Published in At a Glance (now Culturama), August 2008.
“There is no wise maxim, no learning, no art or craft, no device, no action that is not found in drama.” The Natyasastra; Chap 1 ascribed to Bharata Muni.
“It has been found in all times and in all countries that no greater stimulation could be supplied to excite the passion of mankind than that supplied by means of drama.” The Dramatic Performance Act, 1879.
THEATRE in a developing, impoverished country like India can never be what it means to the rest of the world – mere mindless entertainment; not that it is only just that there too. It needs to have both a social consciousness and energy to build a support network. In fact, it was these two that triggered the first ever play to rock the freedom of free expression, till this date. In 1860, Dinabandhu Mitra scripted his play “Niladarpana” [The Mirror of Indigo Planters] based on the 1850 revolution of the indigo planters against the British rulers. It was first staged in 1861 in Dacca and translated into English the same year by Reverend James Long, which resulted in The Dramatic Performance Act in 1879; which is yet to be repealed.
Indigo cultivation in Tirhoot, Bengal, from The Graphic, 1881.
Besides the traditional performances of song and dance, enacted by the traditionally stigmatised members of the devadasi (women married to the deity of a temple) community, those were the times when female roles were still performed by men. In the late 30s, after the passing of the Anti-Devadasi Act of 1934, the domains of dance and music were taken over by women of upper caste/class background and members of devadasi community were moving towards cinema and other forms of performance. Thankfully, the unified Left opened out a different stage for women of political conscience to perform.
It was Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), founded in 1943 that opened the gateway of politically committed families to allow their wives and daughters to be a part of the performance arena. Motivated by Anti Fascist Writers & Artists Association – impassioned by the Bengal famine of 1943, IPTA staged its first ever production Nabanna [Bountiful Harvest, 1944], directed by Sombhu Mitra.
Sova Sen in Nabanna 1944
Taking a leaf off the left ideology, Miranda House College in New Delhi staged “India 69” in 1970, wherein they lampooned Jana Sang for the Mien Kampf in their logo and had Indira Gandhi (the then Prime Minister) chant nursery rhymes in defense of nationalisation of banks.
Om Swaha, Theatre Union, 1979. Source.
The eighties was the benchmark of women’s participation in theatre. Both theatre activism and women’s movement joined hands with the staging of “Om Swaha”. Three strong women; Anuradha Kapur, Rati Bartholomew and Maya Rao, who formed the Theatre Union addressed burning issues, that were the telling tales of human sensitivities of that time. After that, several issues have been taken up for reevaluation by women directors and actors across the country. They have broken away from predictable ‘patriarchal’ and linear streams of narratives and have shattered traditional definitions of what the actor and the audience positions are. Incorporating various forms of storytelling, they have broken the rigid proscenium wall.