- A super quick review

Gieve Patel’s plays explore electrifying themes drawn from the dark side of life.

“The tragic vision of life is often misunderstood as dark and gloomy.”

To enter the world of Gieve Patel’s plays is to ready oneself for an emotionally shattering experience. There is nothing pretty-pretty or sentimental about women fighting to the death for custody of a child (“Princes”), or when a man with a dreadful eczema woos a much younger, penniless girl (“Savaksa”) or when a successful barrister gets obsessed with his son-in-law (“Mister Behram”).

Dysfunctional families are a staple with playwrights, Arnold Wesker’s “Roots” or many of John Osborne’s works come to mind. But Gieve’s plays go beyond mere realism. Written and performed memorably in the 1970s and 1980s when Bombay theatre was looking for indigenous writing, routine Broadway adaptations having run their course, the plays, which are now available in a new compilation, launched by Seagull Books in early October in Mumbai, are major works, crying out to be staged again.

Rooted in the Parsi context

Gieve’s plays are unique, says eminent theatre critic Shanta Gokhale, because he is perhaps the only Parsi playwright writing about the community in a rural milieu, particularly the middle-class, impoverished Parsi city-dweller coming to a village. But his locales — village and district town in late 19th century Gujarat, with evocations of the city too — constitute “three microcosms of India”, as the playwright points out. So while being rooted in the searing specificity of the Parsi context, he is able to address quite electrifying themes, such as the obsessive nature of love; power, with its numerous perversions; self-delusion and how it cleaves relationships; the way women are mistreated. Further, what makes these plays definitely not soothing is the way Gieve uses language, Gokhale points out. He is a poet, who deploys image and metaphor and ellipses to compose a tragic denouement. “The tragic vision of life is often misunderstood as dark and gloomy,” Gieve says. “But it’s because great plays — from the Greeks to Shakespeare and the moderns, Ibsen, Strindberg and Eugene O’Neill — face up to the tragic stature of life itself that they, in a way, free us from darkness.”

Gieve Patel was born in 1940 in Bombay. His parents were from Nargol, a village in Bulsar district, southern Gujarat. His father was from a land-owning family, which gave Gieve access to Warli life, a theme that gains in cadence and centrality by the time he was writing “Mister Behram”.

“The Warli labourers worked on our estate, and that was magical, another kind of life from the Parsi life that I was used to,” he remarks, seated in his studio on Nepean Sea Road, which offers a view of Hanging Gardens’ verdure. He is wary though of looking at any art from the point of view of ‘current issues’. “I address life first — because issues’ will change. What is unchanging is how human beings get involved in these issues and how they interact under circumstances of great strain.”

Language (in Mister Behram)

The language of the play, an intended artifice, is a lapidary mix of Gujarati English, interspersed with literal translation that has been further chiselled to pierce like shards of glass. Emotions run high here and what is spoken mirrors the almost animal violence within. “How can you be taken in! How can you! If we were not around he would take the child in his teeth and carry him off.”

Amid such conflict, which is never black-and-white, “There is also a tremendous amount of love and caring (in families),” the playwright points out. Like the insistence on food? “Yes, yes, absolutely. So then that becomes a backdrop against which the darker forces are seen in stark relief. Perhaps the ultimate heartbreak is this: there is this battle between these two forces happening in the same individual.”

Mister Behram, the self-righteous, reformist lawyer, is quite the guilt-inducing, exploitative ‘parent’ at home, and Nahnu, a Warli youth, who has been taken into his fold, cannot see it. Nothing could say this more dramatically than the opening scene where Nahnu, rechristened ‘Naval’, sees a goat giving birth, as the sun beats down, blinding him and bringing on a seizure: it’s a heraldic image of doom.

There is detailed, moving description in “Savaksa” of a poor man drinking tea with a slice of bread at a railway station. “Focusing on details is very important to me,” Gieve says, “because it is through this that the whole milieu and the life around it are illuminated. You touch universal things not by making large, broad statements but by looking more closely at details. And not trivial details, either,” he qualifies, “but specific details that are telling.”

The ability to observe closely may have originated from his career as a doctor, he laughs, but that’s only the beginning, he adds cryptically, of the long gestation period his work involves. “Things that are important to you remain with you. Then you fashion and refashion.”

Mister Behram: What is the play all about? 

Gieve Patel’s Mister Behram, an Indian-English play that has been performed widely across India and has been translated into Marathi by Shanta Gokhale. First staged in English in 1987 under the direction of Gieve’s wife, Toni, this avatar of Mister Behram brings in a “fresh ethos”.

The play is set in the days of the Raj. Mister Behram  is an unusual but successful and rich lawyer who had not only adopted and educated Nanhu, an orphaned Waarli boy, but also gave consent to his daughter Dolly (Neelima Deshpande) to marry him.

It turns out that the father has an almost pathological obsession for the boy; love that is reciprocated by Nanhu himself. However, Behrams love is sexual, one with homoerotic undertones, while Nanhu’s is not. In one instance Behram says

“At sowing, planting, reaping, resting, have I not studied these bodies convinced of a mystical knowledge immured within each of them, each piece of flesh derived from the clods of earth on which they tread season after season! Our bodies are dull dough before this vision. And the colouring…generations of sunlight on that naked frame have burnished each turn of skin from wheat to bronze to a dark clotting in the folds.”

Family dynamics play out against this strange backdrop – Dolly and her father competing for Nanhu’s affections, with Rati, Behram’s devoted wife, struggling to assuage emotions and gain his love. Only when Dolly becomes pregnant, does Behram break.

A parallel trajectory to the central storyline has political overtones. The British district collector, Mr Watts  wants the British to take over the neighboring grasslands to set up an army cantonment, a move resisted by tribals. When Nanhu, a London-educated barrister thanks to his godfather, excels in court, Mister Behram, himself a celebrated barrister of the district, feels upstaged. He has no compunction humiliating Nanhu in Mr Watts’ presence by asking him to strip to his native tribal loincloth, ostensibly to show off his splendid body. Nanhu complies, breaks down, and a shocked Dolly leads him away.

Love, ego, desire to humiliate, possess, subjugate are interwoven into the dark-headed tapestry of this drama. Homoeroticism is a prevalent theme in the play, especially seen in Mister Behram’s dialogues, and the play seems ahead of it’s times, exploring homosexuality in a way never been done before. Yet, there is a subdued quality to the authors writing, as if he knew that the audience of that time would vehemently oppose not to the relationship between Behram and Nanhu, a sexually tinged one, but the nature of their relationship-almost an incestuous attraction between father and son, one where Mister Behram aims to reap “unspeakable pleasures”. The ending of the play is a shocking one, where we see Rati constantly treating and portraying Behram as a martyr despite his mistreatment of her, and the play causes you to reflect on the various issues in India during that time.


I’ve kept this review short and sweet because the play is so complex I could write pages and pages on it! If you get a chance, definitely read it. It might be a little voyeuristic and creepy, with hints of pedophilia but it’s a good read. Make sure to pay attention to the important and bizarre stage directions! This review summed up the highlights of the play but in no way was it intended to go in depth-or else it would never end! Visit these links for more information:



https://s3.amazonaws.com/tess57/mister%20behram%20and%20other%20plays.pdf –> you should be able to download the play here

Reflections, Reflections, Reflections

So I’ve realized that it’s about time I wrote my first reflections post. Now I had planned to write a reflections post sooner but I guess I never really got around to it…which is why now is a perfect time to start!

You’re probably wondering what is a reflections post..well in this context I’ll be talking about generally how the course is going, what were the highlights, the drawbacks, the fun times, etc etc.. I’m sure you get the point, its reflections just like I said. Simple right? Since I do have a tendency to ramble I’m going to organize my thoughts into points, starting with…

*drum roll*


Honestly, the course has been going pretty good. We’ve been following a set pattern with classes well planned out and full of discussion, and the great part is the teacher encourages us to voice our opinions and he actively inculcates dialogue in class; I never realized how much other people’s takes on the same text could be such a learning experience. Usually the class consists of either reading a text/discussing theory or a text/powerpoints/ videos or movies./random tangents (unavoidable). Now I’m not a huge class participator, and I don’t see why we’re graded on participating in class, but during the course I’ve actually contributed in ongoing class discussions..semi-actively (yay me). I also like how the course has progressed slowly, not going too fast or rushing through plays but spending quality time on each text, reading it in class and then voicing our own opinions. I’ve been exposed to Indian playwrights that I didn’t know anything about, and overall the flexibility in class structuring has been refreshing..it’s pretty awesome not to have your hand spasming after class because of all the notes you’ve taken (as a psych major, it happens to me all too often). The grading components (2 Assignments, 1 final assignments) have been well spaced out, and proportional to the work load, and all in all I think I’ve really enjoyed whats been happening.


Well where to start! We hit the ground running, starting with readings from the very first class (Seymour Chatman), readings on folk theater and performance, plays (Ghashiram Kotwal, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Kichakvadh) along with presentations, videos and short films on playwrights/plays/folk drama and theater. There hasn’t been too much additional reading material and the readings we’ve read have really helped understand discussions we have in class (especially the folk performance readings). I’ve quite enjoyed the plays too, maybe not so much Kichakvadh, but the other two have been really great and introduced me to different drama forms. The videos we’ve watched mainly consisting of short clips of the plays we’re reading have helped visualize the stage as we’re reading, and I also liked the BBC documentary we watched on Bertolt Brecht, it was quite good. http://www.thedramateacher.com/brecht-on-stage-video/ –> you’ll find the documentary here!


Definitely the plays, especially Arturo Ui, I think it really put out a message to all of us and Brecht did an amazing job with the setting and use of dialogue. If you’ve read some of my other posts theres a ton of stuff on folk theater too which I found really interesting, I mean living in India of course you hear about it from time to time but actually reading plays and researching for my assignment I came across a ton of new information and the whole topic is fascinating in how much there is to it. I thought the videos were informative too, the ones on tamasha were pretty good, and it breaks up the monotony of constantly talking. I think talking about plays people have watched, in class, has also been fun because we get to hear about their experiences and get to know of plays that sound really interesting.


Honestly, not much, I think the course has gone quite well.  I mean I didn’t enjoy Kichakvadh as much as the other plays, but I suppose that can’t be helped.I do wish we watch some more videos in class, and documentaries, about the playwright and his life. It really helped understand Arturo Ui when we watched the documentary about Brecht because I got to understand him as a playwright and a director and how he developed his own form of theater as well the times he lived in, which just served to enhance my reading and understanding of the play itself.I think that maybe spending a little more time on the Dramatic Performance Act and seeing how it relates to society now, is it still as relevant and necessary in today’s times, how has it affected plays or the message certain plays are trying to put across and so on might have been good. Its too bad that there hasn’t been a sort of field trip thing where we all go together to watch a play as a class, I think that would be a really memorable experience but maybe a bit tough to fit in what with different schedules and lack of class time. Oh well.


So far things are going pretty well, we’re progressing at a good speed, I like the readings and plays and there isn’t a very heavy workload so it sure makes things a little easier. Stick around for more reflections posts!

Ghashiram Kotwal



A while ago we read this play in class; written by Vijay Tendulkar, a prominent Indian playwright, the play is a satirical response to the rise of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play because it’s able to embody the satirical form so well, and  Tendulkar experimented not only with the Sangit Nataka genre but also borrowed ingredients from folk theatre that includes Tamasha, Dashavatari Khel, Yakshagna, Lavani,(love ballad), Abhanga, and kirtan (devotional songs).

Usually I write about play and my thoughts/opinions extensively (as I’m sure you’ve seen) but this time I’ll do things a bit differently.

Instead of me going on about the play I’m going to put up a few links to the full text, and some good analyses plus a video of the play. This way you’ll be able to peruse the play in your own time and come up with your own thoughts and opinions without me influencing your take on the play.

While I could’ve spent a lot of time discussing the play (there is a lot to discuss, trust me), I think its important also to let you, the audience, discover the play for yourself. Do comment with your thoughts/feelings/ any other opinions you have regarding the play and the material I’m posting!

http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/arvindgupta/tendulkar-ghasiram.pdf –>full text of the play

http://rupkatha.com/ghasiram-kotwal/ –> an amazing analysis

here is the video of the play! it is in Marathi but it’ll give you a good idea of what the staging looked like if you don’t understand Marathi.

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. <www.jstor.org/stable/23002260>

Banerji, Arnab. “Asian Theatre Journal.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 2011, pp. 588–592. <www.jstor.org/stable/41306520>

Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava. Theatres of independence: drama, theory, and urban performance in India since 1947. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 2005. <https://books.google.co.in/books?id=mLQaz-12Eo8C&pg=PA38&lpg=PA38&dq=colonial+folk+theater&source=bl&ots=Jn4EDu4CyL&sig=CgO0_35z3QX5JcThK1BsP8JM88g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjO6vreo8bRAhXLK48KHbLfANMQ6AEIRDAH#v=onepage&q=colonial%20folk%20theater&f=false>

Hollander,Julia. Indian Folk Theatres . London: Routledge, 2007.<https://books.google.co.in/books?id=P22CAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA187&lpg=PA187&dq=indian+folk+theatre+during+colonialism&source=bl&ots=bT65BqmmFC&sig=zSUYz7EdvyWPH6o9M–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. <www.jstor.org/stable/3245738>

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. <http://rupkatha.com/roots-movement-theatre/>

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.<http://www.caluniv.ac.in/global-mdia-journal/COMMENTARY 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. <http://www.yavanika.org/classes/reader/richmond.pdf>



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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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!