Various Forms of Indian Theatre & Its Significance

To most people, acting takes on the role of entertainment more than as a profession. Little is known about getting into the industry, and this blog post offers introductory tips for the same.

-Ekalavya Dev

April 25, 2023

When speaking about drama and acting, they are a vital part of every culture in the world. Performed on a stage for an audience, theatre is the real-time expression of art that is both purposeful, exciting, and entertaining. Watching an engrossing story unfold through talented characters that act out a role can leave a lasting impression on the audience’s minds, compared to hearing or reading the story. Therefore, the significance of drama and theatre in the cultural landscape is not only important but necessary.

Let us look at the evolution of Indian theatre and have a better understanding of how it all began and how far we have come.

Types of Indian Theatre:

1) Traditional Theatre

If we trace back the roots of theatre in India, it all began with Traditional theatre which was widespread since ancient times. The stories were largely based on the saga of Ramayana and epics of Mahabharata, as well as, the Upanishads and Puranas. The 15th century witnessed the rise of Sanskrit dramas where each performer was given due respect in the courts of Kings. For example, Kathak is one such vivid form of Traditional theatre. The enactment of folklore proved to be an excellent way for the rural illiterate masses to get educated about the spiritual and religious aspects of Indian culture.

2) Regional Folk Theatre

From tales of epics to folklore, the Traditional theater has many regional variations. The form of narrative, costume choices, and entry of characters are loud and vivid. The storytelling is woven with song, dance, and music that is rooted in incidents, festivals, and events derived from traditional texts, culture, and customs from the specific region. However, unlike Traditional theatre, Regional Folk theatre derives its content from social events as well.

Listed below are some popular examples of Regional Folk theatre:

  • Tamasha (Maharashtra) – A traditional form of Marathi theatre that is performed with singing and dancing. It is widely performed by local theatre groups within Maharashtra.
  • Bhavai (Gujarat) – Originated in the 14th century, Bhavai is a popular folk theatre form of western India. The word Bhavai is derived from Sanskrit and means emotion or expression.
  • Yakshagana (Karnataka) – A traditional theater developed in Udupi, Shimoga, and western parts of Chikmagalur districts. It combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques with a unique style and form.
  • Karyala (Himachal) – Popular in districts of Himachal, Karyala is an impromptu folk theatre that does not need any stage. It is mostly performed during Diwali and is usually performed by a person for the deity. This theatre is a fusion of drama, versification, music, and dance.
  • Koodiyattam (Kerala) – Recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, Koodiyattam is a traditional performing art form in the state of Kerala, India. It is a blend of ancient Sanskrit theatre with elements of Koothu – an ancient performing art from the Sangam era.
  • Saang (Rajasthan, UP) – A popular folk theatre form in Rajasthan, Saang incorporates theatrics and mimicry accompanied by dialogue and song. This art form is more dialogue-oriented and not movement-oriented.
  • Bhand Pather (Kashmir) – Bhand Pather is an age-old folk theatre having its origins in Kashmir. It is commonly held in open spaces and performed along with musical instruments like the surnai, nagada, and dhol.

3) Pre-Independence Theatre Art

Pre-Independence theatre rose in popularity and arrived in India with British and colonial rule. The primary difference between other eras of theatre in India and  Pre-Independence theatre is that  Pre-Independence theatre was more plot and story-based. Whereas, the Traditional and Regional theatre consisted of plays revolving around mythological and heroic characters.

Pre-Independence theatre was an amalgamation of Western theatre formats with prevalent Indian social theatre. It brought in the philosophy of realism by covering the lives of the common man under British rule, and the hardships they faced, making it a central plot of many famous plays.

For instance, the pioneer of the modern playwright, Rabindranath Tagore, explored various ideas such as identity, relationships, spiritualism, and nationalism. Some of his famous plays were – Raja, Dakghar, and Chitra.

4) Contemporary Theatre

Modern or post-Independence Indian theatre is the theatre we know as of today. It is used as a means to entertain, spread social awareness, and even critique the government if needed. For instance, Ghashiram Kotwal and Sakharam Binder are two popular plays written by Vijay Tendulkar in 1972, almost causing a short riot in society. Ghashiram Kotwal was a political satire that covered political violence, whereas Sakharam Binder spoke about the emotional and physical domination experienced by women in society.

Modern or contemporary Indian theatre is constantly evolving and going through undercurrents of change, with newer forms of theatre finding expressions such as street theatre, improv theatre, and mobile theatre.

Theatre – Paving the Way for Excellence

Presently, many Indian cities have commercially viable theatres and the theatre circuit in these cities is always buzzing. For instance, the theatre scene in Delhi is vibrant and is known for hosting many theatre festivals. In Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai and Pune, the Marathi theatre is thriving. Mumbai hosts multiple plays in various languages such as Gujarati, Hindi, and English. Theatre loyalists swear by the iconic Royal Opera House and Prithvi Theatre. Other prominent cities like Bangalore, Kolkata, and Chennai have a vibrant theatre scene as well and are buzzing with young talent eager to display their acting skills to the masses.

Many popular theatre personalities have gone on to garner tremendous respect and won many awards. For example, B Jayashree, a respected theatre personality, with over 40 years of experience in theatre, won the Padma Shri Awards in 2013. In 2015, theatre personality Khaled Choudhury was awarded the Padma Bhushan. Recently, actress Kangana Ranaut won the National Award for Best Actress for her performances in the films Panga, and Manikarnika. She was also recognized for her acting skills and received a Padma Shri Award.

The Significance of Theatre in Our Lives

Theatre can help us view the world from a different perspective. By watching a vivid enactment, we can have a glimpse of humanity, motivations, human psychology, conflict, and resolution. The audience has the opportunity to witness the artists who portray an array of personas, addressing unique viewpoints of life.

Artists have the incredible opportunity to put themselves in intellectual and emotional situations on stage, express their skills to their fullest and grow their talents. Even though the scripts may remain the same every night, artists have the opportunity to perform in a unique way each time they go on stage. No two performances will ever be the same, and every artist involved will have a distinct experience that cannot be replicated.

Many studies have proven that students who take part in theatre perform better in their academics. Performing arts offer wonderful benefits such as self-presentation skills, improving confidence, boosting self-awareness, providing the freedom to self-express, improving problem-solving skills, and teaching students and aspiring actors the art of collaboration and self-reliance to reach their desired goals.

What’s more, the theatre also provides a platform to promote potential social change, social discourse and help carry out an intellectual dialogue in the minds of the audience. It can help point to societal issues and highlight potential solutions.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, theatre provides immense opportunities and benefits to society and the individual who wants to excel in this art form. But where can an aspiring artist or an actor begin their theatre and acting journey? This is where Ekalavya – an initiative of Drama School Mumbai (DSM) comes in.

Ekalavya: Act, Create, Communicate

India’s best online acting and theatre training platform, an initiative of Drama School Mumbai (DSM). DSM is one of the best acting and theatre schools in India. At Ekalavya, all the courses are designed and delivered by highly trained DSM faculty and industry professionals. Currently available courses are Breaking Open Characters, Mastering Monologues, Expressive Voice and Speech and Expressive Body.

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