New theatre has produced some modern classics. Vijay Tendulkar's Ghasi Ram Kotwal is one such play on the life of morally decadent Peshwa ruler Nana Phadnavis and the corrupt Brahmans of Pune with music and dance woven in the very fabric of the play inspired by Dashavatar traditional form. These elements of traditional form sharpen the irony of the situations. Jabbar Patel's production of the same play in 1973 is a landmark in the new theatre. The play has been performed in several Indian languages and has enjoyed great popularity. Girish Karnad, noted Kannada playwright, wrote Hayavadan taking inspiration from Thomas Mann's short novel Transposed Heads which is turn is based on an ancient Indian tale given in Kathasaritsagar by Gunadhya. The play has been constructing using elements from the traditional form of Yakshagan of his region. B.V. Karanth's production of the play in 1971 with music and movements is another significant work of the new theatre. The play has been performed in several Indian languages and is marked for its innovative structure and elements.
Karanth also produced Shakespeare's Macbeth with the Repertory of National School of Drama in a new verse translation titles Barnam Van by the late Hindi poet Reghuvir Sahai. Karanth also used performance elements of Yakshagan. Robin Das, a creative stage designer, designed most imaginative set and costume, which showed some similarity with theatre of South East Asian theatre. Shakespeare's plays have been performed in India since mid-nineteenth century both in the original language and translations and adaptations in most of the Indian languages. However, it was for the first time that Karanth did Macbeth using indigenous performance elements and putting strong imprint of Indian performance culture. Karanth hails from Karnataka and brings out productions both in Karnataka and Hindi.
Another Kannada playwright Chandrasekhar Kambar, poet, novelist and folklorist has written several plays which have been performed in Kannada, Hindi and other major languages. He draws upon the rich resources of folklore and uses elements from Bayalata, a folk form of his region. His most popular play Jokumaraswamy, which received the national award, starts with a fertility rite in honour of the phallic deity Jokumar, who is worshipped in the form of a snake gourd and then consumed by those desirous of bearing children. An impotent landlords' virgin wife feeds the snake gourd by mistake to the village rake and has a child by him. The rake's death at the hands of the landlord is a kind of gang-rape-cum-fertility offering. The landlord himself is literally left holding the baby he cannot dispose off.
Kambar who mostly draws themes for his plays from the folk tales and traditional myths also wrote a play Siri Sampize based on two Kannada short stories which were also used by Girish Karnad for his play Nagmandal. But Kambar's play treats the stories bit differently. The play has been performed in Hindi, titled Aks Tamasha. Kambar's language is earthy and rich in metaphors and imagery.
Senior director Prasanna from Karnataka produces plays both in Kannada and in Hindi, mostly working as a Guest Director for the repertory company of the National School of Drama. He belongs to the class of directors who still primarily work in naturalistic idiom but occasionally introduce experimental elements in their productions. Prasanna's Sanskrit play Uttar Ramcharit by Bhavabhuti in Hindi translation, was admired for its innovative elements. He also directed Girish Karnad's latest play Agni-Mattumalle in Hindi translation titles Agni Aur Barkha. The production was mounted with great competence.
E. Alkazi, first Director of National School of Drama (NSD) and a senior theatre director did several memorable productions using variety of spaces in the sixties and seventies. It was for the first time that a director used ancient historical monuments of Delhi for staging plays. His production of Dharmvir Bharati's verse play Andha Yug (The Blind Age) dealing with the great war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, is still a masterpiece. In this production he was the first director to use ramparts and a large platform stage in the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla and then Purana Quila's tiered steps. Using NSD's open air theatre with multiple local, he also produced Girish Karnad's historical play Tughlaq, on the life of the 14th century Sultan of Delhi. Alkazi set new standards in every branch of a theatrical production and gave Indian theatre sophisticated professionalism.
Actor-director, the late Om Shivpuri directed Vijay Tendulkar's play Shantata, Court Chalu Ahe (Silent, Court is in Session) in Hindi translation with his actress wife Sudha in the main role. Both the play and the production showed freshness of structure and were marked for their improvisatory character, Shivpuri later directed Girish Karnad's historical play Tughlaq too on the ridges of Talkatora Gardens with innovative elements.
Similarly senior Hindi actor-directors Shyamanand Jalan in Calcutta and Sataydev Dubey in Bombay, both working in realistic mould, have done several productions over the years. Their productions are mounted with great competence. Their forte is the dramatic word, and delivery of dialogues. Badal Sarkar's play Evam Indrajit and Gyandev Agnihotri's Shuturmurg are Jalan's noteworthy productions in which he resorted to stylization with great success. Credit goes to Dubey for first discovering theatrical potentialities of Bharati's Andha Yug (The Blind Age) when he presented it in 1962 on Alkazi's terrace theatre in Mumbai.
A fine Delhi-based actor-director, Ramgopal Bajaj, has several noteworthy directorial works to his credits. His most innovative and bold production is of Hindi classic Andha-Yug. Bajaj built a massive structure on the NSD Campus in the shape of pond with steps. Actors performed all around on the steps. Actors performed all around on the steps, and also on a platform stage built in the pond. Audience also sat on one side of the steps. Unique feature of the production was that the actors also served as Kathavachak (story-tellers). Just by turning over their robes hanging loosely on the shoulders, they became story-tellers and formed a group. Choreography, an important feature of the production, was by the modern dancer-choregrapher, Bharat Sharma and the music was provided by B.V. Karanth.
In Hindi, the late playwright Mohan Rakesh, wrote all his plays in realistic mould. His forte is dramatic language. His Ashadh Ka Ek Din, on the life Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidas has been widely translated and performed. Another play Adhe Adhure presents a grim picture of a disintegrating middle class family. It is the first important play in Hindi on this problem of the contemporary society. It has been widely performed in Hindi and several other languages.
Senior director Amal Allana, working in Hindi, directs plays in naturalistic idiom with great competence. Her husband Nisar Allana, a stage designer, prefers to mount heavy and elaborate sets for her productions which often obstruct the flow of dramatic action and movements of the actors. Some of her successful and acclaimed productions are - Mahabhoj, a dramatization of the novel of the same name by its author Mannu Bhandari. Brecht's Mother Courage in Hindi adaptation as Himmat Mai, with veteran actor Manohar Singh in the mother's role, is also a significant production of Allana. Her production of King Lear in Hindi translation in a large open space with multiple locales was well acted again by Manohar Singh in the role of King Lear. She seated the audience at one fixed point forcing frontal view of the performance. The audience had to constantly move their neck in different directions to follow the action. It is regrettable that with such exciting experiment with space, she did not take the audience into account.
Sheela Bhatia with her group Delhi Arts Theatre is the only director who writes and directs operas both in Punjabi and Urdu. Some of her better known operas are - Vedi Ki Goonj, Heer Ranjhha, Chann Badlan Da, which is rich in Punjabi folk tunes, Dard Aayega Dabe Paon based on the poetry of famous Urdu poet Faiz, Ameer Khusro and Ghalib Kaun Hai by S.M. Mahandi. In North India with a rich tradition of folk operas like Nautanki, Swang, Bhagat and Khyal, she is the only modern director who took to writing and producing operas.
The senior Delhi-based directors in Hindi theatre, Rajinder Nath and M.K. Raina generally work in naturalistic idiom, though occasionally do experimental works too. Rajinder Nath's Ghasi Ram Kotwal with music, dance and movements was a great success. Dharamvir Bharati's famous play Andha-Yug directed by M.K. Raina at the Purana Quila was most spectacular theatrical piece using vast performance area with ramparts and tiered steps. On the other hand, Bhopal based Bansi Kaul does experimental productions using elements and conventions from folk forms. A most creative stage director, he also often conducts workshops for actors in other linguistic regions. His noted production is Panchali Shapatham, a poetic play by the famous Tamil poet Subramanyam Bharati. The production was the result of a forty-day workshop in Tamil Nadu. This production marked the beginning of the new theatre movement in Tamil Nadu. His another important production is Ala Afsar, a creative adaptation of Gogol's famous play Inspector General by Hindi writer Mudrarakshash. Kaul also did Bhasa's Panchratra with an imaginative set.
In Marathi theatre with Mumbai as its center, there has always been large theatre-going audience. Vijay Tendulkar, Vasant Kanetkar, Jaywant Dalvi, Mahesh Alkunchwar and Satish Aleker are the playwrights who have fed the Marathi theatre with their rich plays. They had also been translated and performed in Hindi and other Indian languages. All of them write in realistic mould. Senior actress director, Vijaya Mehta did pioneering experimental theatre in the sixties and seventies as some other group theatres did it. With large audience there is a strong flourishing commercial theatre in Mumbai. Too counter it, group theatres always did experimental work even when working in naturalistic mould. Alekar's Begum Barwe, a musical in his own direction has been highly acclaimed.
In Bengali theatre, senior actor-director, the late Sombu Mitra and his most accompalished actress wife Tripthi Mitra with their group 'Bahuroopi' discovered Tagore's plays in theatrical terms and mounted quite powerful productions. These productions are - Raktakarbi (Red Olieander), Raja (King of the dark chamber), Visarjan (Sacrifice) and Muktadhara (The River Unbound). They set a new standard in acting specializing in the delivery of dialogues. They also did some contemporary Bengali plays, and adaptation of Ibsen's Doll's House titled as Putulkhela with great success.
Another senior Bengali actor-director, the late Utpal Dutt, committed to Marxist ideology practiced political theatre. He is known for mounting massive productions with lage sets and crowd scenes. Dutt mostly wrote his own plays Angar on the problems of the coal miners was a great success and created sensation with lighting designed by Tapas Sen.
The mines were shown flooded with the workers drowing in them. Another powerful play Kallol (Sound of waves, 1965) concerns with the Bombay Naval Mutiny of 1946. He also wrote a play on the Vietnam war. Dutt remained committed to his philosophy of revolutionary theatre and to his political ideas. He also wrote and directed plays for Jatra, the indigenous popular theatre form.
Bengali playwright and director Badal Sarkar has developed his own aesthetics and philosophy of 'Third Theatre' which seeks maximum intimacy between actor and spectators. He uses simple halls and with benches and stools create varying relationship between actors and spectators. He has written several plays which have been widely performed all over India. His important plays are - Evam Indrajit, dealing with the monotony and emptiness of life of the middle class youth, Baki Itihas, Pagla Ghorha, Sesh Nai etc. He did some of his plays like Dhoma and Michhil in public parks where the performance is surrounded by the audience.
This vibrancy of the contemporary Indian theatre also has great variety in production styles and dramatic forms. In this connection special mention should be made of the directorial work of Deoraj Ankur in creating a new theatrical genre called Kahani Ka Rangmanch. It was in 1975 that Ankur presented three short stories by the reputed Hindi writer Nirmal Verma under a common title Teen Ekant (Three Situations of Loneliness). Since then he has been presented short stories and novels though not in usual dramatized version. What Ankur does is to lift the short story from the printed page and put it on the stage. The presenters of the story are not impersonators and performer as in a dramatic presentation. The spectators get a new experience of the short stories which is different from their reading of them. Ankur does not provide any special costume to the presenters nor or there any scenic means. He gives simple blocking to the presenters for moving, sitting and standing. He often presents two or three stories by different writers under one common title. With the popularity of this new theatrical genre, several young directors have taken to the presentation of short stories without dramatizing them much. There is a great creative stir in Indian theatre which is being practiced in many forms and styles. NSD, New Delhi with its training programme and organization of national theatre festival in the capital has greatly contributed to this stir. For the last ten years are so NSD's regional center at Bangalore has encouraged interaction between theatre of the North India and South India.
Encounter with performance tradition and the rise of a new theatrical form and idiom has led to a great debate in contemporary Indian theatre. Those playwrights and directors who still practice naturalistic theatre denounce these efforts and consider the use of performance elements and conventions from the traditional and folk theatre as misappropriation. The protagonists of the new theatre lay emphasis on return to roots to liberate Indian theatre from its colonial moorings.
However, encounter with rich performance tradition has reversed the process and the theatrical productions have acquired new idiom. Directors now maximize stage sings and symbols and minimize literary sings, thus creating a rich performance text. Traditionally, there has always been great emphasis on creating a performance text rich in staging elements and visual quality. Tradition even provides a separate word for performance text. In Sanskrit, dramatic text is referred to as Kavya or Drishya Kavya, whereas performance text is prayoga. Similarly Jatra of West Bengal is a performance form and pala is a dramatic text. Bhand Pather of Kashmir is dramatic text, whereas Bhand Jashna is performance text.
In this running account of the modern theatre which arose in the mid-nineteenth century under the direct influence of British theatrical tradition causing a breach with the old and living performance tradition of the country, and emergence of 'new' theatre after Independence as part of the process of de-colonisation and quest for identity, three theatrical movements had to be left out to maintain a logical continuity of the narrative. A brief account of these movements is being given here.
Parsi theatre as a commercial venture of rich Parsi community living in Bombay, had all the elements of a hybrid theatre. Beginning in 1853, it continued with great popularity until the '30s and '40s of the 20th century when it could not complete first with the silent cinema and then the talkies. Most of the actors and actresses of Parsi theatre worked in early films, and plays popular in Parsi theatre such as Inder Sabha, Alam Aara, and Khonne Nahaq, (based on Hamlet story) were picturised. Cinema also retained several stage practices and conventions of the Parsi theatre such as abundance of songs and dances.
It is relevant to note that before the beginning of the commercial Parsi theatre, for several years there was an active amateur theatre movement, which performed plays in English, Gujarati and Hindustani. There was a dramatic club which also did Sanskrit plays translated from the English translations done by H.H. Wilson. Amateur theatre activity had created a taste for theatre and built an audience for it. Taking advantage of this, some rich Parsis established theatre companies. They also built theatre halls to sustain commercial theatre activity. Some of these theatre halls were Alphinston Theatre built in 1853; Edward Theatre built in 1860; Gaity Theatre; Empire Theatre built in 1898; Trivoli Theatre, Novelty Theatre, National Theatre, Victoria Theatre, Royal Opera House; Alfred Company; Willingdon Cinema and Hindi Natyashala. Some of the Parsi theatre companies and dramatic clubs established in Bombay were Parsi Natak Mandali; Amateur Dramatic Club; Alphinston Dramatic Club, Parsi Stage Players, Zorostrain Natak Mandali, Zorostrain Dramatic Society; Persian Zorostrain Natak Mandali; Oriental Natak Mandali; Oriental Dramatic Club; Zorostrain Dramatic Club, Zorostrain Club; Parsi Club, Albert Natak Mandali, Shakespeare Natak Mandali; Victorian Natak Mandali, Original Victorian Club, Parsi Victorian Opera Troupe, Hindi Natak Mandali etc. Along with Bombay, in some other cities and large towns also theatrical companies were established. In Rajasthan several princely states also had theatrical companies. Jharhawad and Tonk had famous companies. Other states too sponsored theatrical companies.
There were quite a few playwrights to meet the growing demand of plays and most of them were attached to theatrical companies on a fulltime salary basis. Some playwrights wrote in Urdu, some in Hindi and some preferred Hindustani. Versified dialogues were the special feature of the text, and were delivered with great theatricality. Some of the important playwrights were Abbas Ali Abbas, Zarif Husaini Mian, Raunak Mahmood Mian Banarasi, Munshi Vinayak Prasad Talib, Narayan Prasad 'Betab', Aagha Hashra Kashmiri, Mehandi Hasan, Pandit Radhey Shyam Kathavachak etc. Some of Pandit Radhey Shyam's plays such as Veer Abhimanyu were of literary value and dramatically structured. These plays were also widely performed by early amateur theatre groups. He also wrote Ramayana which is famous as Radhey Shyam Ramayana and is used for textual material for Ramlila plays in Punjab and in some regions of Uttar Pradesh. He along with Agha Hashra and 'Betab' were the most significance playwrights of Parsi theatre. Plays were written of epic and puranic stories, historical and social subjects. Stories of love and sacrifice from various parts of the world were also written about and performed on stage. Plots were freely borrowed and changed from Shakespeare's plays. A significant feature of stage presentation was a running comic story presented after each drop curtain.
These companies were professionally organized and went on a performing tour to distant cities. They also went to neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar) and Malaysia. In these countries their popularity and impact was so great that in Malaysia it has survived in the popular opera Bangsawan which evolved from the Parsi theatre incorporating some elements from indigenous theatre and Western opera.
The southern state and their own counterpart of Parsi commercial theatre called Company Natak, and companies were organized in various languages regions. Karnataka had a famous Gubbi Viranna Company. Veteran director B.V. Karanth of modern theatre worked in this company at the age of fourteen and played the role of Krishna and some female roles. There is still a company in Andhra Pradesh called 'Surabhi', with some 70 members living together as an extended family. The company stays in a village some 45 kilometers from Hyderabad. It is 100 years old and performs in the old style of Company Natak. Eminent Kannada playwright Girish Karnad wrote his famous play Tughlaq structured on the model of Company Natak plays.
Melodrama, suspense and sensational effects were the main ingredients of Parsi theatre. There were painted curtains with conventional scenes- Palace, Fort, River, Mountains and a drop curtain used to indicate the end of an act. Drop curtain was always used at a climactic point in the play with a striking tableau. If there was an enthusiastic audience and continued clapping, the curtain was lifted again and again, and tableau kept frozen. A popular actor with good voice always managed to get "once more" calls from the audience, and he would repeat the song - sometimes there were more than one 'once more' calls. Elaborate sets, gorgeous scenery and trick scenes managed with elaborate stage machinery were always loudly applauded.
For costume and stage décor, Parsi theatre depended on Raja Ravi Verma's calendar art. Ravi Verma began modern painting in India at the beginning of the 20th century using oil color technique and European tradition of painting. He, in turn, was influenced by the Parsi theatre in choosing puranic themes, and also in composing scenes and settings. He also composed tableau influenced by Parsi theatre. His paintings Sita Swayamvar and Sita Bhupravesham look like stage pictures of Parsi theatre.
The Two theatre movements, though shortlived, are important in the history of modern Indian theatre. One is the Jan Natya Sangh, popularly known as IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association), which was a cultural forum of the Communist Party of India. It was founded in 1942 in Calcutta. The immediate cause for this was the Bengal Famine, when three million people starved to death due to the negligence of the ruling class.
In 1944 Bijan Bhattacharya, one of the founders of IPTA in Calcutta, wrote a play Nabanna (New Harvest) which dramatized the exploitation of presents by the land owners. Bhattacharya also wrote another play Zabanbandi. Both the plays were directed by actor director Sombhu Mitra. Seeing the popularity of Zabanbandi, it was also performed in Hindi as Antim Abhilasha. The troupe went to Bombay to give performances of these two plays to collect money for famine relief fund. Another item prepared by this Calcutta trope was Bhukha Hai Bengal consisting of songs and dances. Seeing the success of these plays the General Secretary of the Communist Party decided to establish a Central Ballet Troupe in Bombay.
In 1942-43 Udya Shankar Center at Almore, which used to train and develop modern creative dancers, had closed. As a result some dancers like Shanti Vardhan, Narendra Sharma and Shachin Shankar also joined the IPTA Central Troupe along with musician Ravi Shankar. Shanti Vardhan was the main choreographer and leader of the troupe. Two ballets - Bharat Ki Atma (Spirit of India) and Amar Bharat (India Immortal) were prepared having a duration of one hour each. A few songs and dances were also prepared collectively to make it a programme of two hours. Binoy Roy who had a powerful voice was the main singer. The troupe toured all over the country to collect funds for Bengal famine. Filled with missionary zeal, performance was given with great gusto.
New in form and content, these theatrical shows were very popular and made quite a big impact. IPTA movement spread with branches in every state involving theatre artists, dancers, musicians, folk singers and performers. The Party also greatly encouraged popular forms of ballad singing such as 'Burra Katha' of Andhra Pradesh and 'Pawada' of Maharashtra. Popular folk form of Tamasha of Maharashtra with its pungent for humour and satire was also exploited for political purposes.
There were political differences in the Party. And in 1947, the Central Troupe was closed. There are still IPTA groups in some states but they are not of much artistic consequence.
IPTA also made a film Dharti Ke Lal directed by K.A. Abbas. Music was provided by Ravi Shankar and the actors included Sambhu Mitra, Balraj Sahani, Damayanti Sahani and Tripti Bhaduri, who later married Sambhu Mitra and evolved as one of the greatest actresses of this century in the country.
Parsi theatre had died and there was a total vacuum in the theatre life of the country. It was in such a situation that popular and highly respected film actor Prithvi Raj Kapoor started his Prithvi Theatre with a missionary zeal. Though it was an individual venture, it had the force and effect of a movement. It was started in 1944. Inspired by the ideals of nationalism and communal harmony, he had such plays in his repertoire as Deewar, Pathan, Ghaddar and Ahuti. He also staged Sanskrit Classic Shakuntala. His troupe turned whole of North India and mostly performed in the morning in cinema houses since no theatre halls were available. After the performance he used to move in the audience to collect funds for his theatre. Regretfully, he had to close it down in 1960.