Indian Theatre

A Marathi theatre group, Mumbai, 1870.

The earliest form of the theatre of India was the Sanskrit theatre.[1] It began after the development of Greek and Roman theatre and before the development of theatre in other parts of Asia.[1] It emerged sometime between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE and flourished between the 1st century CE and the 10th, which was a period of relative peace in the history of India during which hundreds of plays were written.[2] With the Islamic conquests that began in the 10th and 11th centuries, theatre was discouraged or forbidden entirely.[3] Later, in an attempt to re-assert indigenous values and ideas, village theatre was encouraged across the subcontinent, developing in a large number of regional languages from the 15th to the 19th centuries.[4] Modern Indian theatre developed during the period of colonial rule under the British Empire, from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th.[5] In order to resist its use by Indians as an instrument of protest against colonial rule, the British Government imposed the Dramatic Performances Act in 1876. From the last half of the 19th century, theatres in India experienced a boost in numbers and practice. After Indian independence in 1947, theatres spread throughout India as one of the means of entertainment. As a diverse, multi-cultural nation, the theatre of India cannot be reduced to a single, homogenous trend. In contemporary India, the major competition with its theatre is that represented by growing television industry and the spread of films produced in the Indian film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), known as "Bollywood". Lack of finance is another major obstacle.

History of Indian theatre

Sanskrit theatre

The earliest-surviving fragments of Sanskrit drama date from the 1st century CE.[6] The wealth of archeological evidence from earlier periods offers no indication of the existence of a tradition of theatre.[7] The ancient Vedas (hymns from between 1500 to 1000 BCE that are among the earliest examples of literature in the world) contain no hint of it (although a small number are composed in a form of dialogue) and the rituals of the Vedic period do not appear to have developed into theatre.[7] The Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali contains the earliest reference to what may have been the seeds of Sanskrit drama.[8] This treatise on grammar from 140 BCE provides a feasible date for the beginnings of theatre in India.[8]

The major source of evidence for Sanskrit theatre is A Treatise on Theatre (Nātyaśāstra), a compendium whose date of composition is uncertain (estimates range from 200 BCE to 200 CE) and whose authorship is attributed to Bharata Muni. The Treatise is the most complete work of dramaturgy in the ancient world. It addresses acting, dance, music, dramatic construction, architecture, costuming, make-up, props, the organisation of companies, the audience, competitions, and offers a mythological account of the origin of theatre.[8] In doing so, it provides indications about the nature of actual theatrical practices. Sanskrit theatre was performed on sacred ground by priests who had been trained in the necessary skills (dance, music, and recitation) in a [hereditary process]. Its aim was both to educate and to entertain.

Performer playing Sugriva in the Koodiyattam form of Sanskrit theatre.

Under the patronage of royal courts, performers belonged to professional companies that were directed by a stage manager (sutradhara), who may also have acted.[9] This task was thought of as being analogous to that of a puppeteer—the literal meaning of "sutradhara" is "holder of the strings or threads".[8] The performers were trained rigorously in vocal and physical technique.[10] There were no prohibitions against female performers; companies were all-male, all-female, and of mixed gender. Certain sentiments were considered inappropriate for men to enact, however, and were thought better suited to women. Some performers played characters their own age, while others played ages different from their own (whether younger or older). Of all the elements of theatre, the Treatise gives most attention to acting (abhinaya), which consists of two styles: realistic (lokadharmi) and conventional (natyadharmi), though the major focus is on the latter.[11]

Its drama is regarded as the highest achievement of Sanskrit literature.[12] It utilised stock characters, such as the hero (nayaka), heroine (nayika), or clown (vidusaka). Actors may have specialised in a particular type. Kālidāsa in the 1st century BCE, is arguably considered to be ancient India's greatest Sanskrit dramatist. Three famous romantic plays written by Kālidāsa are the Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramuurvashiiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), and Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last was inspired by a story in the Mahabharata and is the most famous. It was the first to be translated into English and German. Śakuntalā (in English translation) influenced Goethe's Faust (1808–1832).[12]

The next great Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti (c. 7th century CE). He is said to have written the following three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them the entire epic of Ramayana. The powerful Indian emperor Harsha (606-648) is credited with having written three plays: the comedy Ratnavali, Priyadarsika, and the Buddhist drama Nagananda.

Theatre In Rukmini Devi

Theatre in medieval India

Theatre in India under British

Under British colonial rule, modern Indian theatre began when a theatre was started in Belgachia. Rabindranath Tagore was a pioneering modern playwright who wrote plays noted for their exploration and questioning of nationalism, identity, spiritualism and material greed.[13] His plays are written in Bengali and include Chitra (Chitrangada, 1892), The King of the Dark Chamber (Raja, 1910), The Post Office (Dakghar, 1913), and Red Oleander (Raktakarabi, 1924).[13]

Indian theatre after Independence (1947-1992)

Contemporary (post-1992) Indian theatre

Mrityunjay Prabhakar is one of the major young hindi theatre director and playwright who emerged on Indian Theatre Scene in the last decade of 20th century and established himself as a significant theatre activist in first decade of the 21st century. He started his theatre career from Patna during his graduation days. He has worked with several theatre groups like Abhiyan, Prerna, Mach Art group and Prangan in Patna. Later, he co-founded the group Abhiyan along with his friends. When he arrived Delhi for his further studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Here he worked with famous groups like Rang Saptak, Bahroop and Dastak. Later he founded his own group named SEHAR in 2005 and started working rigorously. He has got trained under leading figures of Indian Drama and Theatre world through different workshops he attended like Habib Tanvir, B.V. Karanth, Prasanna, Ratan Thiyam, D. R. Ankur and many more. He has worked with directors like D.R. Ankur, Lokendra Arambam, H.S. Shiva Prakash, Surendra Sharma, Parvez Akhtar, Vijay Kumar, Javed Akhtar Khan, Suman Kumar and others. He has worked as an actor, director, set designer, light designer and organizer in theatre.

Presently, Mrityunjay Prabhakar works primarily as a Theatre Director and Playwright with his group SEHAR. He is the founder-director of theatre troupe, SEHAR (Society of Education, Harmony, Art, Culture and Media Reproduction) (Registered under Society Act) in 2007. He has directed more than two dozens plays among them 'Sabse Udas Kavita'[2], 'Khwahishen' [3],'Jee Humen To Natak Karna Hai', [4],'Dhruvswamini'[5], 'Vithalala' and 'Suicide'[6] have got special attention from the larger section of the society. His plays has been performed in different cities and theatre centres of the country apart from Delhi. His plays were part of some of the important theatre festivals of the country.

Mrityunjay Prabhakar's originally written Play 'Sadho Dekho Jag Baudana' was published by InkLit Publication. He has also written famous plays like 'Aao Natak Natak Khelen', 'Khwahishen', 'Jee Humen To Natak Karna Hai', 'Suicide', 'Hey Ram', 'Teri Meri Kahani Hai', 'Karnav' and others, which has been performed by different groups and directors in various theatre centres of the country. He has adopted famous Keniyan playwright Ngugi Wa Thiong's play 'The Black Hermit' as 'Jayen To Jayen Kahan'. The adoptation was first performed by NSD Graduate Randhir Kumar in 2005 in Patna. Later he reproduced the play in 2010 with SEHAR in Delhi. He has adopted H.S. Shivaprakash famous Kannad play 'Mochi Madaiah' in Hindi which was directed by Lokendra Arambam and published by Yash Publication, Delhi. An anthology on Contemporary Indian Theatre titled 'Samkaleen Rangkarm' is also credited on his name published by InkLit Publication. His Hindi Poetry Collection 'Jo Mere Bheetar Hain' was published by Akademi of Letters (Sahitya Akademi), India.


Improvisational theatre (also known as improv or impro) is a form of theatre in which the actors use improvisational acting techniques to perform spontaneously. Improvisers typically use audience suggestions to guide the performance as they create dialogue, setting, and plot extemporaneously.

Many improvisational actors also work as scripted actors and "improv" techniques are often taught in standard acting classes. The basic skills of listening, clarity, confidence, and performing instinctively and spontaneously are considered important skills for actors to develop.

Improvisational Theatre in India is largely used for educational, interventional and entertainment purposes. The traces of Improvisational theatre in India dates back to the 1990s with the advent of Forum theatre with Janasanskriti under the leadership of Sanjoy Ganguly. After that in 1999, a team from the US with Bev Hoskins and Mary Good introduced Playback theatre to India. Thus Playback theatre and Forum theatre began to take its shape in the remotest parts of India, such as Karur, Chennai, West Bengal, as well as Bangalore too. Yours Truly Theatre, a Bangalore-based group, developed "complete the story", an indigenous format of improvisational theatre developed under the leadership of Ranji David and Nandini Rao in 2006. In 2009, they also developed another form of improvisational theatre called "mushyara theatre".

In late 1960's Badal Sircar introduced a new form of political theatre called the Third Theatre. Badal Sarkar's anti-establishment experimental theatre created a new genre of social enlightenment.He formed his first Third Theatre Group satabdi,in the year 1967.They used to perform Drama written by Badal Sircar in Anganmancha(Theatre in the Couryard)in the Third Theatre form that break away from the tradition of One point view of the Procesnium and urged on the taking theatre to the people.

Improvisational Theatre groups in India:

Improvisational Theatre forms practiced in India:

Notable theatres in India in different Indian languages and regions

Notable people

Ancient Indian playwrights

Medieval age

Playwrights working under British rule

Post-Independence theatre-makers

Notable theatre directors:

Sreejith Ramanan shaoli mitra

Notable playwrights

Forms of Indian theatre

Traditional Indian theatre

Kutiyattam is the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit theatre, thought to have originated around the beginning of the Common Era, and is officially recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In addition, many forms of Indian folk theatre abound. Bhavai (strolling players) is a popular folk theatre form of Gujarat, said to have arisen in the 14th century CE. Bhaona and Ankiya Nats have been practicing in Assam since early 16th century which were created and initiated by Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankardeva. Jatra has been popular in Bengal and its origin is traced to the Bhakti movement in the 16th century. Another folk theatre form popular in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh is Swang, which is dialogue-oriented rather than movement-oriented and is considered to have arisen in its present form in the late 18th - early 19th centuries. Yakshagana is a very popular theatre art in Karnataka and has existed under different names at least since the 16th century. It is semi-classical in nature and involves music and songs based on carnatic music, rich costumes, storylines based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana. It also employs spoken dialogue in-between its songs that gives it a folk art flavour. Kathakali is a form of dance-drama, characteristic of Kerala, that arose in the 17th century, developing from the temple-art plays Krishnanattam and Ramanattam.

Urdu/Hindustani Theatre

Urdu Drama evolved from the prevailing dramatic traditions of North India shaping Rahas or Raas as practiced by exponents like Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. His dramatic experiments led to the famous Inder Sabha of Amanat and later this tradition took the shape of Parsi Theatre. Agha Hashr Kashmiri is culmination of this tradition.

In some way or other, Urdu theatre tradition has greatly influenced modern Indian theatre. Among all the languages Urdu(which was called Hindi by early writers), along with Gujrati,Marathi and Bengali theatres have kept flourishing and demand for its writers and artists has not subsided by the drama aficionados. For Urdu drama, no place is better than Bombay Film industry otherwise known as Hindi film industry. All the early gems of Urdu Theatre (performed by Parsi Companies) were made into films. Urdu Dramatic tradition has been a spectator’s delight since 100 years and counting.

Drama as a theme is made up of several elements. It focuses on life and different aspects of it. The thing to be noticed here is that drama on stage imitates drama in life. It has been said that, there has always been a mutual relationship between theatre and real life. Great historical personalities like Shakespeare have influenced Modern Urdu tradition to a large extent when Indian, Iranian, Turkish stories and folk was adapted for stage with heavy doses of Urdu Poetry. In modern times writers like Imtiaz Ali Taj, Rafi Peer, Krishan Chander, Manto, Upender Nath Ashk, Ghulam Rabbani, Prof. Mujeeb and many others shaped this tradition.

While Prof Hasan, Ghulam jeelani, J.N,Kaushal, Shameem Hanfi, Jameel Shaidayi etc. belong to the old generation, contemporary writers like Mujeeb Khan, Javed Siddiqui, Danish Iqbal, Anis Azmi, Iqbal Niyazi and Zaheer Anwar are few post modern Play wrights actively contributing in the field of Urdu Drama.

Danish Iqbal's 'Dara Shikoh' directed by M S Sathyu is considered a modern classic for the use of newer theatre techniques and contemporary perspective. His other Plays are 'Sahir' on the famous lyricist and revolutionary poet. 'Kuchh Ishq kiya Kuchh Kaam' is another Play written by Danish which is basically a Celebration of the Faiz's Poetry, featuring events from the early part of his life, particularly the events and incidents of pre-partition days which shaped his life and ideals. 'Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan' - another Play inspired from Faiz's letters written from various jails during the Rawalpindi Conspiracy days. He has written 14 other Plays including 'Dilli Jo Ek Shehr Thaa' and 'Main Gaya Waqt Nahin hoon'.

Zaheer Anwar has kept the flag of Urdu Theatre flying in Kolkata. Unlike the writers of previous generation, Danish iqbal and Zaheer do not write bookish Plays but their work is a product of vigorous performing tradition. Iqbal Niyazi of Mumbai has written several plays in Urdu.his play"AUR KITNE JALYANWALA BAUGH??"won National award other awards. Hence this is the only generartion after Amanat and Agha Hashr who actually write for stage and not for libraries.

Indian puppet theatre

Yakshagana is a popular semi-classical theatre art from costal Karnataka. It uses rich costumes, music, dance, and dialogue. Puppet shows in parts of Karnataka uses all these elements of yakshagana to depict stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Indian street theatre

A street play (nukkad natak) in Dharavi slums in Mumbai

Mobile Theatre

Mobile theatres are a kind of popular theatre form that exist only in Assam. For staging their plays, theatre groups travel different places with their casts, singers, musicians, dancers and entire crew. Even the tent and chairs for the audience are carried with them. Mobile theatre was first staged on 2 October 1963 in Pathshala, Assam.[14] Achyut Lahkar is known as the father of mobile theatre.[15]

Mobile theatre in Salempur Deoria Eatern Uttar Pradesh is OVER 500 DAYS PLAYED ON STAGE WITH IN EIGHT is a leading cultural organization that has been promoting rich Indian culture through regional artists based in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Since its establishment in 2005, One of its most popular classical-Musical-Dance Drama creation [SanskritikSangamSalempur 1], Meghdoot Ki Puravanchal Yatra [1]Bhojpuri an adaptation of Kalidasa’s Meghdootam has done a record 96 shows in cities like Mumbai,Delhi,Rishikesh, Agra, Varanasi, Patna,Sonpur Mela Gorakhpur , near by areas in eastern UP among others. The creations has won many awards and recognitions for its team through leading organizations Its creations revolve around famous mythological and historical personalities and stories like, Ramayana(7 to 9 days play)26 places, Bhagwata(7 days play)two places, Kabir(23 places), Harishchandra Taramati,(27 Places), Utho Ahilya(26 places) and Sri Krishna(Three places). And also perform popular plays from Hindi literature including Kaptan Sahab(31),Court Marshall(1),Saiyyan Bhaye Kotwal(22),Muvaavaje(2),Bakari(2),Bade Bhai Saheb(63),Kafan(12),Bholaram ka jeev(17),Satgati(2) ,Boodhi kaaki (3),kakha ga kaa chakkar(7),Jago grahak jaago (3)etc .among other presentations based on famous literary geniuses like Munshi Premchand,Bhikaari Thakur,etc

Notable awards and festivals


Festivals of theatre in India

Akshara Theatre's Festival of Four Languages, New Delhi

Notable groups and companies

Notable theatres

Notable practitioners who have moved from theatre to films



  1. ^ a b Richmond, Swann, and Zarrilli (1993, 12).
  2. ^ Brandon (1997, 70) and Richmond (1998, 516).
  3. ^ Brandon (1997, 72) and Richmond (1998, 516).
  4. ^ Brandon (1997, 72), Richmond (1998, 516), and Richmond, Swann, and Zarrilli (1993, 12).
  5. ^ Richmond (1998, 516) and Richmond, Swann, and Zarrilli (1993, 13).
  6. ^ Brandon (1981, xvii) and (1998, 516-517).
  7. ^ a b Richmond (1998, 516).
  8. ^ a b c d Richmond (1998, 517).
  9. ^ Brandon (1981, xvii) and Richmond (1998, 517).
  10. ^ Richmond (1998, 518).
  11. ^ Richmond (1998, 518). The literal meaning of abhinaya is "to carry forwards".
  12. ^ a b Brandon (1981, xvii).
  13. ^ a b Banham (1998, 1051).
  14. ^ ভ্ৰাম্যমাণ থিয়েটাৰ
  15. ^ articles/Achyut_Lahkar


  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
  • Brandon, James R. 1981. Introduction. In Baumer and Brandon (1981, xvii-xx).
  • ---, ed. 1997. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre.' 2nd, rev. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 978-0-521-58822-5.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-41050-2.
  • Baumer, Rachel Van M., and James R. Brandon, eds. 1981. Sanskrit Theatre in Performance. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993. ISBN 978-81-208-0772-3.
  • Richmond, Farley. 1998. "India." In Banham (1998, 516-525).
  • Richmond, Farley P., Darius L. Swann, and Phillip B. Zarrilli, eds. 1993. Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance. U of Hawaii P. ISBN 978-0-8248-1322-2.

Further reading

  • Wilson, Horace Hayman (tr. from the Original Sanskrit) (1827). Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus. V.Holcroft at The Asiatic Press, Calcutta. 
  • ., Dhanamjaya; (tr. from Sanskrit by George C.O. Haas) (1912). The Dasarupa or Treatise on Ten Forms of Drama - A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy. Columbia University. 
  • ., Nandikeśvara; (tr. by Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and Gopala Kristnayya Duggirala (1917). The Mirror of Gesture - Being the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeśvara.. Harvard University Press. 
  • The Indian theatre, by Mulk Raj bansal, Published by D. Dobson, 1950.
  • Theatre in India, by Balwant Gargi. Published by Theatre Arts Books, 1962.
  • A panorama of theatre in India, by Som Benegal. Published by Popular Prakashan [for] Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), 1968.
  • Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance, by Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann, Phillip B. Zarrilli. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1993. ISBN 81-208-0981-5.
  • Indian theatre: theatre of origin, theatre of freedom, by Ralph Yarrow. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-7007-1412-X.
  • The Oxford companion to Indian theatre, by Ananda Lal. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-564446-8.
  • jagrancityplus.
  • "A History of the Jana Natya Manch: Plays for the People" by Arjun Ghosh; Published by SAGE Publications India, New Delhi; 2012
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