Indian theatre since its beginning has two phases – one for the folk and other for the elite. The earliest period of Indian theatre is marked by the pre-eminence of the Sanskrit theatre. But Sanskrit was not the language of the masses. So folk theatre for those who did not have access to Sanskrit also existed side by side. In the medieval period in certain languages like Assamese, vernacular plays with elements drawn from both Sanskrit and folk theatres flourished. The result was the fall of Sanskrit drama from its pre-eminent position. During the British rule, Sanskrit theatre lost its importance completely owing primarily to the spread of English education and the development of the regional languages. Plays written in the regional languages under the western model replaced the Sanskrit plays. The folk as well as the traditional theatre mostly patronized by the rural masses, however, continued unaffected for some time. But gradually the elite theatre and, in other words, the proscenium stage patronized by those who were exposed to western education moved into rural areas and exercised its influence over the folk theatre.
After the attainment of independence, the impact of the western theatre widened. Almost all playwrights and producers fell victim to the norms of western realism and modernism. Previously, the inspiration drawn by them was restricted to the British theatre. Now it extended to all parts of Europe including Norway, Italy, Greece, Germany and France. Attempts were made not only to mount adopted plays of Ibsen, Pirandello, Sophocles, Brecht, Beckett, Moliere and others but also to adopt their techniques. There were arguments and counter-arguments in favour and against such adaptations. But the argument that human situation in the post-war era is identical throughout the world persisted and the western theatre exerted its preponderant influence on the Indian stage during the 50s and the 60s of the last century.
In the 1970s, however, a group of playwrights, producers and drama critics came forward with the idea that Indian theatre must thrive on its own. Instead of producing pale copies of the west, it has to search for an idiom rooted in Indian tradition. Therefore, the need for adaptation of indigenous elements and techniques in Indian drama and its production occupied their mind. This, they felt, was necessary not only for the recognition of Indian theatrical productions but also for a wider audience. The idea led to the exploration of native elements and their exploitation in drama. In other words, there was a search for roots in Indian theatre.
This resulted in writing and producing plays utilizing various techniques of folk and traditional Indian theatres. Not that folk and traditional element were not used by earlier playwrights at all. They existed in plays written before and after independence. For example, Habib Tanveer’s Agra Bazar produced in 1954 had a complete folk setting. Assamese playwrights like Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Atul Chandra Hazarika used folk and traditional elements in their plays long before independence. But these were casual exercises and there were no systematic efforts to generate a movement. Serious efforts in this direction were made in the 1970s and afterwards. Thanks to the role played by the Sangeet Natak Akademi that introduced a scheme to support the endeavours of young theatre workers engaged in exploring and developing a theatre idiom indigenous in character. The Akademi with that objective organized annual theatre festivals in different parts of the country to encourage the young producers who are inspired and improve upon their indigenous theatre approach. A good number of playwrights and producers took advantage of the scheme and engaged themselves in creative experimental productions by applying devices rooted in India’s past heritage of performing arts. The expansion of theatrical activities towards a new horizon was about to take a shape of a movement.
A major exposure of Indian theatre during the last two decades is the use of folk and traditional forms. The theatre form used in most of the plays is either folk or traditional or a blend of folk and traditional. Significant works in the field have been done by producers like Habib Tanveer in Hindi and Ratan Thiyam of Manipur. Attempts have been made by a number of young producers to follow the examples set by these two exponents of the indigenous forms. But the pertinent question is, how far have the attempts succeeded in leading us to a new genre? The opinions of the critics in this regard are, however, not very encouraging. They think that the movement has neither led us to a new genre nor has it ushered in a revival of folk theatre.
This needs a little explanation that takes us back to the origin of the movement. The purpose behind the movement was to create a new theatrical experience that expresses contemporary sensibilities with the help of native elements. Good efforts were made at the beginning in relation to the style of acting, dialogue, movement, costume, setting and scenic design. But the real spirit of the movement did not sustain long. Over the last few years, association of folk and traditional elements has only been an idealism not backed by seriousness of intention and depth of understanding of the folk and the traditional forms. Exceptions are there. But in most cases the folk form has been introduced just for the sake of introduction without keeping in mind its appropriateness or relevance. The demand, it appears, has come not from within but from without. In Assamese, for example, after late Jugal Das’s Bayanar Khol which virtually inaugurated the search for roots in tradition, there were only a few productions which were aesthetically satisfying. Most of the productions are either replications of some specific folk form or inadequate and superficial display of folk and traditional elements. As one critic has said, “The folk art has undergone a metamorphosis and become pop-art to suit the needs of a consumerist culture.” The indiscriminate use of folk and traditional elements without a dear vision of tradition has made the performances stale stereotypes.
(Published on the occasion of the ongoing Asam Natya Sanmilan annual conference at Duliajan.)