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The Rise of Theatre in India

By Sayan Banerjee
Posted on :
2 August 2016
Posted on :
2 August 2016

The Theatre is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much more like life. -Arthur Miller.


Theatre has been a part of our culture from the inception of the society system. The origin of theatre can be tracked back to the Sanskrit Theatre. The development of Greek and Roman Theatre, influenced the Indians to the emergence of Sanskrit Theatre. Though, Greek and Roman Theatre, at that point of time, was advanced and the Emperors even made “The Amphitheatre” for theatrical purposes, our theatre mainly consisted of depicting stories in dance forms.

Another major difference between Western Theatres and the Indian Theatre is in the presenting pattern. While the Western Theatre, has always emphasized on life as it is, in India, it depicts life as it should be. When India, was stormed by Islamic Conquests in the late 11th century, our traditional form of Theatre was discouraged and completely stopped. Islam did encourage Sufi, which can be considered as a form of theatre, where people depict the stories of Muhammad. But it is mainly a form of praying. Later in the 16th century, to emphasize on the forgotten cultural values, Village Theatre started emerging in all over India. The Modern Indian Theatre, which we see today started in the Colonial Rule of India.

Slowly, theatre became a prime form of revolt against the British Empire. To stop protest in the form of theatre, the British imposed the Dramatic Performances Act in 1876. The last century has seen a dramatic increase in the theatre practice all over the country. Today, with the growing cinema industry and television industry, theatre is diminishing in number.

1. Ancient Theatres (500B.C – 999 A.D)

The upbringing of theatrical practices in the ancient India was mainly nurtured by dance forms. Sanskrit Theatre is the oldest theatre ever recorded by historians.

But, historians think that, India had a grand History of dramaturgy; As the first book on drama, known as Natya Shastra, was written in India by Bharat Muni. As Natya Shastra explains, the practice of theatre was prevalent in India even in the days of Ramayana and Mahabharata and therefore it would be wrong to say that the earliest form of theatre is Sanskrit Theatre.


Credits- Art of Kerala

Theatre in ancient days, was divided in to two categories. One is the literary aspect and another is the narrative aspect. While Natya Shastra defined the narrative aspect of theatre, literary aspect was to depict the great books in the form of dancing, singing and reciting. The narrative aspect of the Indian theatre was to take stories from life and then portray it in stage in its idealist form.

Indian theatre has always emphasized on the Idealist form of theatre as compared to the realistic form of the West. Some of the play writers of ancient India were Kalidas, Vishakadatta, Vabhavuti etc. Their plays were represented as theatre by professionals who were well versed with mime, movement and dance.

2. Medieval India Theatres (1000 A.D- 1700 A.D)

From the age of dancing and singing in the theatres, we come to the age of oral theatres. With the change of political set up, there was a need of changing the theatre practice. Even today, this is the most common form of theatre.

Approximately at this time, the Muslim Conquests started in India, which led to eradication of common theatre beliefs. Instead, it led to the rise of Regional or Folk Theatres. New regional languages were taking birth and therefore new verses were written by taking examples from common life. Folk Theatre is still practiced in some parts of the country. The traditional theatre form of Natya Shastra was totally brought to an end. The classical or the ancient theatre, which was purely based on Natya Shastra, is still considered as one of the most sophisticated theatre form all over the world. Speaking about Natya Shastra comes the perspective of urban oriented ideas and rural ideas. The folk or the theatre which emerged, totally grew out of Rural roots, while Natya Shastra, is considered to be urban-oriented.


Credits- Wikipedia

This theatre which marked its beginning in contemporary India, was simple and immediate. An important difference which can be marked between the folk theatre and traditional theatre, is that the Traditional Theatre united India as a whole and represented every corner of India; while regional theatre was more popular in a specific region. This caused the regionalization of India.

Hence, the presentation was different for different parts of India. North Indian theatres like Nautanki, Rasleela and Ramleela, were basically vocal and didn't involve any movement or dancing.


Nautanki is still a very popular form of theatre in Uttar Pradesh. Rasleela is the depiction of the tales of Krishna and Ramleela the tales of Ram. Theatres in the eastern and southern parts of India like Jatra, KathaKatha, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Theyam and Terukkuttu comprised of vocals and dancing. Jatra and KathaKatha were oral theatres and are largely practiced still today in parts of West Bengal. Odissi and Kuchipudi are popular dance forms but their inception was based on theatrical form. Tamashaa and Bhavai are popular forms of theatre in Western India, which have a blend of both the North Culture and the South Culture. While Tamashaa was purely a singing based theatre, Bhaona comprised of both singing and dancing.

3. Colonial Rule, Post-Independence & Theatres of Modern India (1750’s- Today)

The change in the contemporary form is due to the political change of India in the Colonial Rule. An exposure with Western Theatre, changed Indian Theatre to its core. Up till now, Indian Theatre had an idealistic voice. But with the influence of Western Theatre, it became more realistic. The practicality was emphasized, presentation was improved and it became more theatrical.


Earlier, Indian theatre emphasized on the value and effect of god in our daily life. The highlight and the stress was to make god idyllic and heroic. But with the blend of Western Theatre, the story changed. Today, modern theatre uses stories from all potholes of society so that the audience can feel the power and pain of the act being deployed.


Credits- Youth Ki Awaz

In the Colonial Rule, theatre was one of the primary platforms where fellow Indians showed protest against the tyranny of the British Empire. During the British Rule, Bengal Theatre established itself quite a bit with the help of Rabindranath Tagore; who wrote many plays in his lifetime. They were written in Bengali and some of the most famous plays written by him are: Chitra (Chitrangada), Dakghar (The Post Office), Raktakarabi (The Red Oleander) etc.

During this, Kalyanam Raghuramiah, a Telegu performer played some of the best telegu plays that were depicted in Telegu theatres. He is still considered one of the best performers in Telegu History. He was also given the name “Nightingale of the Stage” by Rabindranath Tagore. Theatre didn’t change much after Independence and it became widespread. With the regional theatre, there were some national theatre groups. In the modern days, with the theatres being performed on the stage, another form of theatre has gained its popularity, Street Theatre. Street Theatre is performed in any public space and their topic is mostly about social evils and how can it be stopped and reformed.


Theatre in India, hasn’t been professional in a true sense in India. People, have not taken theatre as their livelihood at any point of time. Though it may seem that theatre has been a part of our culture, but to be very honest, theatre has not been taken seriously. Being a part of festivals and other occasions, for providing entertainment, theatre has therefore never been taken as a profession. Today, with the inception of Cinema, theatre has become a blown concept. Bengal and Maharashtra still feature theatre for commercial purposes, but, the prospect of theatre has touched the ground. The setback for Indian Theatre is mainly due to the regionalization of the Theatre, which happened back in the contemporary age of Indian Theatre. Today, there is no national entity of Indian Theatre. We are deeply rooted in the history of our region, and we do not see the bigger picture. Once a part of our culture, Theatre culture is now gloomy in India and we can revive it back, by searching its true and authentic form. By giving it a natural image.

About The Author
Sayan Banerjee

Hey, this is Sayan Banerjee. I am an engineering undergrad student and I love to write on the political and social issues of India. I am also into android development, and love to do that, though, I am still in the learning thing. Have a Research Experience. A movie and a TV series buff, an aspiring photographer, I am a jack of all trades, but master of none.

Hey, this is Sayan Banerjee. I am an engineering undergrad student and I love to write on the political and social issues of India. I am also into android development, and love to do that, though, I am still in the learning thing. Have a Research Experience. A movie and a TV series buff, an aspiring photographer, I am a jack of all trades, but master of none.