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Performance, Meaning, and the Materials of Modern Indian Theatre

  • Girish Karnad

Girish Karnad is not only India's leading playwright, and a practitioner across the performing arts in all that nation's media, but the first contemporary Indian writer to have achieved a major production in a regional American theatre – Naga-Mandala, seen at the Guthrie Theatre in July 1993. The following interview was recorded on the occasion of that production, and ranges widely not only over Karnad's own work and its circumstances, but the situation and problems of the Indian theatre today, and its ambivalent relationship alike to its classical and its colonial past, and to the contemporary problems of its society. The interviewer, Aparna Dharwadker, is Assistant Professor of Drama and Eighteenth-Century British Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Her essays and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in PMLA, Modern Drama, and The Sourcebook of Post-Colonial English Literatures and Cultural Theory (Greenwood, 1995). She has also published collaborative translations of modern Hindi poetry in major anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1994), and is currently completing a book-length study of the politics of comic and historical forms in late seventeenth-century drama.

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Notes and References

For prompt assistance with reference materials relating to Indian theatre, I want to thank James Nye, bibliographer for South Asia at the Joseph Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. Thanks also to Girish Karnad and Vinay Dharwadker for believing in the value of a conversation conducted under impossible conditions.

1. Yakshagana is a traditional rural theatre form associated with southern Karnataka. The term means ‘the song of the yakshas’, the latter being the spirits associated with Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth. The open-air performances, which combine music, dance, and improvised dialogue, take place under the patronage of temple authorities, and usually last from about 10 p.m. to sunrise.

2. Kathakali is a form of dance-drama native to the southern Indian state of Kerala. Bulky traditional costumes, elaborate facial make-up and head-gear, exaggerated but precise facial expressions, and vigorous, measured movements are the distinctive features of the form. The two ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, provide the narratives for most Kathakali performances. Chhau is a folk performance style of Bengal and Orissa.

3. Since the late 1950s, Karnad has acknowledged the poet, translator, scholar, and linguist A. K. Ramanujan (1929–93) as the shaping influence on his work in theatre and film, particularly as it involves traditional and folk materials. Ramanujan (also referred to as Raman) died suddenly in Chicago during minor surgery four days before this interview was recorded.

4. Sita, wife of king Rama in the epic Ramayana, is a powerful symbol of female purity, fidelity, and endurance in Hindu culture. She is abducted and imprisoned in a garden by Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka; rescued after a destructive war, she chooses the ordeal by fire to prove her chastity. Savitri, whose story appears in the Mahabharata, symbolizes conjugal love that defies death and the gods. When Savitri's husband Satyavan dies soon after their marriage, she (like Orpheus) follows Yama, the god of death, to the underworld, and returns only after winning back Satyavan's life.

5. Ramanujan, A. K. discusses ‘women-centered tales’ in folklore in the Introduction to his Folktales from India (New York: Pantheon, 1991).

6. Sita is separated from Rama twice: first during her abduction by Ravana, and later when Rama succumbs to the gossip among his subjects and doubts her purity. In the Mahabharata, Damayanti is separated from her husband, Nala, when he loses all his possessions in a game of dice. They are reunited after three years of suffering and wandering.

7. Chandrashekhara Kambar is a major Kannada playwright whose plays derive, like Karnad's, from traditional and folk narrative materials. Jokumaraswamy (1973) is his best known play.

8. Vijay Tendulkar is the most prolific, controversial, and boldly experimental Marathi playwright of his generation. Ghashiram Kotwal (1973) is an ironic tour de force in Indian theatre. Based on the life of Nana Phadnavis, the powerful nineteenth-century prime minister of the Peshvas of Pune, the play employs the traditional musical Dashavatara form to attack idealized histories, political corruption, and the excesses of the caste system in Hinduism.

9. Karnad refers to a large number of Indian theatre personnel during the interview. This consolidated note provides brief information about them in alphabetical order. E. Alkazi (b. 1925) headed the Theatre Unit in Bombay, and served as director of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, from 1962 to 1977. He is among India's leading directors of theatre in English and Hindi, and his 1974 production of Karnad's Tughlaq at the Old Fort in Delhi is considered a landmark event. Arvind and Sulabha Deshpande were, until Arvind's recent death, a powerful team in Marathi theatre and film. Arvind's work was principally directorial, while Sulabha has created some of the most memorable female roles in Marathi theatre, including the part of Miss Benare in Vijay Tendulkar's Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe (1971). Satyadev Dubey is an important figure in the history of post-independence Hindi theatre. He began as an amateur stage actor in Bombay in the early 1950s, then became associated with E. Alkazi's Theatre Unit, and took over the directorship of the Unit in 1962. Dubey was the first to stage Dharmavir Bharati's Andha Yuga and Karnad's Yayati, and has produced major plays from several regional languages in Hindi. He is also well known as a screenplay-writer for Hindi cinema. Utpal Dutt (1929–92), the celebrated Bengali and Hindi screen actor, was also one of India's most active left-wing playwrights and theatre directors. A notable achievement of his Calcutta-based Little Theatre Group, later renamed the People's Little Theatre, was to revive the Jatra theatre of West Bengal. Shyamanand Jalan is a major director of Hindi plays in Calcutta, where he has been associated with the Anamika group. B. V. Karanth is among India's leading contemporary directors of theatre in Kannada and Hindi. He has successfully adapted traditional and folk Indian performance styles, particularly music and rhythmic movement, for urban theatre, both Indian and western. Karanth suceeded E. Alkazi as Director of the National School of Drama (1977–81), then became Director of Ranga Bhavan, the repertory group affiliated with Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal (1982–86). He now heads the Nataka Karnataka Rangayana, a repertory group supported by the Government of Karnataka. Vijaya Mehta is a prominent Marathi stage, film, and television actress, and director of the Rangayan group in Bombay. She has mounted major productions of classical Sanskrit plays, Marathi versions of Brecht, and other contemporary plays in several Indian languages. Shambhu Mitra (b. 1925) is a leading Bengali stage actor, and was the first major modern Bengali theatre director. He was widely acclaimed during the 1950s and 1960s for his productions of plays by Rabindranath Tagore. He has also successfully staged such plays as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Ibsen's Enemy of the People in Bengali. Kannada actor-director Shankar Nag, who died in a car accident in 1990, won the Best Actor Award at the New Delhi International Film Festival for his very first film, Ondanondu Kaaladalli (1978). He also directed the celebrated television series based on R. K. Narayan's fiction, Malgudi Days. Rajinder Nath works with the Abhiyan group in Delhi, and has undertaken successful Hindi productions of plays from several Indian languages. Alyque Padamsee, who heads the Theatre Group in Bombay, is the leading director of amateur English-language theatre in India. His 1970 production of Karnad's Tughlaq is counted among the most successful in contemporary Indian theatre. K. N. Panicker is the most significant contemporary director in Malayalam, the language of the southern state of Kerala. Like Vijaya Mehta, he has brought classic Sanskrit plays back to the modern stage, and like B. V. Karanth he has excelled in the use of traditional and folk performance styles in urban theatre. Jabbar Patel is a leading Marathi director, and heads the Pune-based Theatre Academy. Among his most successful productions have been Vijay Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal (1973), and P. L. Deshpande's Teen Paishacha Tamasha (a version of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, 1978). Om Shivpuri was a highly-regarded Hindi stage and screen actor as well as theatre director, best known for his performances in the plays of Mohan Rakesh. His Urdu production of Karnad's Tughlaq in 1967 first brought the play national recognition. Ratan Thiyam is a playwright and director from Manipur, a small northeastern state neighbouring Assam, who was trained at the National School of Drama and served as its director from 1987 to 1988. Thiyam has combined ritualistic and martial elements with several Manipuri forms to create a spectacularly original theatre. His best-known production, Chakravyuha, has been performed all over the world.

10. Badal Sircar is a major Bengali playwright and director based in Calcutta. He heads the Shatabdi theatre group. Influenced by Richard Schechner, Sircar has developed the concept of a Third Theatre, using minimal props, informal performance spaces, and improvised dialogue to provide low-cost or free theatre to interested audiences. Evam Indrajit (1965) is his best known play.

11. Mohan Rakesh was the leading playwright and fiction writer in Hindi at the time of his premature death in 1973. His major plays include Ashadh ka ek Din (1958), Lahron ke Rajhans (1963), and Adhe Adhure (1969).

12. Dharmavir Bharati is a major Hindi novelist and literary editor. His only play, Andha Yuga (1955), is based on the Mahabharata, and is widely regarded as the first significant work in post-independence Indian theatre.

13. Vasant Kanetkar is a prolific contemporary Marathi playwright whose best-known play, Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete, celebrates the rise of Maratha power under Shivaji. His Matsyagandha (1964) and Lekure Uddand Zhaali (1966) are remembered for the music by Jitendra Abhisheki.

14. P. L. Deshpande is the author of one original play and numerous comic revues in Marathi. He has also adapted several western classics for the Marathi musical stage, including Oedipus Rex, Pygmalion, and The Threepenny Opera.

15. Kamban is a twelfth-century Tamil poet and author of the Iramavataram, a Tamil version of Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana. The novelist R. K. Narayan has produced a prose version of Kamban's classic in English (New York: Viking Penguin, 1972). Lakshmish is a sixteenth-century Kannada poet best known for his Kannada adaptation of the Sanskrit Jaimini-Bharata. Based on the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic narrates the story of the horse sacrifice performed by Yudhishthira with the help of Krishna.

16. Like Alyque Padamsee's Theatre Group in Bombay, the Madras Players were exclusively responsible for English-language theatre in the southern city of Madras during the 1960s and 1970s. Karnad was a member of the group from 1963 to 1970.

17. These three plays belong to the tradition of natya-sangeet, or musical drama, that has dominated the modern Marathi stage. Sharada (1899), by G. B. Deval, is a realistic, social-reformist play attacking the institution of child marriages. Manaapmaan (1911), written by Krishnaji P. Khadilkar and set to music by Govindrao Tembe, is perhaps the most successful musical in the history of Marathi, if not Indian, theatre. Panditraj Jagannath (1960) is a rather ordinary play made memorable by the music of Vasant Desai, a prominent music director for Indian films.

18. The journal Enact appeared from Delhi under Rajinder Paul's editorship from 1967 until the mid-1980s. Apart from the Hindi journal Natarang, edited by Nemi Chandra Jain, it was the only substantial publication concerned with Indian theatre on a national scale. Rajinder Paul was also Vice-Chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi from 1988 until his death in 1991.

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New Theatre Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0266-464X
  • EISSN: 1474-0613
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