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Theatre History Podcast #49

Dr. Erin Mee on Modern and Contemporary Indian Theatre



In our previous episode, we spoke with Dr. Erin Mee of New York University about kutiyattam, a style of theatre from southwest India that brings ancient Sanskrit plays to life. But what about the more recent history of Indian theatre? Erin joins us for the second part of our series to talk about how British colonialism, independence, and contemporary debates about gender and sexuality have shaped the development of Indian theatre over the past century.


  • Click here to listen to Part One of our conversation with Erin.
a group of performers onstage in costume
Kavalam Narayana Panikkar's production of Urubhangam. Photo courtesy of Erin Mee.
Tripurari Sharma
Playwright and director Tripurari Sharma. Photo courtesy of Erin Mee.

If you want to learn more about modern and contemporary Indian theatre, here are some reading suggestions:

  • You can also watch a complete performance of Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like a Man here, and his films 30 Days in September and The Big Fat City are currently available to stream via Netflix.

You can subscribe to this series via Apple iTunes, Google Play Music, or RSS Feed or just click on the link below to listen:


Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and howlround.com.


Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. Last week we spoke to Dr. Erin Mee, of New York University, about the history of Sanskrit theatre in India. This week we are continuing our discussion with the consideration of how modern Indian theatre has developed in the course of colonialism and independence. Erin, hello again.

Erin Mee: Hello.

Michael: Where, when, and how did modern theatre develop in India?

Erin: Modern theatre in India developed as part of a colonial enterprise in three port cities that were established and built up by the British East India Company: in Calcutta, Bombay, and to a lesser extent Madras. These cities are now known as Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai. I'll probably refer to them by their nineteenth century names just for historic consistency.

But in the nineteenth century the British introduced modern European theatre to these colonial cities in three ways: by touring productions to entertain their expat communities, which is to say the merchants who were there; by supporting productions of English plays staged by the expats themselves in newly erected British-style play houses; and by teaching English drama in Indian universities, where Shakespeare was actually presented as the apex of British civilization.

So, the spread of English drama was part of colonizing Indian culture. It was designed not only to shape artistic activity, but to impose on Indians a way of understanding and operating in the world, ad to assert colonial cultural superiority. So, one of the things that happened in places like Bombay and Calcutta is that theatres were built to accommodate these touring productions of English plays. And what's interesting about these theatres, including for example the Grant Road theatre in Bombay, is that they were designed to remind their audiences of home. They were exact copies of their English counterparts with the pit gallery, dress boxes, painted perspective scenery, winged foot lights, a front curtain, chandeliers. So that when they were inside these audiences were in a British space.

And in fact, actually, there was one theatre goer who wrote a little poem that was published in a newspaper in the 1800s in Mumbai...Bombay... He said that the amateur theatre recreated the semblance of the land his childhood knew, wherein he could be however temporarily transported home. So he wrote, "As the shipping scenes per chance recall the peaceful cottage that the squire is hall. He all forgetting India's burning crime, fancies again he hears his village chime."

It was a place where people... where British expats, merchants, and the soldiers who were then sent to protect them could go to feel as though they were literally and figuratively at home. And as English merchants began to work with Indian merchants, Indian merchants began to attend the theatre. In fact, there's a British Indian Gentleman's Gazette, was the name of a newspaper in Bombay, and one of their writers pointed out that the woman who ran the theatre was likely to bring about the kinds of transformation that missionaries and soldiers could not. So English language drama was consciously being used to disseminate the values of the British empire.

It began to by then taught in the universities that were established in Calcutta and Bombay. It was a colonial policies, set up by Thomas Mccauley, who believe believed in the superiority of English culture and wanted to create, and I quote here, "a class of persons Indian in blood and culture but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." And his educational policy was designed to inculcate a set of values into the students who would then learn to think of English culture as superior.

Mccauley's educational policy was formalized in the education act of 1835, which was followed by an 1844 resolution that gave preference to Indians who distinguished themselves in European literature. So it became important for people in Bombay and Calcutta to receive this education because this is how they got jobs, right? And then what happened was these people who studied literature in these universities, places like Elphinstone College, et cetera, began to study Shakespeare and began to write plays based on the dramaturgical structures of Shakespeare, et cetera, and later Ibsen.

What happened was you got a number of plays like Keechaka Vadha which in fact is a very interesting play because although it appears on the surface to use this colonial dramaturgical structure and appears then to be a part of the seminating colonial values, there's a scholar who has argued I think quite persuasively that the dramaturgical structure cloaked a very anti colonial message.

But what happened then was that instead of plays that would take forty one nights such as kutiyattam or be performed all night such as kathakali or [jatra 00:06:10] or [nautanki 00:06:11] or tamasha or any of the genres of performance that were popular at the time. What happened then with building of theatres is ticket sales, et cetera, so instead of having, for example, forty-one night kutiyattam performance sponsored by a temple, or an all-night kathakali performance sponsored by the local king, or a popular entertainment such as tamasha or nautanki you had plays being performed in private spaces and with ticket sales. So, theatre began to be commercialized. Instead of performances occurring on a harvest calendar or a ritual calendar, performances were scheduled for Friday and Saturday night.

You had a situation where people would buy a ticket and go on Friday night to see a performance. What happened then was that in order to sell those tickets, people began to have to guarantee their quality. When a performance is free, when it's sponsored by the temple or the local king or the local someone else, you can take a risk on it. When you have to pay money and get your carriage and go on a Friday night you begin to wonder if it's any good. So people began to advertise these plays as saying, "Well, the performers are not going to improvise, they'll stick to the text," which meant that if you knew that the text was good and you could vet the text, that you could guarantee a certain level of performance.

This led to a kind of play that was more text based, more text driven, more playwright initiated. So whereas kutiyattam is based on play texts by the time an eight page play takes forty one nights to perform the play itself, that written text, is not the most important part of the performance. What happens in Bombay and Calcutta is that the text becomes the most important part of the performance and the productions begin to be very text based and thought driven. This is then in contradistinction to the "indigenous" genres of performance such as kathakali, nautanki, kutiyattam, [jiatka 00:08:32], et cetera.

So what happened then is that the people who were being educated in these English universities such as Elphinstone College were being taught to valorize plays such as Shakespeare and the Indian plays that seemed most like Shakespeare. And they were being taught that these other plays that took all night were not great here. Not as good as the colonial drama that they were seeing. So the performance genres that were actor driven or based on elaboration began to be marginalized. I'm oversimplifying here, in order to create a kind of understandable narrative in the context of a forty five minute podcast. It's obviously much more complicated than that, but this I would say is one way of telling the story and understanding how modern theatre arised.

There was then, in Bombay, a push and pull between these "text driven plays" and plays with music and dance. Which began to be known as sangeet nataks. They were incredibly popular and written in a number of different languages. Very exciting. They then died out actually when film began to be popular because the kinds of stories and dramaturgical structures and modes of performance were easily adopted and adapted by cinema. Which was then cheaper and more spectacular to produce and so the [inaudible 00:10:14] really died out.

What happened then was Ibsen was introduced to India. So in 1931 we get... he's called the golden spier, which is a Marathi play that has a unity of time and place, a single narrative line. It is realistic human beings, so no longer gods and goddesses. We're talking about secular theatre as opposed to theatre that can be, or is also, a religious ritual. So the characters in these plays begin to be human. They begin to speak in crows the way we speak in everyday life as opposed to speaking in verse. They begin to inhabit realistic places, et cetera.

Then there's a play that was produced in 1933, School for the Blind, which is considered the first modern play in Marathi. It was actually produced by a theatre company that was formed with a very specific purpose of bringing modern drama to the Marathi stage. The way this company defined modern Marathi theatre was psychologically developed characters, a plausible plot, conversational dialogue, realistic behavior, a stage set that represented a real time and a place, and a three act structure. The other thing that this play had was women playing women's roles as opposed to many genres of classical Indian theatre in which men play women's roles. So by 1933, modern theatre in Bombay had been [inaudible 00:12:03] with naturalism and the two had become synonymous.

There's a similar sort of history in trajectory in Calcutta. Theatres that didn't conform to this emerging definition of theatre were not actually considered theatre. They were marginalized and they began to be called performance, or they began to be called folk theatre or something else, right? Then, when people wrote history books called Indian Theatre, they would include Sanskrit drama, the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa, and then they would skip forward to the 1930s. Modern theatre began to look like a gift from the British.

I would argue that the term theatre is actually quite political. I would argue that dramaturgical structure is political, and that modes of engagement are political, and that what happened was that modern theatre in India, which developed as part of a colonial project, really embodied early on a colonial ideology and aesthetic.

Michael: So it sounds like even the term theatre has this whole host of connotations, these associations, with colonialism. What happens to theatre or performance in India after independence?

Erin: Well, let me go back to just before independence, if I may. There was an organization called the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, which is commonly known as IPTA. It was formed in 1942, and what IPTA began to do was use traditional performance to spread the word about political and social issues to non-literate people. Their mission was to build on the fact that people had begun to create a new theatre of their own by taking genres such as kathakali and in fact even kutiyattam, [zathra 00:13:53], et cetera, and introducing contemporary political plays and ideologies with those genres.

When we spoke about Sanskrit drama and kutiyattam, I was saying that one of the jobs of the Vidushika is to make the Sanskrit drama relevant and to make political and social analogies. In Kerala, for example, people began to take kutiyattam and use those Sanskrit plays to make contemporary political statements about colonialism and about the British. IPTA did that in a number of areas around the country, using local languages, using local performance genres.

It's worth saying parenthetically here that India has a number of different states, each with its own history, language, culture, performing arts tradition, et cetera. The number of officially recognized Indian languages changes from time to time. I think at the moment it's twenty-six, and by that I mean actual languages with different scripts, et cetera. If you want to talk about dialects, I think the number of officially recognized dialects is over 8,400. Again, that doesn't include the number of dialects that aren't officially recognized.

If you want to speak to people in any particular state or region of India, you need to really work in the local language. IPTA had branches in Calcutta, in Bombay, et cetera. Their most famous production is probably Nibhana, New Harvest, which was written by Bijon Bhattacharya and directed by Shombu Mitra, and the play focuses on the Bengal famine of 1943. What Nibhana did, really, was exposed the reality that the famine was not a natural disaster, but a manmade calamity, and actually in fact generated by the economic structure of colonialism. Nibhana was very useful in getting a particular message across to audiences.

After independence, because theatre had been used to disseminate colonial culture and demonstrate cultural superiority, it became a very powerful tool with which to challenge that very same colonial authority, both before and after India's independence in 1947.

After independence, a number of playwrights and directors turned to classical dance, religious ritual, martial arts, and popular entertainment. Genres that had come to be identified as Indian, along with Sanskrit aesthetic theory, to see what dramaturgical structures, acting styles, and staging techniques could be used to create an "indigenous, non-realistic style" of production, which could in turn be used to identify a "Indian theatre," in contradistinction to the realism of colonial theatre.

This impulse, which I think came out of IPTA, was known was the theatre of roots movement, a post-independence effort to decolonize the aesthetics of modern Indian theatre by challenging the visual practices, performer-spectator relationships, dramaturgical structure, and aesthetic goals of colonial performance. The theatre of roots movement saw new ways of structure experience, new ways of perceiving the world, and new modes of social interaction that were not dictated or modeled by the values and aesthetics of colonial theatre.

It is important to note that the theatre of roots movement, these are not the first playwrights and directors to challenge or resist colonial culture in either their subject matter or their aesthetics, but the roots movement challenge colonial culture and the homogeneity of colonial culture by reclaiming the aesthetics of performance and by addressing the politics of aesthetics.

For example, [inaudible 00:18:07] incorporates the dramaturgical structure of kutiyattam, which we discussed in the last podcast, the aesthetic goals of kutiyattam in that he wants his productions to be rustic rather than cathartic. He uses the actor training methods of kutiyattam and kathakali, the physical training of [inaudible 00:18:29], which is a particular form of martial art in [inaudible 00:18:33], and the actor character relationships that are found in [keatham 00:18:38], which is a ritual performance.

[inaudible 00:18:42], in creating his modern Indian theatre, attempts to decolonize modern Indian theatre by "returning" to this "roots," in kutiyattam, kathakali, keatham, [inaudible 00:18:58], mohimiyattam, et cetera, in order to create a modern Indian theatre that he feels reflects the culture that he grew up in. [inaudible 00:19:09] is a playwright and a director. He has written a number of plays, and he's also directed a number of [inaudible 00:19:18] plays. [inaudible 00:19:20] has staged a production of [inaudible 00:19:21], a [inaudible 00:19:22] anti-war play, which is centered around the [inaudible 00:19:27] leader [inaudible 00:19:29] who does on the battlefield because of a blow to the side.

This play, again, is in its English translation eight pages long, and if I were to do it in New York, it would be part of a ten minute play festival. If I were to do a kutiyattam performance, it would be forty-one nights. What [inaudible 00:19:48] does is to stage a ninety minute version of this. He takes the dramaturgical structure of kutiyattam and adapts it for modern theatre. Instead of staging the prologue, he actually cuts all but four lines of the prologue, and then he spends twenty minutes bringing the warriors out, and they dance a martial art dance. I would call it a dance. It's a sort of martial arts sequence, in which they demonstrate their machismo, their heroism, their desire to become famous warriors, et cetera.

[inaudible 00:20:25] shows us how empty that is. He then brings the parents and son of [inaudible 00:20:31] on to the battlefield, and they have two lines of text. "My son, where are you? Where are you, my child?" And they repeat those two lines of text as they enter and as they find their son on the battlefield. What this does is it gives you a chance to drop into and delve into their sadness and their pain on the death of their son, the sadness and pain of [inaudible 00:21:02] son, the brutality and horror of war.

I would say that one of the main things that [inaudible 00:21:09] adapts or takes from kutiyattam is the notion of elaboration, but in his productions, the actors are not improvising in the way that they are in kutiyattam, so they are rehearsing these elaborations and setting them in rehearsal. But what he ends up with then is a modern production of a Sanskrit play that is informed and inspired by kutiyattam, but is very much a modern production for a contemporary audience.

One of the playwrights who is associated with the theatre of roots movement and very well-known is Girish Karnad, and his play Hayavadana is one of the poster plays of the movement because he combines some of the dramaturgical structure of Yukshadana which is a classical dance drama of Karnataka, which is where he's from, with a sort of modern theatrical dramaturgical structure that we are familiar with from playwrights like Ibsen. He centers his play around the character Padmini, who marries Devadotta, but falls in love with Devadotta's best friend, and so I won't go into too much detail, but they go off to a Kali temple. The men end up cutting off their heads, and she ends up putting their heads back on but the wrong way, so she puts Devadotta's head on Kapila's body and Kapila's head on Devadotta's body, leading to the central question of the play: which man is her husband, the one with Devadotta's head or the one with his body?

It's a very interesting and fun play. It's just a beautiful, beautiful play, but Karnad really... the central story of Padmini is linear, but then he surrounds that central story with some concentric circles, so there's a horse-headed man who finally becomes a complete being. The play opens with Vinesh, who is a deity with a man's body and an elephant's head. Again, a story I won't go into, but another way of looking at this question: Who are we? Are we our body, or are we our head? I would say that if you want to know more about Hayavadana, you can look at chapter three of my book, Theatre of Roots, just to save a little time in this podcast. It's an amazing, wonderful play. It really does create a play that I would say is more than the sum of its parts. It's a hybrid play that is both western and Anglo, but more than either one of those things, and quite incredible.

The other person whose work I think is wonderful and worth investigating is [inaudible 00:24:00], who's a playwright and director. His work has been seen in the United States all around and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I won't go into his work in great detail, but just to say that [inaudible 00:24:12] is an amazing play, and available in English translation and well worth checking into.

Michael: What about playwrights who are working in maybe a more conventional or realistic mode, something that western audiences might more immediately recognize?

Erin: Well, there's the work of Vijay Tendulkar, who's written a number of really fantastic plays, and Mahesh Elkunchwar is well known for realistic theatre. In fact, he said, "Look, I grew up in a major metropolis. Western theatre is what I know. It is mine. I am writing in that tradition. I don't have roots to go back to. Ibsen is my roots." There is also a wonderful writer, Mahesh Dattani, who writes in English. Now, for a long time, English language theatre was side lined because it was the language of colonialism, but the reality is it's spoken by a huge number of people in India, so Dattani writes in English for an urban audience. His plays are set on [cosenium 00:25:16] stages, and they really are focused on the nuclear family. Dattani actually started out as an actor working in English language theatre, and he wanted to do Indian plays but he didn't like the available translation, so he started writing his own plays, beginning with Where There's a Will, in which he takes his subject, the complicated dynamics of the modern urban family. His characters struggle for some kind of freedom and happiness under the oppressive weight of tradition, cultural constructions of gender, and oppressed desire.

Homosexuality is one taboo subject that Dattani takes out of the closet and places on stage for public viewing and dialogue, and there was a very interesting response to one of his productions. Somebody came up to him and said, "I have nothing against homosexuals, but do we have to watch them on stage?" Dattani's response is, "Well, I have yet to meet a homosexual who says, 'I have nothing against heterosexuals, but do we have to watch them on stage?'"

Dattani is the first playwright to take homosexual characters, place them on stage, and treat them as three dimensional human beings rather than as the butt of some cheap homophobic joke. His play Bravely Fought the Queen, which was first performed in 1991; centers around two sisters, one of whom is tricked into marrying the man who is having an affair with her brother, in order to provide a cover for their forbidden relationship, and so she escapes by drinking very heavily, and so this play really deals with the ways in which homophobia destroys lives, all kinds of lives.

Seven Steps Around the Fire focuses on the murder of Kamala, who's a hijra. Hijras are traditional... it's an umbrella term for transgendered third sex individuals, and it turns out that Kamala was secretly married to the son of a wealthy government minister who then has Kamala killed and quickly arranges a suitable marriage for his son, et cetera. So again, it deals with people's shame because of cultural constructions of gender, et cetera.

He's got another brilliant play, On A Muggy Night in Mumbai, and a play, Thirty Days in September, which addresses incest. On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, I think, is the first Indian play to deal openly with issues of homosexuality, and really to deal sympathetically with questions of love, partnership, trust, and betrayal between members of the gay community. It shows what happens when members of the gay community are forced into the closet by a hypocritical society.

I think his plays are really wonderful. They're actually available... He's filmed two of them, and they're available on Netflix, and one of them, Michael, I sent you a link, is actually available on the Asia Society's website, so three of his plays are available to be seen.

Michael: I understand there's also a number of really interesting women who are writing, directing, working in Indian theatre.

Erin: Yes, a huge number. I would say that in fact at the moment, women are really moving the theatre forward, because they are asking... [Kimte Jane 00:28:31] is a very interesting director, who said what would theatre be like if women had been working in theatre for a millennia? She said we sort of inherited these male models, dramaturgical structures, modes of working, et cetera. What would it be like if women had created these dramaturgical structures? You've got people like [inaudible 00:28:58], numerous, numerous women all over the country who are writing really interesting plays with new and exciting structures and modes of engagement, and they're really taking on all kinds of topics: gender, the role of women. I would say that they're experimenting with for and structure and content in a very interesting way, and really moving theatre forward.

Amal Allana directed a piece called The Actress Binodini, and the character of Binodini is played by five actors, because Amal says she doesn't feel like just one person, so she's interested in having each character played by a number of different actors who each play aspects of that character. She is questioning the traditional notion of character, of personhood. She's saying that personhood and character is more complicated, more diverse, that we might each be five or ten people rather than one person. Many of these women are creating new dramaturgical structures.

Anuradha Kapur in 2002 began working on a piece that she calls the Antigone Project, which is a video theatre collaboration that came out of the Hindu Muslim riots in [Gujurat 00:30:36], and so she used some text from [inaudible 00:30:39] Antigone and interspersed it with documentary footage of the riots, and then testimony of the victims. Again, what she's doing is questioning media portrayal of the riots, questioning a notion of a sense of self, questioning who is Indian...

The work of Amal Allana, Maya Rao, Anuradha Kapur, all of these women are examining identity in a much more complicated way I think than the theatre of roots movement did. I think if you want to say that the theatre of roots movement was asking who are we as Indians, what is India, in the wake of independence, I think Maya, Anu, and Amal are now asking what is a person? Who are we as people? Who are we as a country? Are we a Hindu country, a Muslim country, both? Is there room for everybody?

Maya Rao, in wake of the infamous Delhi rape, did a piece called The Walk, which is a brilliant... It's online. You can see different versions of it on line, M-A-Y-A R-A-O, The Walk, what you would Google, and she's asking questions about identity and safety of women and how are women treated, and who are we and what is our relationship to society, to government, to each other, et cetera?

I think there's a very interesting and complicated set of questions being raised in the theatre now.

Michael: We'll post links, images, and video that will allow you to explore the world of modern Indian theatre in more detail. Erin, thank you so much for a great conversation.

Erin: Michael, thank you so much for devoting two episodes of this podcast to Indian theatre.


Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit HowlRound.com, and follow HowlRound and @theatrehistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net, where you can find links to all of our episodes, and you can email your questions and comments about the show to [email protected]. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound to make this show possible. Our music this week comes to us courtesy of [inaudible 00:33:14]. Thanks as well to Tip Crest, who designed our logo. And finally, thank you for listening.

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The name of the play which is inaudible at 5.33 is 'Keechaka Vadha'. It was written by a person, whose name I exactly don't remember but who was a follower of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The play was a mythological play which was adapted to be an allegory to the colonial imperialism.