Modern Theatre

The modern Indian theatre draws itself from three different traditions i.e. the Sanskrit theatre tradition, folk theatre tradition and the tradition of western theatres. It is actually the third which can be said to form the basis of the modern Indian theatre.


Origin of modern Indian theatre

Modern Indian theatre started after the advent of the British in India. The British developed Calcutta in the east, Bombay and Surat in the west and Madras in the south as important centres of trade and administration. They also set up theatres in these cities for their entertainment.

Levdef, a gentleman of Russian origin, established a theatre by the name of Bengali Theatre. Abridged versions of plays like Disguise and Love is the Best Doctor were enacted on 21 November 1765, well over 200 years ago. Many rich drama lovers followed the example of Levdef and started conducting shows in their houses, lawns and gardens. This set in motion a process in which many theatres were established and plays enacted.

Once general interest developed in the plays, their commercial viewing became inevitable. This led to the formation of theatrical companies among which the Parsi theatrical companies became most popular. These companies toured various provinces and made money. But, more significantly, they contributed to the popularization of the plays by writing them in Indian languages.


The first Parsi Theatre company called “Pārsī Nāṭak Maṇḍali” performed their first play Roostum Zabooli and Sohrab in 1853, followed by King Afrasiab and Rustom Pehlvan and Pādśāh Faredun. By 1860 over 20 Parsi theatre groups were formed in Mumbai.


Salient features associated with Modern Indian theatre are:

  • Predominant influence of western notions of drama
  • The Ancient Indian tradition rested on a happy ending of the plays whereas in the western tradition the tragic ending was generally in vogue
  • Modern Indian theatre was a product of certain Indian social developments. The processes of modernization and Renaissance in the Indian society, brought about Socio – cultural changes and these changes were reflected in the field of art and literature
  • The initial thematic content of the modern Indian plays rested on the historical and the mythological themes. Later the social and political themes were also given a place. Along with this, Indian theatre soon began incorporating elements from the classical Sanskrit theatres and folk theatres. This combination brought about many changes in the Indian theatre. For example, plays in the Parsi theatres gave tremendous importance to music, song and dances which was the influence of the traditional folk plays.

A picture of one of the Parsi theatrical company setup during this time

Fig: A picture of one of the Parsi theatrical company setup during this time


  • The post independence theatre also incorporated much of the folk and the Sanskrit traditions but, in essence, retained the realist western tradition. Playwrights like Badal Sarkar, Shambhu Mitra, Vijay Tendulkar, B.V.Karant, Ibrahim Alkazi, Girish Karnad and Utpal Dutt etc. made new experiments in the theatrical devices


Modern Indian drama and nationalism

  • Combining nationalism with contemporary social reality was another trend in modern plays. The first famous play of this kind was written by Dinabandhu Mitra (Neel Darpan) in Bengali. This play was based on the theme of forcible cultivation of indigo inflicted on the native planters by British imperialism. This play was also indicative of a newly emerging consciousness of nationalism

Dinabandhu Mitra, author of Neel Darpan

Figure: Dinabandhu Mitra, author of Neel Darpan


  • Assamese plays by Padmanath Gohai Barua (Lochit Barfukan), Lahshmikant Bejbarua (Ckakradhwaj Singhj and Bimlanand Barua (Sharai Ghat) were also powerful expressions of nationalist feelings. Pavler wrote nationalist plays (Khadrin Verdri and Desheeya Koti among others) in tamil. In malayalam the nationalist tradition was carried by V.T. Bhattiripad, K. Damodaran, Govindan, Ittasheri, S.L. Puran, K.T. Muhammad, Bhartendu Harishchandra wrote nationalist satires in hindi (Bharat Durdasha, Bharat Janani and Andher Nagri) and his tradition was carried to its culmination by the plays of Jai Shankar Prasad.
  • The Indian intellectuals of the 19th century had grasped the reality that India’s degeneration was not only because of the alien rulers but also because of certain social evils and superstitions prevalent in the Indian society.
  • The plays of that period reflect this understanding very well. The playwrights focused their sarcasm on those Indians who were busy in blindly following the west. The playwrights of this period attacked the caste system, child marriage, dowry, false notions of pride and prestige, prostitution, untouchability and other social evils in their plays


Post-independence plays

The post independence period witnessed changes in both the style and content of the Indian plays. The Second World War and the partition of the sub-continent had a profound impact on Indian society. The widely shared optimism of a better tomorrow turned out to be an illusion after the attainment of independence

The rapid changes brought about by science and industrialization in the society, affected the value systems of the people. These changes were bound to show up in the world of Indian plays in a variety of ways.

An important change was the increased access, to India, of plays written in foreign languages other than English. Indians were now getting introduced to the plays of Brecht from Germany, Gogol and Chekhov from Russia and Sartre from France. This influenced both the writing and staging of the new plays. The new trend is most visible in the plays of Badal Sarkar in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi and Girish Karnad in Kannada. The new plays displayed receptivity towards new experiments being made in the field. The earlier trend was to write five act plays, with many scenes in one act. This was reduced to three and finally to one. Many scenes in an act used to disturb the continuity and interrupt viewer’s pleasure. Therefore, the practice of having many scenes in an act was almost discontinued

The historical plays of the pre-independence period used to focus on invoking national pride. But the new historical plays attempted to understand and analyse history from a new angle. The plays of Uttam Barua (Varja Fuleshwari, assamese), P.Lankesh (Sankranti, kannada), Girish Karnad (Tughlaq, hindi), Vijay Kumar Mishra (Tat Niranjan, oriya), Mohan Rakesh (Ashadh Ka Ek Din, hindi), Jagdish Chandra Mathur (Pahla Rqja, hindi) and Sant Singh Sekhon (Mohu Sar Na Kai, punjabi) are quite remarkable in this respect.


Staging of Girish Karnad’s drama- Tughlaq


In the post-independence plays the mythological form was also used to portray complex human emotions and dilemmas. The focus on social plays continued in the post independence period as well, with a much enlarged canvas to include new social problems and themes. Now, the increasing economic disparity with resultant frustrations, the plight of women in the society, the despondency of the dalits and the depressed, Hindu-Muslim relations, the miseries of the rural life, de-humanization of the city life, hypocrisy of the middle class and the clash between the new and the old values dominated the thematic content of the new social plays.

Practice questions

  1. Discuss the origin of Modern Indian drama
  2. Elaborate how Modern Indian dramas throw light on various aspects associated with Indian society
  3. What has been the dominant perspective in the presentation of the historical and the mythological plays during the post independence period?