Players and performances
November 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
We have a long tradition of theatre in the Orient and our theatre, as of now,
does have the embarrassment of coming after great periods of folk and classical heritage,
unlike in the Occident, where theatre was seen only as dramas at the altar of words.
The inevitable change to drop the term ‘drama’, with its overtones of a literary art, and to
refer to the entire activity as ‘the theatre’ or ‘the stage’ came much later in the West.
Lee Strasberg speaking about the new concept of theatre in the West said:’ It is not to be
Words, scenery, and acting as separate elements uniting into a somewhat mechanical unity. It is
to be the word transfigured from its purely logical and literary meaning on a page by the living
presence of an actor whose creation of the moment, the event, the situation, brings out or adds
a dramatic meaning of the word. The playwright is a poet, not the poet of words, but is a poet of
words-acted, of scenes-set, of players’ performing ‘. This aptly describes our ancient Indian
How did we in India conceive theatre in our ancient times?
‘Theatre’ ,as understood in India from time immemorial, is a total art form that includes
poetry, prose and drama. It is known as ‘natya’ in Sanskrit and ‘koothu’ in Tamil and
Malayalam. The commentator Adiyarkunallar for ‘Cilappadikaram’, which I would consider
as the first Tamil play, though written in an epic form, says, ‘natak(drama) is one of the
constituents of ‘koothu’, narrating a story’.
Theatre at its best has a fascination, a power, and a distinctive human splendour which can
make other fine arts seem cool and remote.. Nothing else has quite the same ability to erase
the distinction between art and life. We have heard the bards proclaiming that all the world is
a stage and not a symphony, a poem, a painting and even a novel. It is a powerful and vibrant
art form for moulding the mind and which comes fully alive in the intellectually charged
energy generated between the stage and audience. Historically, it is seen as signifying a high
point in the cultural development of a people, and has been a measure of its accomplishment. It
is one of the most democratic forms of creative expression, for it can only be sustained by the
will and acceptance of the public.
Now it may be a valid question to ask, who goes to the theatre in our age of cinema, television,
sports and discos? In India, during the ancient period, the educated as well as the masses went to
the theatre, as one understands from the two classifications Raj dharmi and Lok dharmi mentioned
in old dramatic manuals in Sanskrit and Tami. During the Elizebethian days plays were performed
before the aristocracy and common people. In the 19th century in Europe in it was a kind of an
after-dinner entertainment. for the rising middle-class This was the period
when situational comedies and drawing room romances became popular. But a small
minority, informed by modern painting and literature, needed something more from the theatre,
more than a digestive after a heavy meal. So two principal sorts of dramatic enterprise, referred to as
the majority and minority theatres, came into existence. Drawing a political analogy, one may say
that the minority theatre was dramatic Left and the other, dramatic Right. This should not be
equated with our Raj dharmi and Lok dharmi.
We have no records to show where and before whom our plays were performed in ancient days,
though there are references to the grants given to the performers by the kings during the late Chola
period.. Apparently they were staged in the temples before a mixed audience of aristocracy and the
common people as in Elizebethian days in England. As such, there was no question of minority
and majority theatres in our tradition. The classifications , Raj dharmi and Lok dharmi were not
in the context of exclusiveness but only referred to the types of play and their performing style.
In Adiyakunallar’s commentary for ‘Cilappadikaram’ we find this subject dealt at length with apt
quotations from the ancient Tamil dramatic manuals, which are now extinct.
During the 19th century we borrowed the Western theatre forms and performed our own passion
plays on the puranic themes. We forgot our own tradition of improvisation and artistic suggestion but
adopted ‘ the nothing-left-for imagination’ stage décor and sets as found in the naturalistic theatre of
the West. And in the sixties, when we found that there was total transformation of ideas and concepts
in the Western hemisphere and that they were looking toward the East for inspiration and innovation,
we began to realise the importance of our own cultural roots. At this point of time, as in the West,
we also acquired the divide that is what is known as majority and minority theatres, whereas no so such
division had existed anytime before in our cultural history.
The irony was all such plays we staged based on our cultural heritage and roots became the
minority theatre and the western imitations on a proscenium stage became the majority theatre!
It has now led to a situation when we need to reinvent ourselves.
The best way to do it is theatre education for the young minds to make them feel aware of their
past and their immense potential to create a meaningful theatre to suit the present contemporary
The theatre is an integrated outcome of such creative endeavours as literature, music, dance, painting,
sculpture and architecture. ‘One has to be a total artist to be in theatre’ said Wyszpiansky , one of
the outstanding Polish playwrights in the late 19th century. The study of theatre calls for dedication,
eagerness to assimilate things from several disciplines and above all, strong mental and physical
The dimensions of this task have to be reflected in the course of study prescribed in a school of
drama, the system of training adopted, the facilities provided, the competence of the teaching staff,
and the capability of the students to absorb and impact which all these collectively make on the
theatre-going public and the masses.
Theatre involves both theory and practice. There are several aspects of theory which need to be
covered. Theory flows from practice and it gets codified for future reference and adoption for the
sake of continuity. In other words, theory also does the function of what is presently known as ‘play
analysis’. The plays of the past masters have to be studied in depth. Intensive study of the Sanskrit
dramatic form should be the intrinsic part of the curriculum as it is the very basis of Indian
aesthetics. The Natya Shastra provides inexhaustible avenues for research, study and
development which would bring a new awareness of India’s heritage.
These various areas of dramatic study which deal with universal truths call for close investigation
because they embody important philosophical, metaphysical and cultural concepts. In the theatre
these ideas are projected in terms of the stage, through the medium of acting, direction, stage design
costume, make-up, lighting, sound and music as well as theatre architecture. One cannot therefore
visualize a course of theatre study in which theory is separate from practice.
In the analysis of theatre architecture, for example, the student discovers that the theatre building itself
is not just an intricate machine for the presentation of plays, or an edifice which merely undergoes
alterations in response to changing tastes in architectural style. It is far more than that. It is, in each
period and place, the representation of the universe in microcosm. The Sanskrit theatre, the Noh
stage, the wooden ‘O’ of Shakespeare’s times, the Greek theatre at Epidaurus, the Koothambalam in
Kerala, the stage described in the Tamil epic ‘Cilappadikaram’, each of these is the actualization of
a profound idea, namely a paradigm of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Accordingly, a course
of theatre training covers the history of man’s representation of the world and of human experience
through a wide range of artistic expression, from the ritualistic, the symbolic and the poetic down to the
meticulously realistic and the very now post-modern. happenings.
The formation and evolution of human societies, their history, philosophy, metaphysics, psychology,
political structures and cultural manifestations are part of the vast landscape of humanity which the
the theatre practitioners must comprehend and traverse. How is this complex panorama of human
experience to be reflected with subtlety, clarity and insight in a system of training- which starts with the
simple acts of breathing and walking, and proceeds to interpretation of fleeting, half-conceived
nuances in human relationships?
Training in theatre can, of course, stop short at the mastery of mere techniques; voice production,
movement, carpentry, the making of stage properties, the application of make-up, the fabrication
of beards and wigs, the cutting and stitching of costumes, or the handling of lighting equipment. Such
knowledge is basic, and these can be taught in workshops and institutes of technical training. It is
necessary to go beyond the technical aspects to the interpretative and creative aspects, to the more
profound role of each of these elements as indices of human consciousness, of moral and
psychological truths. It is only then that one can plumb the deeper waters of creative intuition and
awareness. It is the privilege of the teacher in theatre to initiate the novice, step by step, into this
boundless ocean of human experience.
To instance, an actor needs training in several aspects. Not only his body but his mind has to be
moulded to help him develop aesthetic sensibility. Various forms of strenuous physical training
like dance movement, yoga and the martial arts provide an actor with a body which is a flexible,
sensitive instrument. But beyond that, when the actor is confronted with the whole gamut of world
history, and is called upon to serve as an interpreter of the past and the present of a wide range of
human societies, he must have a developed mind which is comprehensive and sensitive enough to
respond to these exacting demands, as well as sufficient skill and imagination to communicate them
convincingly to the audience.
How long a period is required for the training of such an actor? If we take any of the performing arts
in our country, music and dance it takes not less than ten years. The Kathakali pupil acquires his basic
technique over a period of 14 years and spends his lifetime projecting not more than three or four
roles suitable to his physique, temperament and histrionic skill.
The question arises whether it is possible to devote such a long period for training in the modern
era that calls for instant results? What kind of training must go into the making of a contemporary
actor who would interpret in fairly quick succession a mythological hero/heroine, Dharamvir Bharati’s
Asvatthama, Shakespeare’s Hamlet; who would on occasion perform in a Therukooththu, or Noh’s
play, a Brecht play, a Moliere farce, a musical extravaganza; and who would be equally at home in
television and the movies? These are the modern requirements and what kind of training needs to be
given to achieve this virtuosity?
In 1975 the National School of Drama Society was set up with this lofty objective to train students
in all branches of theatrical knowledge and give them comprehensive education in regard to all
all the cultural forms obtained in our multicultural country. Its Memorandum speaks of an integrated
all India vision that would project the best plays available in all the major languages of the country.
Its mission was to develop suitable patterns of education in all branches of knowledge both at
undergraduate and graduate levels so as to establish high standards of theatre knowledge in all the
regions of India and for this reason develop liaison and associate with colleges, Universities in all the
regions of this country.
But what really happened? Here is the rub. What was once visualized by its founding fathers as National
School of Drama has only become a Delhi School of Drama catering only to those hailing from a
privileged region of this vast country with a privileged language as their mother tongue. One may
venture to ask whether this great nation’s multiculturalism, which at once is its great distinction and
pride, reflected in the NSD’s courses of study and also its distribution of students and staff? Occasional
workshops in some of the regions of the country at brief intervals for a short period of time cannot be
an effective substitute for an integrated approach to disseminate socially relevant theatre for the whole
country with different languages and culture.
In my view, the National School of Drama should be renamed as the National University for Theatre
Arts located in Delhi and it should have autonomous schools at every regional centre affliated to it
The National University in Delhi should be an apex body and high centre of learning devoting itself
wholly to do intensive research at the highest level in regard to the various regional dramatic forms in
India. It need not engage itself teaching the undergraduate and graduate courses but leave this business of
teaching at these levels to the regional centres. All the cultural disciplines at the regional centres should
have Chairs at the National University to make it a representative body. It should have also as its
function to organise National Drama Festivals at the various regional centres annually , when all the
great regional productions would be staged. The National Apex Body should also coordinate frequent
cultural exchanges between the various regional centres, which would go a long way in creating a
national consciousness in regard to the identity of this country in a multicultural context.
A realistic and comprehensible plan needs to be worked out and executed at the national, state and
local levels. Theatre is a social endeavour and the best vehicle for meaningful education. There are
are very vital issues that confront us now because of events like globalisation that have overtaken us
that a common needs to get prepared to face them and decide which are good for him and which are not.
I do not mean that the theatre has to become a propaganda forum but without sounding pedagogic, it
can promote a social awareness among the people without losing its artistic sensibility. The
existence and role of the regional as well as the national theatres can be visualised only in this
context of such an over-all country wide scheme. Then alone the theatre can be called the artistic
conscience of the Indian society.