Contemporary Indian Theatre

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The development of modern theatre in India may be attributed to a change in the political set up in India. Over 200 years of British rule brought Indian theatre into direct contact with western theatre. The seeds of modern theatre were sown in the late 18th century, with the consolidation of British power in Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It was in the thriving metropolises of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras that they first introduced their brand of theatre, based on London models. The initial purpose of the British, while introducing modern theatre in India was to provide entertainment for the British soldiers and citizens trying to acclimatize themselves to a foreign country. Initially, most dramatic works were composed in English, Bengali, Tamil and Marathi.


Radical Outbursts

The Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) was a direct reaction against the Bengal famine. In 1944, Bijan Bhattacharya, one of the founders of IPTA in Calcutta, wrote a play Nabanna (New Harvest) which dramatized the exploitation of peasants by the land owners. Bhattacharya also wrote another play Zabanbandi. Both the plays were directed by actor-director Sombhu Mitra. Another item prepared by this Calcutta troupe was Bhukha Hai Bengal consisting of songs and dances. As a result, some dancers like Shanti Vardhan, Narendra Sharma and Shachin Shankar also joined the IPTA Central Troupe along with musician Ravi Shankar.

Post-Independence Developments

Post Independence, with the new-found cultural confidence, Indian theatre and drama got a new footing, when Sangeet Natak Akademi was started in January 1953. Later, the National School of Drama under the directorship of Ebrahim Alkazi did much for the growth and promotion of modern Indian theatre. In the 1960s, by suitable mixing of various styles and techniques from Sanskrit, medieval folk and western theatre, modern Indian theatre was given a new, versatile and broader approach at every level of creativity. Among other pioneers of the dramatic revival are Ranchhodbhal and Nanalla Kavi in Gujarat, Verasalingam, Guruzada Appa Rao and Ballary Raghavachari in Telugu, Santakavi Varadachari and Kailasam in Kannada, Laxminath Bezharua in Assamese, Kerala Varma Thampuran and C.V. Raman Pillai in Malayalam, Ramshankar Rai and Kalicharan Patnaik in Oriya ,Habib Tanvir in north India and P. Sambandha Mudaliar in Tamil.

The year 1972 turned out to be a landmark for the Indian vernacular theatre when Vijay Tendulkar's Marathi play Ghashiram Kotwal made waves by its brilliant use of traditional folk forms in modern contemporary theatre. Feroz Khan is another accomplished playwright who has to his credit several outstanding plays like Tumhari Amrita, Mahatma vs. Gandhi and Salesman Ramlal. The last play is a Hindi adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In Calcutta, the Hindi theatre got a boost with the launching of the theatre group Ranga Karmee in 1976 by Usha Ganguly and her husband Kamal Ganguly.

Manjula Padmanabhan was the first Indian to earn international acclaim with her play Bitter Harvest, a futuristic play that deals with the exploitation of the human body in the 21st century, which won the highest Greek honour.Swadesh Deepak was widely recognized as one of the finest playwrights in the country after Court Martial. The play hits hard the roots of casteism in the Indian Army. Court Martial has been staged close to 2000 times in India by well-known Indian theatre directors Ranjeet Kapoor, Mujeeb khan, Arvind Gaur, Usha Ganguli and Abhijeet Choudhary. Another talented upcoming playwright is Mahesh Dattani who has produced 13 plays, including one play called Do The Needful for the BBC. He touched upon the sensitive issue of communalism in his play Final Solutions, which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award.


Although the emergence of cinema had given an elbow jerk to the popularity of theatre as the main medium of popular entertainment, several prominent figures have bridged the gap between cinema and theatre. They include Arvind Deshpande, Vijaya Mehta, Jabbar Patel, Satyadev Dube, Vaman Kendre, Dr Shriram Lagoo, Girish Karnad, Mohan Agashi, Pearl Padamsee, Amol Palekar, Shashi Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Uhasini Muley, Zohra Sehgal, Jaya Bacchan (Dr. Mukta, Ma Retire Hoti Hai) and Shabana Azmi (Tumhari Amrita, Waiting Room).

Current Trends

Theatre continues to attract a new bread of young and talented actors, directors and playwrights. Anahita Uberoi, who is the daughter of the legendary Marathi theatre artist Vijaya Mehta, is one such upcoming and talented theatre personality who has acted in several noteworthy plays like Glass Menagerie, Seascape with Sharks, Dancer and Going Solo. Sanjana Kapoor, daughter of Shashi Kapoor, is another such artiste who manages the Prithvi Theatre and provides a platform to several newcomers. Her children's play The Boy Who Stopped Smiling has recently completed 100 shows throughout India. Chetan Datar is a young and acclaimed playwright and director of Marathi theatre. Rajat Kapoor, who is associated with Chingari, a leading theatre group of Delhi, has translated into Hindi Waiting for Godot, The Taming of the Shrew and Jean Genet's The Maids and Deathwatch.He has also produced a highly dramatized play C for Clown. The play was screened recently during the Indo-American Theatre festival held in New York.Contemporary directors- Ratan Thiyam,Prasanna,Satyadev Dubey,Mujeeb Khan,Mohan Maharishi,Arvind Gaur,Lillete Dubey,Nadira Babbar,Rudraprasad Sengupta,Amal Allana, M. K. Raina and Abhijeet Choudhary also known for their work in innovative,socially and relevant theatre.

Television also provided the much-needed assistance to theatre artistes by way of tele-serials, mega-serials and soap operas. However, today there are relatively few commercial theatre companies in India. Some serious theatre groups like the Indian National Theatre, the Prithvi Theatre,Chingari, Nandikar,Asmita Theatre,Ranga Shankara ,Rangayan,Swatantra Theatre,Indian People's Theatre Association and others are contributing greatly to popularise theatre.

References and Useful Websites

  • Indian Theatre
  • Modern Indian Theatre
  • South Asian Arts
  • Ritual and Religious Drama in India

See Also