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  • Contemporary Indian Theatre: Three Voices
  • Erin B. Mee (bio)

What later became modern theatre in India began in the colonial cities set up by the British as commercial ports: Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. These cities had an urban middle-class audience with values and tastes shaped by the English-style education they received, and by the need to work with the British in administration and commerce. Much of the theatre in this era copied the British drama that toured the country, and therefore took on to some extent the aesthetics, dramaturgical structures, and even the architecture of Western drama. Until the development of modern theatre in India, most performance did not take place on a proscenium stage, nor did it depend upon ticket sales, but upon patronage. The proscenium which was adopted for much of the modern theatre separated the participants from the observers; ticket sales put an emphasis on theatre as a commodity, making it available to a smaller, and wealthier, group of people.

After India gained political independence in 1947, a number of playwrights felt the need to develop a theatre that did not follow British models, but was in some way Indian. Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, along with Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, and Girish Karnad, members of what is often referred to as the “Theatre of Roots” movement, began to study Kathakali, Yakshagana, Chhau, and other traditional Indian performance forms to see what could be used in the creation of a modern Indian drama. As Karnad very clearly states, however, the attempt “was not to find and reuse forms that had worked successfully in some other cultural context. The hope, rather, was to discover whether there was a structure of expectations—and conventions—about entertainment underlying these forms from which one could learn.” 1


K. N. Panikkar was born in 1928 in a small village in Kerala, South India. He was exposed as a child to the many so-called folk performance forms of Kerala, and he incorporates some of the stories, music, dance steps, rhythms, and ideas from such forms as Kathakali, Theyyam, Patayani, and Kuttiyattam into his plays and productions: [End Page 1]

Folk contains the archetypal elementary expression of man, which is related to the soil of the land. [. . .] It may be difficult to understand the rationale of a particular folk element, because the rationale may be complicated [. . .] it may be inexplicable to us, which is very interesting for me—I don’t want to have a reason for everything. The absence of rationale-as-far-as-we-are-concerned is interesting to me.[. . .] [It implies a] para-rationale, where it is difficult to apply your normal reasoning to what happens or what is known in folk as thanathu [thanathu is the extreme point of imagination]. This para-rationale comes from the folk tradition. 2

Panikkar looks at the underlying structures and philosophies of folk theatre, and adapts them:

I will be committing a confusion if I say that I am [. . .] trying to take elements from Theyyam—it is not like that. It is not just imitating a folk art situation—you cannot repeat in theatre what the folk artists do. That is why we make it a philosophy. Whether a particular prop or material is to be used on stage [for example a curtain] depends on the situation—we decide based upon what the situation warrants [. . .] in such a way that it suits the [theatrical] situation. That is our guideline. The parameter which is used in folk to make this decision is not the same as in theatre. That is why I stress the point that the use of folk is more a philosophy. The basic thing that has influenced me [. . .] as an essential ingredient of folk, is the rhythm. [. . .] Poetry is the next element of folk philosophy. What is poetry in folk? It is not rendered poetry, it is visual poetry. It is the visual poetry that interprets through poetic images. 3

Through his work with folk forms and his experience directing Sanskrit plays, Panikkar has developed a theory, embodied in his own writing, that Indian theatre is not conflict-oriented, but transformation-oriented. For Panikkar, theatre is storytelling.


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