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From Stage to "Nukkad". Tracing the Indian Theatrical Genealogy

Hausarbeit 2016 28 Seiten

Theaterwissenschaft, Tanz









The Theatre stage have always been a limited structure with actors and props interacting, refuting, co-existing and sometimes overlapping each other over a large milieu patiently observing them through a continuous process of association and disassociation. There was a time when theatre was narrowly limited within a handful of intellectual beings but with Diderot shattering the fourth wall, the stage moved closer to the audience. With the advent of street theatre (nukkad) the Indian theatrical scene could successfully disentangle themselves from the spatially and ideologically limited stage norms and introduce a free-flowing space for expressions. Playwrights like Safdar Hashmi and Badal Sircar actively practiced this form of theatre and often the audience became a part of enactments. This paper addresses how the stage aesthetics could be made culturally and socio-religiously relevant by transporting the stage from the high podium into the streets.

Keywords: theatre, fourth wall, nukkad, spatially, aesthetics


The theatrical evolution in India is not based on a subtle, epochal enunciation of well organized thoughts and ideas but is engraved as a superfluous medium within the ethics of our socio-cultural and political expressions over the ages.i The theatrical perspectives in India could never be contained and interpreted within the well defined contours of stage and the audience space of a well-constructed theater hall. The elements of theatre and theatrics form a crucial segment of the Indian existence. Indian Theatre doesn’t emerge from the cloistered, claustrophobic pages of a text articulated and dramatized through the author-oriented ideals but through the regular happenings in the private and the domestic life. This ancient story about the origin of Indian drama as mentioned in Natyashastra enhances my argument. Natyashastra is regarded as a phenomenal work of dramatic theorizations in the Sanskrit drama of classical India and later on it branched across and over as a highly motivational and influential text for dramatizing ideals and indigenous aesthetic representations. Penned by sage Bharat Muni it is a set of ideologies framed for both theoretical and performative implications in dance, music and theatre. Primarily dealing with the multi-dimensional premises of stagecraft it has influenced music, dance and literature as well. Thus the argument could be easily asserted that Natyashastra is the fountainhead of fine arts in India.

At the beginning of the ‘Treta Yugaii’ the evolution of Natyashastra took place when Indraiii and other gods, being bored with their present stature of life, requested to create certain objects of positive distractions which will successfully enable to overcome their present monotony. As the lower castes didn’t have any access to the four Vedasiv(Sama, Yajur, Rig, Atharva) so Bharat Muni created the fifth Veda which was the Natya Veda v. Unlike the four Vedas the fifth one was open to all irrespective of caste and creeds. Prior to its creation Brahma entered into a transcendental stage summoning all the four Vedas once again. He extracted the recitative elements (Paathya) from the Rig Veda, songs (Geeta) from the Sama Veda, histrionic representations (Abhinaya) from the Yajur Veda and sentiments (Rasa) from Atharva Veda. These four crucial ingredients culminated together to form the pedestal of the modern art and culture of India. But its formulation didn’t solve everything. The gods where unable to practice and then Brahma passed on the entire theatrical battalion to Bharat Muni and his hundred sons to practice. The process of practicing flagged off through dance representations which is an integral part of Indian theatrical practices. The Natya Veda besides outlining the basic elements of Indian art and aesthetics has also defined the different varieties of acting (Abhinaya) techniques which needs to be implemented in the course of acting. The four kinds are as follows:

- Angika – The physical movements of every part of the body to convey the meaning with ‘hastamudras’ (hand movements) and ‘mandis’ (postures).
- Vachikabhinaya – The vocal or verbal apprehension of the thoughts and ideas and it is mostly relevant in the non-dance forms of theatre but in the modern days the different fusion of artistic genres have invested this form within dance theatres as well.
- Aharyabhinaya – external expressions, moods which are very much influenced by the stage background, accessories and the sets.
- Satvikabhinaya – The perspective of practical representation can be promptly represented through the subtle movements of the body and thus eyes play a crucial role in it. The eyes play a crucial role which enables psychological interpretation of one’s own eternal feelings in front of the audience.

The various emotions that govern the different forms and moods of acting which is evoked according to the theme of the theatrical representations and the taste of the audience are – hasya (laughter), krodha (anger), bibhatsa (disgust), bhayanak (fear), shoka (sorrow), veera (courage), karuna (compassion), adhbhuta (wonder) and shanta (serenity).vi These nine ‘rasas’ (moods) altogether amalgamate with each other in different segments of time and space to be enacted on the stage and entertain the audience. If we have to understand Indian theatre in an all encompassing manner (which is in itself another grand topic for debate!) then it is important for us to realize the various socio-cultural-political influences that shaped the theatrical scene widely underpinned with religion and also the inter-disciplinary and the trans-disciplinary prospects of it (Bharat Muni Natyashastra 51).

The Indian socio-cultural-political space is vastly occupied by the multiple layers and sub-layers of castes and gender. These two elements are like the part and parcel of Indian life and form the epicenter of Indian socio-cultural and regular existential discourses. Indian religious believes especially girdling around the Hindu acts and practices are naturally intertwined within the grammatologies of caste and creeds. Since theatre forms an integral part of Indian existence so these elements have perforated into our socio-cultural veins as well. In order to understand the contemporary standards and definitions of Indian theatre it is important for us to delve into its genealogical roots and apprehend the oral, scriptural and the ritualistic characteristics respecting its individual similarities and differences. The theatrical representations in India dates back to the ancient times when rituals where performed. The performance of the rituals where at two levels – individual and collective which largely depended on the socio-cultural and religious significance and also the ancient scriptural ethics as outlined by the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads vii. The rituals which were held mainly in the form of different versions of ‘yajnas’ (fire rituals) by the community as a whole or a single priest often found that the participants through different bodily movements and verbal chants attained a transcendental state which often appeared parallel to an actor. What is also remarkable about these kinds of religious performances are that the participants didn’t require a well dimensioned stage with artificially constructed theatrical paraphernalia to create illusionary audience pleasuresviii. Rather the settings, theme, plot and dialogic exchanges have always been a product of psycho-physical spontaneity and superfluity usually within the socio-religious frameworks. The fire sacrifices during the Vedic period where highly theatrical in nature and can even be called as ‘rudimentary playlets’ (M.L. Varadpande Religion and Theatre 2). Alike the rituals the well embellished religio-philosophical systems and concepts have also influenced the systems and concepts of the Indian theatre artists as well. For instance, Kalidasa in his play Malavikagnimitram defines the human nature based on three important qualities (traigunyodbhava lokacharitam) and they are – ‘raja’ (energy), ‘tama’ (substance) and ‘satva’ (intelligence) of the Sankhya Philosophyix. In a very similar fashion the concepts of uttam (superior), madhyam (middle) and adham (inferior) associated with man as propounded by Bharata have also been carved out of the same philosophical base (Nandalal Sinha The Samkhya Philosophy 2000).

The earliest glimpses of dance theatrical rituals could be easily located in the walls of the Bhimbetka caves which belong to the Mesolithic Period. In one of the compositions as illustrated, three out of the four dancers could be seen wearing bison-horn mask, a feathered head-dress and a wolf’s head mask. The fourth dancer is found to be leaping into the air. In another painting the two figures seems to move in a ritualistic dance (Yashodhar Mathpal Prehistoric Paintings of Bhimbetka 1984). As time matured the existence of both theatrical activity and the religious cults flourished in the ancient Indus civilization which existed from 2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C. Different varieties of masks, musical instruments, figurines of dancing men and women and stringed manipulated puppets where recovered from their sites (R. K. Pruthi Prehistory and Harappan Civilization 2004). Infact the rituals that were performed by the Vedic Aryans were highly dramatized. M.L. Varadpande in his book Religion and Theatre (1983) informs us:

The priest and performers of the fire sacrifice assumed different roles during the course of ritual and delivered dialogues with meaningful and symbolic gesticulations, sang hymns and played on musical instruments. Their books, the religious scriptures contained myths for enactment; their hymns used for recitation at rituals were in dialogue form, and more interesting, they had dancing gods. (7)

It was also during this period when the clear demarcations where observed regarding the dramatic rituals and entertainment. For instance, a regular jester entertainer ‘Kari’ according to the ‘Vajasaneyi Samhita’ and the ‘Taittiriya Brahmanax’ is to be sacrificed to the deity of laughter – Hasa. The purpose of the sacrifice was to dispatch an entertainer into heaven (Navaratna S. Rajaram and David Frawley Vedic “Aryans” and the Origin of Civilization: A Literary and Scientific Perspective 1995). Indian canons like Mahabharata and Ramayana also have sufficient instances which reveal the taste of theatre during their times. The Mahabharata reveals a large number of story-telling sessions and theatrical performances by actors and dancers in the ‘Rajasuya Yajnaxi’ performed by the Pandavas:

Teshu te nyavasan rajan brahmananrupasatkrutah

Kathayantah katham bahvih pashyanto nata nartakan

(The gathering of the Brahmans is being wholeheartedly

graced with story-telling and theatrical performances which are a great

source of entertainment for the audience.)

(Chitra Krishnan and Arun Kumar Vyasas Mahabharata 2010)

Thus the above mentioned multifarious sources of ancient theatre mainly in the forms of religious rituals and dance performances reveals that how the very evolution of Indian theatre was not a liberal form of art in itself but an inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary space addressing the different dimensions of human existence. The stage and the structured version of theatre in India were very prominent but its tendencies developed with the court plays being staged during the time of imperial regimes. It is with the interference of the various kingdoms in the art and cultural persuasions of the nation which started constricting the free-flowing modes of expressions and the very first step towards it was the staging of court plays. The court plays which were typically devised under the enthusiasm and sponsorship of the kings and queens were selectively designed for the sake of celebrating successful regimes associated with themselves and their forefathers. It is through these court performances through which the imperial powers masked their drawbacks and also maintained their political hegemony unhindered.

Even much ahead of the caste, communal or gender hierarchies it were the court plays that started creating theatrical hierarchies. But casteist tendencies could not be completely ruled out. Firstly, during any forms of royal court performances the front seats were occupied by the Brahmins and the other higher castes and last section of the audience was reserved for the low and the outcaste people. But what was astonishing that the lower caste people were frequently allowed to enter the courts of the king and this was none other than another cunning political strategy. Secondly, the exposure of the court plays were centrally designed to appeal to the common lower class people staying at the peripheries of the kingdom and to give a legal and ethical justification of the royal acts even if it is vehemently directed against them. But if this was the royal elite theatrical culture then the various mass theatrical cultures like the folk, oral, ‘bhajans’ (enactment of songs through slight actions defining the different perspectives of Indian society), ‘giti-natak’ (musical theatre) and ‘kavigaan’ (poetic bards) were equally prominent. These varieties of theatrical performances where mainly based in the outskirts of the main kingdom towards the core rural areas. ‘Bhajans’, ‘giti-natak’ or ‘nritya-natak’ (dance drama) where mainly considered as religious and where centered around the temple premises under the strict supervision of the Brahmins But the segment of ‘kavigaan’ was a very unique feature of Bengal and it formed an important part of the folk theatre tradition of India. Though it was not performed in the open public yet they dismissed every form of spatial constructivities and strictly focused on the performance. A suitable place along with the minimal shades and mats where organized in the centre of the village. The villagers from different corner flocked together, sat on the ground and took great interest in it. Two groups of people along with a leading poet debated and challenged each other through rhythmic songs which thematically ranged from pure divine compositions towards cheap abusive words often underpinned with insulting sexual connotations (Swarochish Sarkar Kavigan 2012). According to Dr. Sushil Kumar Dey, ‘The existence of the Kabi songs may be traced in the beginning of the 18th century and even beyond it to the 17th, but the flourishing period of the kabiwalas (the poets) was between 1760 and 1830’ (Kishoriranjan Das Radha Birbhumer Kaviwala O Kavigan 2006). The periodical inception of this form of folk theatrical representation brings once again the ancient richness of the Indian theatre in forefront. Besides group meetings the poor singers who couldn’t afford a grand ‘kavigaan’ fest often resorted to solo singing, moving around the villages, performing and entertaining the people. These instances of different versions of Indian theatrical presentations over the different fragments of time and space approves one major aspect of it and that is the evolution of the indigenous theatrics didn’t take place according to the well defined spatio-temporal borders of the stage and the community but it is the rich appendix of orature which consistently defined and re-defined the geographical and the geo-political spaces of human existence. But with the unfortunate disruption of the natural spatio-temporality with the colonial ethical time the entire theatrical scene underwent a massive change.xii The next section of the paper discusses the gradual hierarchal transformation of Indian theatre and the different efforts being undertaken to disentangle from the colonial dimensions and revive the indigenous paradigms.


As already been discussed in the previous section the connection between Indian society, culture, religion and theatre it is also important for us to know that when did these communal and the caste based divisions were injected in stage or in the audience or within the stage-audience relationships. If the problem of casteism is mythologically-cosmologically-historically engraved within the Indian socio-cultural system then it was transferred into the Indian stage with the advent of the colonizers. Irrespective of caste and creed discrepancies Indian theatre never had a definite stage or was never articulated for certain sections of the audience. It was open for all and free from the commercial seductions as it happened with the coming of the colonial paternity. Thus the indigenous problems of casteism or communalism could be the part of the Indian socio-cultural system but its intervention into the sphere of art and aesthetics is a product of colonial orientalism or what Zimbabwean decolonial critic Dr. Sabelo J. Ndlovi-Gatsheni defines as the assertion of the ‘metaphysical empire of coloniality or meta-coloniality’ (Decoloniality as the Future of Africa 2015). In the same essay Prof. Ndlovu-Gatsheni while defining de-coloniality says that ‘it is not only a long standing political and epistemological movement aimed at liberation of (ex)-colonized peoples from global coloniality but also a way of thinking, knowing and doing.’ It is this perspective of ‘doing’ which is going to play a pivotal role in this section of the paper. But before we trace the spatial-thematic shift from the proscenium to the streets it is important for us to slightly explore the development of proscenium theatre in India from the colonial into the post-colonial times. xiii

With the formal end of European colonialism, the world experienced multi-faceted geo-political and spatial-ideological shifts which culminated into massive ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’ (Richard Wilk Lumping and Splitting: Globalization that Reforms the Categories of People and Things 2001) of the human race within the post-colonial terminologies of ‘contemporary’, ‘post-independence’, ‘new’, ‘modern’, ‘Europhone’, ‘Anglophone’xiv and others (Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker Postcolonial Frames and the Subject of Modern Indian Theatre 2005). These where not only limited within the contours of intellectual theorization but also it permeated into the premises of arts and aesthetics. Speaking about Indian theatre it is impossible to analyze its characteristics within the above mentioned post-colonial etiquettes which underwent a continuous contradictory shift of assimilation and atomization. Besides introducing different other forms and modes of colonization in India, cultural colonization were a crucial segment of it. Besides expropriating the local and the regional cultures and condemning it as backdated or orthodox they also started importing and implementing their traditions. William Shakespeare was the first one to make inroad into the Indian theatrical premise and immediately the minor educated class fell in love with him and later on the western infusion continued through Brecht, Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco and many more. Bengal and Bombay has been the two most important places where theatrical culture was very prominent. Infact the first permanent proscenium stage was constructed in Bengal at the Belagchia Theatre in 1858. Prior to this during the reign of Siraj-ud-Daula large number of temporary stages persisted which the Britishers used specifically for their own entertainment. The first British Theatre was formed in the year 1753 but it lasted only for three years before Siraj-ud-Daula stormed the Britishers at the Fort William. The theatrical stage functioned as an important space for enunciating colonial-cultural ideologues which gradually enveloped the highly influenced educated Bengali milieu. Besides the regular casting of the British plays, certain Bengali plays were also allowed on the stage provided it catered to the colonial ethics and norms (Sushil Kumar Mukherjee The English Theatre in Calcutta 1982). The first Bengali play on the proscenium stage was produced in the year 1795 by Russian playwright Herasim Lebedeff and it was Richard Jodrell’s comedy The Disguise (1787) (Rustom Bharocha Rehearsals of Revolution 1983). The ticket prices were extremely high and this meant that besides the usual British folk the plays could be only be attended by a limited number of Bengali elites. This was the inception ground of commercial hierarchy in the premise of arts and aesthetics in India. The language configuration of the plays also contributes lot towards sensitive thematic development and audience appeal and this journey also started through the tunnel of the colonial tongue. The first drama by an Indian on the proscenium stage was produced strictly in alliance with the colonial grammar by Krishnamohan Bandopadhyay in the earlier 19th century. His play The Persecuted was written in English and was performed in the language of the colonizers (Syed Jamil Ahmed Drama and Theatre 1992). This shows that the effect of British theatre was extremely profound. Shifting our focus to the other side of nation, Bombay, where theatrical practices where frequent and grand we find a different picture altogether. The influence of the British theatre, especially Shakespearean plays where profound but it was produced and enacted by the Indians themselves. With the production of Dinabandhu Mitra’s Neel Darpan (1858-1859) the Britishers where immediately alarmed with the common mass reaction and thus the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 came into being. With this imposition the production of the anti-colonial plays where stopped and all the Indian plays to be produced on the stage needs to earn the necessary colonial licensexv before its production (Nandi Bhatia Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India 2004). Marathi Theatre was widely trisected into the ‘transformed versions of the Euro-American plays, notably of Shakespeare and Brecht and through avant-garde experimentations, ‘politics of the British Raj, conditions prevalent on tea and indigo plantations, workers rights famines’ (Nandi Bhatia Modern Indian Theatre 2013) and the multiple caste and gender conflicts especially between the Brahmins and the Dalits which intervened into the politics of theatrical representations as well (Makarand Sathe A Socio-Political History of Marathi Theatre Vol. I 2015).

The gender based differences where already a prominent element of the Marathi Theatre. It was a common patriarchal believe that women from the respectable household are not suppose to be part of the theatrical stage or even sometimes the audience. Thus in most of the cases the feminine roles where enacted by the prostitutes or the temple dancers. Even in several cases the male cross dressers enacted feminine roles on the stage. In West Bengal we had Binodini Dasi who was very famous on the Bengali stage during the latter half of the 19th century. She along with prominent actors like Girishchandra Ghosh and Amrit Mitra outplayed the audience with her class (Binodini Dasi trans.Rimli Bhattarchrya My Story and My Life as an Actress (Amar Katha, Amar Abhinetri Jiban) 1998). With the end of Peshwa dynasty in Maharashtra in 1818 the first Maratha play appeared in 1843 and it was Sita Swayamvar by Vishnudas Bhave. He is debatably called as the ‘father of Sangeetnatak, held to be a dramatic form unique to Maharasthtra’ (Shanta Gokhale Playwright at the Centre: Marathi Drama from 1843 to the Present 2000) and in his plays Narayan Shripad Rajhans (Bal Gandharva) was a very crucial character. He has been of a great demand on the Marathi stage and everyone was awestruck with his enactment of feminine roles. To play a women’s role within the orthodox society of Maharashtra ‘one had to wear a sari, the nine-yard cloth which women wrapped around themselves’ (Dyaneshwar Nadkarni Balgandharva and Marathi Theatre 1998). It was really amazing how without any hesitation Bal Gandharva could perfect himself in both representations and enactments. If gendered representations where one prominent issue then caste and class divisions where another major problem that inflicted the Indian proscenium space. Plays like Prabodh Vidyut arthat Swair Sakesha (A widow with hair is of loose conduct) by Raghunath Shankarashastri Abhyankar or M.B. Chitale’s Manorama Natok (The Story About the life of a girl named Manorama) showed ambiguous attitude towards the problem of casteism and womanhood. As it voices against the multifarious domestic and public exploitations of women but it also justifies sexual or psychological exploitations of the women belong to the lower strata of the society. With the arrival of the commercial based companies owned by Kirloskar or Govind Ballal Deval the socially amplifying plays mostly exposing the socio-cultural vanity of the Indian society were pushed to the margins. The advent of commercialism which was already profound in Bengal also affected the Marathi stage as well. The popular mass identity of the Marathi theatre started suffocating and gradually got constricted within the elite class audience which occupied the urban centre. In this way the local and the regional theatrical forms lost control of the common mass support and gradually got shifted towards the rural hinterlands. This ‘abyssal thinkingxvi’ (Boaventuro de Sousa Santos Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledge 2007) which was stealthily compartmentalizing the Indian theatrical platform needed to be intervened with a certain theatrical genre which will successfully disentangle itself from the still continuing colonial visions of society, culture and politics and pursue freely outside the linear constructs of time and space. This gave birth to what is globally known as street theatre or indigenously known as nukkad. The origin and its multi-dimensional implications with specific relevance to the Indian society will be discussed in the next section of this paper.


I have already discussed in my previous sections that though the phenomenon of street theatre continues to be an experimental genre in the Indian theatrical premise but since the ancient times the regional open air theatrical forms which entertained the common mass and gleefully functioned outside the premise of commercialization also had certain features which are very similar to the present form. The term street theatre has been defined and understood through different ways by different scholars. Eminent theatre critics Simon Murray and John Keefe analyzed street theatre combining the elements of ‘circus skills, installations, performing arts and illusions’ (J.K. Keefe and S. Murray Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction 2007). Jan Cohen-Cruz defined street theatre as an expression of revolutionary political and nationalist movement that not only entertains its audiences but has a deep rooted social role to play (J. Cohen-Cruz Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology 1998). Even Safdar Hashmi the pioneer of street theatre in India and the JANAM (Jana Natya Mancha) also strongly believed in the development and the pursuance of socio-political consciousness amongst the common folk and most importantly ‘draw the masses of people into the anti-colonial struggle’ (S. Deshpande Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience 2007). The relationship between politics and the street movements goes long time back to 19th century. During the Industrial revolution the labor class workers wrote and enacted street plays to voice against their pathetic living and working conditions. Later on during the Suffragette Movement in London the women exposed themselves into the streets and it was through street enactments that they created a liberated expressional space for themselves.xvii Even during the Russian revolution or after the World War II broke out the anti-war street theatres where found and it functioned as a crucial liberal medium for educating the rural masses and carrying its own agendas far and wide. Even agit-prop theatre or militant theatre was a crucial form which mobilized the audience to take immediate action according to particular situations. The basic purpose of this form of theatre was to uphold the cultural pluralism within which various conflicting ideologies function. It is important for us to realize that these conflicting ideologies are not hegemonically programmed and thus it becomes exactly difficult to point out the enemy (Baz Kershaw The Politics of Performance: Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention 80:1992) or in other words it functions as the ‘hubris of the zero point’ (Santiago Castro-Gomez ‘The Missing Chapter of Empire: Postmodern re-organization of Coloniality and Post-Fordist Capitalism’ 2007). The society is a highly confusing space within which every compartments of power strives hard to extinguish the multi-dimensional layers and sub-layers of its origin and this is why we continuously fail to locate our enemy. But certain loopholes led to the failure of this form of theatre. Besides everything in the agit-prop theatre the actors must believe that they know a solution to a compelling social problem and they should also undertake the same steps as they urge upon the audiences and it is this make believe stuff that ultimately ensured its failure. Once Augusto Boal was performing for the peasants in rural Brazil and Boal’s middle class actors concluded the play by lifting their prop rifles over their head and making a call for revolution. The peasant leader invited all of them to eat together and after that asked all of them to take up arms against the local landowner. This ashamed Boal and his team because he and his actors were not prepared to fight but they were asking others to do so (Richard Stourac and Cathleen McCreery Theatre as a Weapon: Workers’ Theatre in Soviet Union, Germany and Britain 1917-1934 1986). It is this failure which is compensated by the street theatre as it blemishes the gap between the subject and the actor and is a revolution in itself.

Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) pioneered the beginning of street theatre in India in 1943. Their main purpose was to disseminate their respective socio-cultural-political viewpoints and also educate the common mass about the practical problems of existence. It embarked upon a political journey but gradually it spread to different parts of the nation for the sake of creating basic socio-cultural awareness like women education and health, exposing the bourgeoisie and the lumpen-proletariats who have been exploiting the labor class and the poor people by evacuating them from their own homelands and gifting it to the industrial sectors. Currently several street theatre groups like JANAM, Alarippu, Pravah, Bihar Art Theatre, Action India, Swatantra Theatre are carrying out effective performances to expose the subjugated voice and emancipating the hidden protocols which remains buried under the hegemonic socio-political discourses (N. Kang “Using Theatre for Consciousness Raising” The Tribune September 20, 2013). In the modern era, when the tremendous pressure of electronic media is even endangering proscenium theatre, theatre in the streets continues to play a crucial role amongst the common masses. The current scenario of the proscenium presentations is nothing more than a cloistered representation of artistic commodifcation and aesthetic commercialization.xviii To attend most of the theatre shows one has to pay a considerable amount of money for the tickets and as a result it remains clogged within the upper and the middle class audience. Even in several theatrical shows especially the theatre festivals sponsored by the private groups a middle class audience is a rare phenomenon. It is also true that government sponsored theatre festivals takes place amongst the passionate theatre audience in Delhi or Kolkata but they are not very frequent. On the other side the theatre producers are also helpless. For the sake of developing a well trained theatrical team, constructing the sets, getting hold of a professional team of musicians, hiring a spacious auditorium and different other theatrical paraphernalia for which huge expenditures are incurred. It is at this very point that theatre in the streets excel. For street enactments a professional producing or a musical team is not required, the natural street environment function as the theatrical background, specific audience seats are not required as common people gather around the performance and get a close look at the performance and most importantly the theatrical agenda doesn’t remain confined within the four walls of the stage or the auditorium. What requires is endless passion and indeed it is a great channel through which regular socio-cultural issues could be highlighted and messages could be disseminated for the ‘regular commuters’ (Ankita Banerjee Evaluating the Role of Street Theatre for Social Communication 2013). As already mentioned that street theatres have close alliance with lots of folk forms like terukuttu in Tamil Nadu and veedhi natakam in Andhra Pradesh xix which can be defined as folk street theatres, but the latter ones were specifically meant for audience entertainment unlike the former (J.D. Downing Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media 2011). The street theatres are expected to meet certain aesthetic parameters but most of its segments are liberated from the colonially emancipated etiquettes. The most remarkable part is the space and the language of communication. The spatial and communicational formalities which are the central elements of proscenium are absolutely absent in the street enactments. Most importantly the colloquial implementation of the language is a very important part of street theatre. The languages implemented in the dialogic exchanges between the characters sheds off all forms of formalities and vanities to make it easily viable and understandable to the gathering folks. Without the costumes and props street theatre extinguishes the distinctive lines between the director, actor and the audience. Indian street theatre is largely influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, Utpal Dutt and Badal Sircar. Infact, Brecht who is the pioneer of the Epic Theatre and the alienation effect speaks about the role of the actors and the audience in the enactment of the play. In his essay The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre (1950) Brecht comes up with a very lively example:

For practical experiments (related to the Epic Theatre) I usually picked as my example of completely simple, ‘natural’ epic theatre an incident such as can be seen at any street corner: an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident take place. The bystanders may not have observed what happened, or they may simply not agree with him, may ‘see things a different way’; the point is that the demonstrator acts the behavior of driver or victim in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion of the accident. (1)

In the process we find that a multi-opinioned space is created with the subject and the demonstrator interaction and as a result what happens is the original subject and the object of demonstration becomes one with each other with the natural enactment of the accidental situation but the differences and debate remains. The audience doesn’t get carried away into an artificial world of aesthetics rather they can also be a wholesome part of the entire projection. The audience is free to give their feedbacks so that necessary thematic and performative changes could be made in the following enactments. Thus, street productions also exist outside authorial dominations and textual boundaries. In several cases it was seen that the actors taking the place of the audience and promoting the audience to take a part in the play. Once it happened in case of Badal Sircar’s Micchil (Procession). As the play was drawing towards its closure the last scene was depicted as a real procession taking place. The procession started off with the actors but gradually the audience also started joining them. At the end it was found that Badal Sircar and his team of four people are sitting in the audience section and the audience is conducting the procession.

These forms of street presentations with the audience a part of it were also adopted as the central weapon of mass maneuvering which absolutely failed in the agit-prop presentations. In one of the Natarang Partishthan’s presentation the audience mainly comprising of the poor village farmers alarmed by the corruptive attitude of government sponsored land evacuation started shouting anti-government slogans which readily became a part of their enactments later. In this way the uni-directional character of theatrical presentations through which the audiences were influenced and were motivated to transform their different perceptions of existence undergoes a multi-directional, pluri-versal change which once again re-generates theatre as a common mass media. Before we further continue with our discussions about street theatres through different instances in India and abroad lets us analyze its different modes of inception. Let us take a close look and analyze the following image:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig.3: The image represents the tree of origination and the different fruits that the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ bears for us. (

The theatre of the oppressed which is an important segment of the street theatre movement originated in Brazil in the year 1971 under different categories which undergoes a slight elaboration as follows:

- Newspaper Theatre: The very origin of the theatre of the oppressed took place with the young form of newspaper theatre which dealt with the immediate local problems but soon its effectiveness spread all over the country.
- Forum Theatre: It came into being in Peru in 1973, and it was basically initiated as a part of literary program but gradually it cross the continental borders and is being practiced almost in 70 countries across the globe. It is the most common form of street theatre which encourages the spectator to become the ‘spect-actor’ and be a significant part of the play and design the necessary changes required for wholesome socio-cultural-political developments.
- Invisible Theatre: Invisible theatre was developed in Argentina as a part of political activities making the people aware about their daily life problems. It happens quite surprisingly without any prior notice to the audience about the performance.
- Image Theatre: This form of theatre originated in Columbia, Venezuela and Mexico amongst the indigenous people and the Spanish descendents. It was now globally practiced in different parts of the world to drive the audience into the internalized issues which leads to widespread oppression.
- Rainbow of Desire: The rainbow of desire came into being in Europe to understand the psychological problems of the common people and accordingly characters were being created in the plays. It was mainly based on the production of newspaper articles or other non-dramatic pieces.
- Legislative Theatre: In this form of theatre the audience is freely allowed to play the role of law and to open up their view points over the different legislative issues bothering the human race.

The above elaboration proofs that the street theatre is a typical de-colonial phenomena of the Global South which has successfully disrupted the colonial centres. It has also disentangled itself from the totalitarian and hegemonic theatrical discourses by cleverly atomizing itself in the most integrated manner by adopting the palimpsest technique of socio-cultural transformation. Small groups with different genres of street theatre functions in different corner of the globe but all of them have a common foreground to share. But quite unfortunately there are several places where the tentacles of coloniality have invaded the street theatre scene and one such case is the community theatre of Angola. The Portuguese tried a lot to colonize and marginalize indigenous theatre in Angola but number of Angolan theatre groups emerged for the sake of anti-colonial resistance which didn’t prove to be effective. So, even in the contemporary times the forms of community theatres which exist in Angola are mainly sponsored by organizations like the UNICEF which devices plays and helps in the process of production according to their own whims and fancies. During the 1980s even the church trained young people under the connotation of ‘classical theatre’ asserting the communal authority and religious superiority of the Bible over their regional tribal traditions (Judy El Bushra Community Theatre in Angola 2004). In Europe the picture is almost the same. Like every other forms the street theatre is also lurching under the massive burden of commercial professionalism. The term professionalism is indeed a very deceptive term under which all forms of corruptive and exploitative elements are hidden. Currently in different parts of Europe like France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Slovenia or Bulgaria the theatre groups have to largely bank on the various private sectors for financing. Either they are sponsored by any company or else by any elite individual who keeps a strong passion for theatre. Nonetheless, whoever it is the theatre festivals or performances often have to compromise with their interests and thematic illustrations in order to fulfill the demands their profiteering desires. The ‘artistic dimension’ with which the theatre embarked into the streets ultimately culminated into the ‘commercial dimension’ (Street Artist in Europe 3:2007). Now let us move into the concluding section of the paper which throws light upon the condition of street theatre in India with relation to Kateb Yacine’s ‘Action Culturelle de Travalleurs’ (Workers’ Cultural Action or ACT) in Algeria and Safdar Hashmi’s JANAM (Jana Natya Mancha) in India.


It was with the beginning of 1940s when large number of theatre artists has been disentangling themselves from the traditional grammatologies of performance and have brought theatre closer to the common people. Theatre artists like Bansi Kaul, M.K. Raina and Prasanna were the leading names in this endeavour (C.S. Pong, D. Rubin, R. Chaturvedi, R. Majumdar, M. Tanokura, K. Brisbane The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre Asia Pacific 1998). Unlike the established form of theatre it offered us a measureless thematic platter to explore from the pro-independence movements and socio-cultural grievances to the definite socio-political agendas leading to mass liberty as found in the plays of Utpal Dutt. One of the earliest production of street plays could be located in 1951, Chargesheet and it was witnessed by around thousand workers and was later performed in other parts of Bengal (Anonymous Indian Street Theatre 2012). With the arrival of the 1970s one of the most turbulent time in India especially In West Bengal, street theatre became very prominent to preach different political and socio-cultural agenda and Badal Sircar was a significant name. The movement ultimately reached its heights with the efforts of Indian People Theatre’s Association (IPTA) and JANAM which ultimately continued through ‘Nishant’ from Delhi, ‘Lok Mela Manch’ and ‘Samvedan’ from Gujarat, etc. who very well utilized the medium to mobilize considerable social changes.

Algerian novelist, translator and film maker Assia Djebar in her memoir Algerian White: A Narrative (2000) describes Algerian novelist and playwright Kateb Yacine’s funeral procession. Kateb passed away in France in complete exile and his body has been brought to Algeria for burial. Djebar notes that the trail of followers deliberately creates a disorderly happening by converting the funeral procession into a party. As the coffin is made ready for internment over the murmuring of the gathering in Berber (a local tribal community of North Africa and also their language), popular Arabic and French, the ‘Internationale’ is being sung by the crowd. The song is all of a sudden interrupted by another group who sings patriotic songs. But even between the songs the soft chanting of the Imam (head priest of the mosque) amidst an intensified environment with people protesting his presence. This is how Kateb divided the communities during his life through his writings and after. Kateb’s funeral procession is a microcosmic representation of the communally inflicted situation that prevailed between the minority groups in post-independent Algeria. It is indeed very significant that so many ethnic groups claimed Kateb as their own as his identity doesn’t lie in the homogeneity but in the celebration of differences and varieties. Kateb severely opposed the Presidentship of Boumedienne who in the name of post-colonial nationalism and indigeneity inducted the Arabo-Muslim revolutionary ideologies and thus marginalizing the other non-Arabic and non-Islamic ethnic and linguistic minorities (Hugh Roberts The Battlefield Algeria 1988-2002: Studies in A Broken Polity 2003). These problems are elaborately addressed by Kateb Yacine in his plays.

After Kateb Yacine returned to Algeria in 1970 from his series of voyages in France, Indochina and Middle East he got engaged into theatrical activities. After collaborating with the group ‘Le Theatre de la Mer’ (Theatre of the Sea) in the different proscenium presentations he shifted his interest towards mobile theatre which led to the foundation of his group ACT (Action Culturelle des Travailleurs) (Workers’ Cultural Action) which produced popular theatre in Arabic and Tamazight (the language of the Berber community). The newly installed national elites failed to inject a democratic, civilizing ideology and this prompted Kateb to develop a form of mobile theatre which will disentangle itself from the different technical and objective distractions of the proscenium and create natural modes of presentations. This will ultimately create an ‘edifying, pedagogically effective cultural form that will educate his audiences, inspire forms of political and social community and preserve traditions waning under the so called developmental policies of the post-independence state’ (Neil A. Doshi Revolution at the Crossroads: Street Theatre and the Politics of Radical Democracy in India and in Algeria 2009). It was also during the same time when JANAM came into the scene. Under the patronization of Safdar Hashmi JANAM took birth in 1971 as a cultural extension of Delhi’s IPTA branch which was a national cultural association formed in the 1940s to revitalize the Indian performing arts. As the New Delhi wing slowly became political-centric in their cultural outlook Safdar Hashmi along with a group of enthusiastic people re-formed JANAM as a separate group. In the earlier stages JANAM usually engaged themselves in stage plays but their ideological stance underwent a massive change with the repressive regime of ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1970s. This resulted into the immediate need of an inexpensive theatre which could be socio-politically relevant with immediate effect and this gave rise to JANAM as an anti-bourgeois street theatre group which privilege ‘individual aesthetic experience over collectivity’ (Safdar Hashmi The Right to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi 1989). In 1989, JANAM came into the spotlight with the play Halla Bol (Raise the Slogan) when the group was attacked while a performance was going on by a gang hired by the local politician who was the ruler of the local Congress Party. The place which was near Sahibabad in New Delhi, JANAM has been performing there for a considerable period of time and their influential enactment was gradually shifting the interest of the people towards leftist ideologies which threatened the foothold of the local political institution. The attackers disrupted the performance by killing Hashmi and the very next day his wife Mala Hashmi returned to the same spot along with the entire group and completed the play. Prior to the 1989 incident the group performed in different places unannounced and after this incident the group affiliated with the local CPI (M) (Communist {Party of India) and sought their help to choose safe and sound places where they can continue with their performances unhindered.

In the 2004 general elections in India, BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of the Congress Party which brought the latter back to power. BJP ascended the platform riding on the dual policies of economic growth and traditional development. Even during its reign it more or less maintained a prosperous economy through foreign direct investments but the channelization of the resources suffered a big setback and wealth remained confined within the elite tastes and desires. Moreover the political strategies of BJP were convicted with discriminatory practices against the lower-caste groups (called Dalits) and non-Hindu minorities. This prompted JANAM to enact the play Shambhuk Vadh which coincided with a series of communist party rallies in New Delhi. It draws its plot from a section of the last book of Ramayana named “Uttarakanda.” In the narrative a Brahmin man presents himself in the court of King Ram of Ayodhya carrying his dead son. The grieving man complains to King Ram (who is also affiliated with divinity) that without any reason his son has died and he urges the king to intervene and find a solution to it. Meanwhile Narad informs Ram that there is indeed a fault in the kingdom and that is, a ‘Shudra’ (out-casted) is practicing a form of asceticism (tapasya) which is forbidden to all but only the higher members of the Hindu socio-religious order. Ram embarks upon the search of the convict who is conducting such a heinous crime and finds Shambukh. Upon asking him the reason behind doing such a penance Shambukh replies, ‘O Rama I was born of a Shudra alliance and I am performing this rigorous penance in order to acquire the status of God in this body. I am not telling a lie O Rama, I wish to attain the Celestial Origin’ (Hari Prasad Shastri The Ramayana of Valmiki: Yuddha Kanda, Uttara Kanda 583:1970). Ultimately, Shambukh admits his fault which was attaining enlightenment through religious practice. As a part of his punishment he is beheaded by Ram and at the moment of this punishment the Brahmin boy comes to life. In this way Ram performs his ‘Dharma’ (divine duty) and thus justifying the greatness of his rule. This short section of Shambukh is crucial as it uses the thematic platform of a rich Indian canon to de-canonize the Indian society in the name of exploitative caste and creed divisions. Infact, JANAM launched their version of the Shambukh episode which re-invokes the text Ramayana as a debatable space and not an epic engaged with a distant, fixed past. The same kind of revolutionary arguments could be located in another of his play named Honda ka Gunda (Honda’s Thug).

It was first performed in the year 2005 and it responded to the brutal police suppression of a worker’s strike and at a Honda automobile factory in the industrial sector of Gurgaon, south of Delhi. The title of the play refers to the regime of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda who is critically held responsible for such an inhuman incident and is seen by many leftists as the one who has sold the worker’s rights to the local economic interests for maintaining Gurgaon as an attractive commercial and industrial sector. Thus, one thing is very clear that contemporary Indian art and aesthetics which has once again surrendered itself into the global clutches of coloniality needs to disengage from preaching the colonial grammar. Colonization not only experienced rapid mass genocides but widespread ‘linguicides’ and ‘epistemicides’ leading to ‘social decapitation’ (Ngugi wa Thiong’o Re-membering Africa 2009) which transfused into the premises of art and aesthetics and it is at this crucial juncture that the street theatre dishevels the centre of power enunciation by advocating ‘Critical Border Thinking’ (Gloria Anzaldua Bordeland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza 1987) within their performative and thematic structures which will promisingly continue to define and re-define the existing socio-cultural-political definitions within India and abroad.


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[i] The introductory line of the essay echoes what eminent Marathi playwright V.V. Shirwadkar defines ‘play’ as. According to him, ‘I have always found a play in individuals, in the nature of human beings and the struggle they put up against the circumstances around them.’ Even if we reflect upon the ancient folk theatrical traditions of India we find that indigenous enactments where never bounded within the l imited, linear contours of manuscripts and stage. They mainly depended on the orally defined artistic superfluity.

[ii] Treta Yuga (Age of Morality) is the second of the four ‘yuga’ or ages of mankind in the Hindu religion. It follows the Satya Yuga (Age of Truth) and is followed by Dwapar Yuga (Age of Compassion and Truthfulness) and Kali Yuga (Age of Darkness).

[iii] Indra is the leader of all the gods in the heaven. He is the god of rain and thunderstorms.

[iv] Vedas are referred to the ancient Indian texts which have largely contributed towards outlining the traditional ethics and norms.

[v] It is indeed remarkable that Indian theatre carries a huge legacy of religious influences behind. If we reflect upon the very development of Indian theatre we find that the ancient Indian plays mainly dealt with multiple religious plots and ritualistic happenings.

[vi] The different emotional enactments in the Indian stage and the way it has been theoretically defined and outlined shows that the evolution of Indian theatre was very grammatical but always nurtured poly-perspective elements.

[vii] Like ‘Vedas’, ‘Puranas’ and ‘Upanishads’ are also ancient Indian mythological and religious texts.

[viii] Illusionary audience pleasures means here that in the stage performances the audience is always segregated from the natural, superfluous elements of stage representations. Whatever stage and acting objects are used, they always keeps the audience distanced. On the other hand talking about the theatrical rituals or about the street theatre elements the backdrop or whatever objects are used during the enactment appears to be very close and natural to the audience with which they can easily relate to.

[ix] ‘Sankhya Philosophy’ is one of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy. It is very much dualistic in nature and strongly believes that the universe is composed of two realities: ‘jiva’ (consciousness) and ‘prakriti’ (matter).

[x] These are parts of the Yajur Veda.

[xi] Rajasuya Yajna is performed for the consecration of the king.

[xii] Tha ‘Kavigaan’ tradition was not only theatrically very rich but also exposed the socio-cultural vagaries in the process like caste, class and gender conflicts.

[xiii] This paper makes an effort to also analyze Indian street theatre as a decolonizing weapon which looks ahead to destabilize the established grammatologies of stage enactment.

[xiv] The biggest issue of post-colonial modernity is bracketing the human existence within universal terminologies and their definitions which has altogether created a cloistered, limited space of action. The premise of art and theatre was also affected by the same.

[xv] This colonial legacy of licensing and censorship continues to invade the art and theatrical premise of democratic India. We regularly find that theatre and film production houses coming into conflict with the Indian censor board regarding inclusion and deletion of certain scenes which carries immense socio-cultural-political significances.

[xvi] The phrase ‘Abyssal Thinking’ was used by Boaventuro de Sousa Santos with respect to the differentiations between the ideological implications of the Global North and the Global South. The term has been re-contextualized in order to bring out the theatrical divisions, conflicts and hierarchies into the forefront.

[xvii] The function of street theatre as a weapon of protest for the women is very interesting as it largely contrasts the stage theatre scene which once was largely hostile to the participation of women. This reveals the revolutionary ingredient of street theatre.

[xviii] Because of the severe pressure of the electronic media Indian theatre lies in a highly detrimental state. Several theatre halls have already been converted into multiplex and those which are surviving undergoes regular hardships to gather enough audience and earn sufficiently from the tickets so that they can atleast pay their actors and the other team members. It a minor segment of the Indian society who regularly go the theatre halls to watch plays.

[xix] ‘Terukuttu’ is a Tamil street theatre form and ‘Veedhi Natakam’ is a Telugu street theatre version. Both of these theatrical elements also include folk elements.


ISBN (Buch)
618 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Banaras Hindu University – Department of English
Nukkad stage theater street theater indian drama India Safdar Hashmi Badal Sircar




Titel: From Stage to "Nukkad". Tracing the Indian Theatrical Genealogy