Art and Resistance: Studies in Modern Indian Theatres

by Dorothy Figueira (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 332 Pages
Series: Dramaturgies, Volume 40


This volume begins with the assumption that "Hindu" should not be conflated with "Indian" (as in the case of Orientalist criticism of Indian theatre) and that modern Indian theatre need not have its starting point in classical Sanskrit drama (as many Indologists would assert). Rather, this volume uses the insights of reception theory's critique of nationalist historiography to explore a possible framework with which one might theoretically locate the issues inherent in the terms "modern Indian theatre."
Following the work of the eminent Indian comparatist, Sisir Kumar Das, this volume looks at how modernity in Indian theatre entails attempts of various Indian language groups to adjust to the forced cohabitation with both foreign and indigenous traditions. Rather than looking at Indian theatre as solely a process of Westernization or Sanskritization, this book looks at it as a response. The aesthetics of reception is then seen as a transactional and dialogical process wherein one is not always just responding to the Western or the classical Indian contexts. As opposed to most postcolonial and Indological readings, this volume traces the domain of the social imagination that has shaped modern Indian sensibilities across various languages and thereby resisting the hermetic aesthetic of reliance on hegemonic languages such as Sanskrit and English. The cover tries to reflect the overall approach of the volume. A theatrical play begins with the lighting of the ritual lamp to signify drama being given to humanity by Brahma, the Creator. According to the compendium on dramatic arts (The Natyashastra, chapter 21), the hand gesture depicted here heralds the ensuing dramatic action.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface (Dorothy M. Figueira)
  • Introduction: Reconfiguring Nationhood through Performance? (Dorothy M. Figueira)
  • I. Troupes/Troops
  • Quest for “Indian Roots”: Nativism and Modernism in Postcolonial Indian Theatre (E.V. Ramakrishnan)
  • Indian People’s Theatre Association: The Political in Culture (Suchetana Banerjee)
  • The Urge to Change the World: An Introduction to Dalit and Ambedkarite Theatre (Maya Pandit)
  • “Hard Truths and Real Facts”: Theatre for Development in India (Geoffrey V. Davis)
  • A Manasamangalpala at Joramath: Notes Towards the Understanding of an Indigenous Performative Form in Bengal (Subha Chakraborty Dasgupta)
  • II. Soldiers
  • Versions of History: Girish Karnad’s Play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (Geoffrey V. Davis)
  • Girish Karnad and the Problem of Rewriting Myth (Dorothy M. Figueira)
  • Badal Sircar’s Journey Towards the Third Theatre (Jasbir Jain)
  • Habib Tanvir: In Search of a New Popular (Suchetana Banerjee)
  • Epic Theatre, Folk Form, and Liminal Space in Satish Alekar’s Mahanirvan (The Dread Departure) (Aparna V. Zambare)
  • The Politics of Emergent Theatrical Traditions of Manipur (Sumitra Thoidingjam)
  • Just “the King’s Postman?” Rabindranath Tagore’s Plays in Transcultural Perspective (Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn)
  • A Brief Overview of a Vibrant Theatre from India: Marathi Theatre; 1843 to 2010 (Makarand Sathe)
  • Rituals of Postcoloniality and Theatres of Modernity A Study in Incommensurabilities (S. Satish Kumar)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series Index

← 8 | 9 →


This book is the fruit of several years of compilation. I was initially contacted by the Editor of the P.I.E. Peter Lang series on Dramaturgies to seek out contributions in the Comparative Literature community of recent work on Indian drama. I initially conceived this volume as encompassing both ancient (Sanskrit) and modern vernacular dramas. In a series of panels convened at a number of literature conferences in the US, Europe and India, it quickly became apparent that little work was being done on ancient Indian drama – or what was being done, often in theatre departments, was of an introductory nature. It then became my task (with the aid of the series editor) to focus on modern drama. Since we both work in Comparative Literature, with my interests touching upon Sanskrit drama (with some familiarity in modern Indian theatre) and the series editor’s focus on postcolonialism, the present volume includes consequently representative essays from both the Comparative Literature and postcolonial perspective. It in no way seeks to be comprehensive; it does not encompass all the traditions that comprise Indian folk, agit-prop, or modern theatre. As literary theorists might say, modern theatre in India is a site of contestation. This volume seeks then to examine modern Indian theatre’s level of engagement with the old and the new. Should we view it as a theatre of revolt, where the various troupes are actually troops, in some artistic revolution? Or is modern Indian theatre a series of movements marked by influences beyond geographical borders and a series of dialogues with the past in the age of modernity? To what degree is the playwright a soldier in these encounters? This volume hopes to shed some light on such questions.

In the following pages, I hope to offer a soupçon of a number of representative schools and playwrights working in India in the recent past and present. The intended audience of this volume is the general reader who is interested in modern drama (in this case, Indian) from a comparative, national language, or postcolonial perspective. As editor, I have tried to standardize the English (as my own), risking at times (according to at least one of my non-American English contributors) dulling the author’s ← 9 | 10 → “critical voice.” I have tried not to do so. The individual authors write as they write! I do not see the editor’s task as altering this reality. But, I do feel that readers should not be distracted by the variety of Englishes represented here, hence my attempts at standardization.

I must thank several individuals for the help they have rendered. I extend my gratitude to the series editor, Marc Maufort, for his unstinting encouragement throughout this long process, attending assiduously all the panels convened in this volume’s compilation. I also wish to thank Anasthasie Kaskassiades for her friendship and the use of her guest room during the years it has taken to put this book together. I am grateful to the two anonymous readers for their helpful suggestions. I wish also to thank my doctoral student, S Satish Kumar, for his insights, his contribution to the Introduction as well as his concluding essay. Finally, I wish to thank Samuel Pauwels for all his help in preparing the manuscript.


Paris, September 2018

← 10 | 11 →

Reconfiguring Nationhood through Performance?


University of Georgia

Locating a definitive ontology for what one often calls “modern Indian theatre” is, beyond a doubt, a problematic venture. Each of the terms comprising this appellation: “modern,” “Indian” and “theatre,” are open to interrogation. In the first place, how do we define modernity and nationhood? This is a question that has solicited much debate in recent literary theory. Postcolonial Studies, since its inception as an academic field of inquiry, has both fetishized and condemned such essentialisms. On a more basic level, how do we assert the “national” in the “modern,” if the “modern” itself preconfigures the birth of a nation? Indeed, modernity might not be the only category we are dealing with that prefigures the birth of the Indian nation. The work of Hans Robert Jauss provides a fruitful frame of reference in this context (Kumar 207). Citing Gervinus’s Geschichte der poetischen Nationalliteratur der Deutschen (The History of the Poetic National Literature of the Germans), Jauss addresses the problems of periodization in the writing of “national” literary histories (Jauss 6). Where does one start? How far back should one go? These concerns are, indeed, legitimate in specific “national” historiographies. Equally problematic is the implicit teleology imposed on them through the very category of the nation, where one is speaking of the notional progression through historical periods that in a more or less sequential fashion culminates in a nation’s birth (7-8). One can, therefore, justify the selective inclusion of the pre-national in a national (or nationalist) historiography as a preparation for or movement towards nationhood. Unbeknownst even to its own citizens, the nation is often years in the making. It is perhaps based upon such an approach that arguments have also been made for situating the origins of modern Indian theatre in Classical Sanskrit drama and dramaturgy. The underlying premise of this volume is that such historiographies should be questioned. ← 11 | 12 →

In Poetics, Plays and Performances: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (2006), Vasudha Dalmia, makes one such argument based on the rigid binaries of postcolionial criticism, taking as their point of departure the erroneous conflation of “Hindu” with “Indian” found in the work of British orientalists such as Sir William Jones (Dalmia 29, cited in Kumar 207). Of necessity, Jones would base his deductions on Brahminical sources, rather than from close observations on the widely varied performative traditions (even in Bengal) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a Sanskrit scholar, Jones’s formulations on drama would unproblematically align the history of Indian theatre with a Brahminical Hindu past (Dalmia 29). Such a singular or monolithic vision of nationhood and thereby of a national theatre, as Dalmia points out, coincided with similar epochs in European theatres. Given the overlap between the emergence of European nationhoods and the beginnings of European colonial enterprises, it is understandable why Jones would extend a similar logic to the colonial territories he sought to analyze. One is less inclined, however, to share Dalmia’s premise of a “European theatre” or her dismay that an orientalist scholar such as Jones perpetuated the conflation of a Brahminical and Sanskritic Hindu past with an idea of Indian history, literature, poetry, culture etc. After all, in the 1790s, the Western understanding of India was truly in its infancy (Figueira Translating). What could one reasonably expect from these fledging linguists? One witnesses here a problem so pervasive in postcolonial theory: its monolithic notions concerning the West that underwrite its critique of colonialism’s monolithic emplotment of the East. It is quite possible that Jones’s homogenizing tendencies were the only means available to him of making the pluralities constituting these categories in a plurilingual and pluricultural context such as India manageable. In hermeneutical readings, what functions as the creative prejudices (Vorurteile) that open up the cultural products of the Other appear as imperialistic stratagems in the hands of the postcolonial critic. Moreover, colonial British orientalists who concretized an understanding that applied the qualifier, “classical,” unquestioningly and exclusively to the Sanskrit tradition were not alone. One observes the continued Indian use of “classical” as a qualifier in dance forms and musical traditions. For example, dance forms such as Bharatanatyam in Southern India and Kathak in Northern India are distinguished from other dance and performative forms as “classical,” based on their structural and aesthetic grounding in Sanskrit dramaturgy (Kumar 208). ← 12 | 13 →

In this context, it is useful to call to mind Bharatendu Harishchandra, the first playwright that Dalmia analyses in her study (Dalmia 32, cited in Kumar 207-08),1 who so clearly delineated the old and the new (prachin and navin respectively) in his 1833 long theoretical essay on Hindi drama. Harischandra naturally associated the old tradition with classical Sanskrit drama and the new was the Western European drama that came with the British colonizers (Dalmia 36-37). Given Harishchandra’s commitment to social reform and the strengthening of patriotic sentiments (Ibid),2 such a delineation between the old and the new can be seen as facilitating a view of a historical national (Hindu) past that could be filtered through the lenses of then contemporary influences (Dalmia 49). Such a construction of a Hindu national past, partly catalyzed by Western Orientalist scholarship, could then provide a vehicle for political satire and nationalist resistance.3 Following Kumar’s analogy, let us return, however, to Jauss’s critique of nationalist historiographies in order to explore a possible framework within which we might otherwise locate, at least theoretically, problematic concerns inherent in the term “modern Indian theatre.” We are not advocating an uncritical borrowing of Jauss’s thesis, but rather suggesting possible resonances between the insights he gleans from his studies in German historiographical trends and Indian historiographies of a “national theatre.” Can one seek an origin for modern Indian theatre in the efforts of writers such as Harishchandra who through their work sought to foreground the Hindu-Sanskrit tradition as constitutive of an Indian theatre? In doing so, one could argue that a writer like Harishchandra, just like Jones before him, was responding to the needs of the hour by turning to a model that was linguistically accessible to him − the model of Sanskrit drama and dramaturgy. However, it is also clear that experimentation in creating a theatre in the bhashas (vernacular languages), such as Hindi, in the case ← 13 | 14 → of Harischandra, was responsive to the socio-cultural and political milieu of the time, to reconfigure the past in terms that were conducive and constructive to the present.

The work of innovators was neither a product of colonially-mediated modernity nor a return to a pre-colonial past. What really frames such work is the confluence or a synergy of the two. The prachin and the navin both constitute the new theatres that authors were elaborating in the various Indian languages at the turn of the 20th century. The new occasioned and necessitated a re-engagement with the old.4 As the great Indian comparatist, Sisir Kumar Das would argue in his encyclopedic History of Indian Literature (1991), the onset of modernity in Indian literature entailed the attempts of the various extant Indian language literary traditions to adjust to the forced cohabitation with a foreign civilization and culture (Das 78). It was not, as some would have us believe, a process of “Westernization,” but rather a response to the West (Dalmia 78). This is a key point that needs to be stressed. The foundational error of colonial discourse analysis, as propagated by Edward W. Said (in Orientalism of 1978) and the critical school that this work spawned, too often adopted uncritically by first-generation postcolonial critics, claims that the East, in this case India, is always acted upon and never accorded significant agency or anything on a par with that of the colonizer. This school of thought finds expression in this volume, when we see that discussions of Indian drama, while condemning the hegemonic imposition of the colonizer on Indian cultural productions, nevertheless, continue to function within the same binaries of colonial discourse, by playing off the relationship of English to Indian theatrical trends. Even in these postcolonial times, what critics decry, they sometimes practice themselves.

As I have examined elsewhere (Figueira Translating, Figueira Otherwise), for postcolonial criticism to be effective, it must be unidirectional. India must be configured as a victim of Western hegemony, bereft of any ability to wield strategic power or respond authentically. Colonialism has to be seen as absolute and overwhelming. This master narrative of postcolonial theory necessarily informs any present-day readings of modern Indian theatre. The focus, as Das observes and with which I concur, is always, in fact, an influence when it would actually serve us well to think in terms ← 14 | 15 → of “an aesthetics of reception,” in terms of an Indian response to Western contact. In postcolonial contexts, modernity is too often configured as the triumph of Western society and culture over that of the colony, either positively or negatively, rather than as a transactional or dialogical process. However, the other argument we have evinced, that of the Sanskrit substructure of modern Indian theatre can be equally deceptive. It can be seen to inform the work of modern Indologists who in their forays into literary theory are not as distant from hegemonic colonialist presuppositions as they may wish to believe.

A comparatist would well understand how modern Indian languages shifted gear in the wake of the colonial encounter, assimilating and resisting elements in the superior external literary traditions (Ramakrishnan 207). The Sanskritist, however, would focus on the decline of Sanskrit and its replacement by a given regional language as a medium of intellectual discourses and literary composition. It is well-known that from 900 on, Sanskrit lost its monopolistic status as the pan-Indian language. The identification of a region with its language marks a moment of transition where the regional begins to function “as the primary code of political communication” (Pollock 337). However, this transfer of power from Sanskrit to the vernaculars assumes unequal power relations between them as a cultural given. As E.V. Ramakrishnan has noted, a Sanskritist such as Sheldon Pollack is eager to incorporate cultural shifts in India into a universal model dictated by the paradigms of the European Reformation. Such thinking erases the differences between the many regions of India with reference to their modes of adopting and shaping new literary cultures centered on regional languages. Contrary to what Sanskritists might believe, the various trajectories are not the same as far as responses to the Sanskrit cosmopolis is concerned. The Orientalist wanted to freeze India into a timeless frame, when everything durable in India came from its classical past. Many Indologists and Sanskritists today subscribe to the same ideology although, in the case of Pollack, it is packaged in contemporary theoretical garb (Ramakrishnan 211).

This volume implicitly questions postcolonial and Indological readings in order to trace the domain of the social imagination that has shaped modern Indian sensibilities in Indian drama across various languages. Acknowledging the value of resisting the hermetic aesthetic and/or reliance on hegemonic languages, such as Sanskrit and English, I nevertheless give voice to such readings in this present work while also advocating that not everything worthwhile in India has to be either in Sanskrit or English, either ← 15 | 16 → at least 1000 years old or filtered through the language of the colonizer. As Maya Pandit correctly notes in her essay included here, theatre is not a popular genre in postcolonial studies. I would hazard that reliance on the examination of English language production in this brand of criticism would, of necessity, exclude work in the many other Indian languages. This volume offers a partial antidote to such readings.

Part I of this volume examines the folk and agit-prop troupes, the troops of our military analogy, that contributed to the creation of a modern and “engaged” Indian theatre tradition. E.V. Ramakrishnan begins the volume with the premise that modern Indian theatre is essentially heterogenous, since its history goes back to the beginning of the first millennium in classical Sanskrit theatre and survives in multiple forms in folk and devotional-performative practices across many languages. In the first half of the 20th century, resistance to colonialism, feudalism and fascism invested social realist drama of the proscenium stage with a new legitimacy that was then challenged in the post-1950 period, as a new set of dramatists, specifically Heisnam Kanhailal and K.N. Panikkar, redefined the very nature of theatre under the impact of the European avant-garde. The emergence of the director as the seminal figure who interprets the text in performance marks a radical departure in dramaturgical norms and coincides, according to Ramakrishnan, with an active engagement with the Indian conventions of drama from multiple traditions, enabling a new set of playwrights and directors to create new paradigms of “Indianness” in their separate ways using the stage as a creative medium. Ultimately, Ramakrishnan is raising the fundamental question: Can the modern playwright return to the folk form? Does it work?

Suchetana Banerjee then examines the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) as the first national-level theatre movement in India. She views it as marking the moment when the rejection of colonial commercial forms was translated into an actual nationwide theatrical practice and was responsible for changing the structure of theatrical performance in various parts of India. The IPTA was accountable for making theatre available to those sections of society which had been prevented from participating in it or had previously ignored its existence. This essay establishes the process and elucidates the influence of IPTA in the formation of a new canon of national theatre post-1947. Banerjee examines the people’s theatre as a multidimensional critical object through specific theoretical and interpretive procedures. Through an overview of its history, performative texts and archival documents, as well as interviews ← 16 | 17 → with participants, she investigates its ideological preoccupations, how it implanted Communist discourse onto the cultural imagination of the Indian middle classes. Banerjee also questions whether theatre as a form transcends the limitations of ideology, or whether circumstances force it to become a tool of ideology.

Maya Pandit’s essay compares the developments in Maharashtran Dalit theatre, concerned with the suppression of Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables), and compares it to present-day Ambedkarite theatre, which represents the political and cultural assertion of a militant consciousness of the same community. She traces the roots of these theatres from colonial times to the present and focuses on key playwrights of these movements, offering a summary of a number of plays from a variety of authors. She then looks at the transformation of Dalit theatre into a more militant phase marked by a strong sense of Neo-Buddhist rejection of the former “Dalit” identity as victims. This latter form projects a keen sense of agency, self-reflexivity and self-critique. Finally, the author compares various Dalit and Ambedkarite playwrights with an author such as Vijay Tendulkar to highlight the differences between militant theatre and the more mainstream Marathi theatre.

Geoffrey Davis looks at the Budhan Theatre founded in 1998 by the members of the Chhara community, an Adivasi group and one of the so-called Denotified Tribes of India. This theatre, named after Budhan Sabar, who died in police custody, seeks to heighten awareness of the injustices this community has suffered to promote social justice and human rights, to further the education of deprived young people and to foster dialogue with the wider society. Budhan Theatre thus deals with such weighty issues as deaths incurred in police custody and the 2002 Gujarat riots. It also performs adaptations of European works as well and Davis analyses how this troupe adapts such borrowings to the circumstances of the Chhara community. In terms of protest and reform, he highlights how Budhan Theatre has been effective in ameliorating the lives of Adivasis as well as enlightening sectors of society (especially the police) under whose treatment these people have suffered.

In Chapter 5, Subha Chakravorty Dasgupta takes us to an indigenous performance of the Manasamangalpala. This theatre form reenacts in song the story of Manasa, a folk goddess of serpents, and how her worship is established on earth. Originating in the medieval period, Manasamangalpala developed over the years and integrated itself into the cultural life of Bengal. Dasgupta looks at the various forms in which it is ← 17 | 18 → performed, either in small theatre groups, as part of an orature tradition, or locally by individuals. She analyzes the multiple layers that emerge with the performance of the story and tries to understand the function that it plays in the general life of the community and, in particular, what the performances mean to the actors taking part in them. After this elaboration, Dasgupta walks us through the performance as she experiences it as a spectator and literary scholar. In the process, she questions her ability, as well as our own, to adequately interpret the event.

Part II examines the commentary of the individual playwrights, the soldiers in the revolt to establish a new Indian theatre along various activist and regional lines. It presents the work of a series of iconic Indian modern playwrights and their quests for a modern Indian dramatic idiom. Geoffrey Davis examines Girish Karnad’s play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, a work commissioned by the BBC to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Indian Independence, as an interrogation of colonial historiography and a challenging critique of the Hindu/Muslim situation. Like Karnad’s other historical play, Tughlaq, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, reflects on the writing of history. It juxtaposes Karnad’s respect for Muslim historiography, which he sees as the only genuine Indian methodology and his skepticism for the British version of history. Davis also looks at this play as a commentary on contemporary Indian politics and communalism. Karnad has always maintained that history and historiography are his central concerns. The Dreams of Tipu Sultan intricately interweaves the present and the past, dreams and reality. Using both naturalistic and non-naturalistic staging techniques, Karnad can be seen to have constructed a modern Indian history play.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
Bruxelles, Berlin, Bern, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 332 pp., 5 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Dorothy Figueira (Volume editor)

Dorothy M. Figueira is a distinguished research professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia. Her scholar interests include religion and literature, exoticism, travel narratives and Indian studies.


Title: Art and Resistance: Studies in Modern Indian Theatres
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