The mention of theatre, perhaps the pioneer among performance arts, rarely pops up in the context of the Indian Independence movement. However, history reveals that regional theatre played a significant role in mobilising mass awareness against the autocratic British regime. So much so, that in 1876, the British Government enacted the Dramatic Performances Act, aiming to curb the creative freedom of Indian theatre. It is often said that this Act, which is still prevalent in its amended forms in a number of Indian states, laid the basis of censorship in Indian cinema much later.
On World Theatre Day, Efforts For Good revisits the glorious days of pre-Independence Indian theatre and its unsung contribution to India’s freedom.
Calcutta – the epicentre of nationalist theatre
At the forefront of pre-independence theatre in India, Calcutta was perhaps the hotspot of a budding nationalistic sentiment. The growing anti-British mindset was evident in contemporary literature. Authors penned plays depicting the real picture of British atrocities in rural India, among which Dinabandhu Mitra’s Nil Darpan deserve special mention.
The heart-wrenching play was based on the British oppression of the impoverished indigo farmers of Bengal. The staging of the play on December 8, 1872, remains a landmark event in history, as it successfully stirred the whos who of Bengal nationalist politics as well as the common urban masses.
Another interesting trend noticed in contemporary theatre performances was the regular stage adaptation of notable incidents involving British authorities. Satire dominated in some of the plays, which slyly called out the Indian aristocracy, infamous as sycophants of the British. While other stage performances unabashedly painted the true picture of poverty, tyranny and stalled progress under the colonial rule.
National Theatre, the forum of nationalist playwrights and theatricians of Bengal set up during this time must be mentioned. Shortage of funds and lack of experience in the evolved genre of modern theatre failed to mellow the patriotic spirit of the people involved. Before its emergence, the urban audience found folk theatre as their only form of entertainment, which was often accused of being vulgar and scurrilous.
However, National Theatre did away with the controversial ill-fame of theatre art and gave birth to a new form of polished amusement, which also served as an eye-opener to the commoners. It was at this juncture that theatre was commercialised, where a nominal fee was charged from the spectators, as opposed to the earlier forms of folk theatre which were free, random and informal.
Charges of sedition against the group were recurrent, but could not subdue their enthusiasm.
News dailies continually urged the group to take their art into the interiors of India, to spread awareness among the rural masses. Accordingly, a fresh aspect appeared in the backdrop of Bengali theatre, which now penetrated the nooks and corners of the province. Taking help of the folk theatre like Jaatra, the seed of nationalism was being sown. In a July 1904 speech, Nobel Laureate author Rabindranath Tagore emphasised on using the medium of Jaatra to awaken and unite the rural indigenous population.
Madras and the legacy of Tamil ‘Protest’ Theatre
Aside from Bengal, Tamil Nadu also played a crucial role in nationalistic theatre. Contrary to the gradually brewing patriotism in Bengal theatre over the span of almost half a century, a similar narrative arrived prominently in Tamil theatre mainly after the gruesome Jallianwalabagh massacre of 1919. Before this, between 1905 and 1915, Annie Besant’s Home Rule Movement triggered a lot of theatrical productions delineating the importance and need for the same.
Centred around Madras, the group of Tamil ‘Protest’ Playwrights gave rise to a brand new form of theatre, deviating from the traditional dance-drama-music pattern. In these plays, contemporary Tamil literature, existing folk culture and modern English stagecraft were amalgamated together. The depiction of political and social themes, mostly allegorical but often direct, defined this new era of Tamil theatre. Metaphoric and indirect expression of anti-colonial sentiments was adopted to avoid the axe of censorship. Even in melodramatic plays, the essence of patriotism was camouflaged perhaps in the dialogues, characterisation or backdrop of the story. Khaddar, charka and Gandhiji’s ideology were found as essential symbolism in these plays. Dramatists Subramaniya Bharathi and T.P. Krishnaswamy Pavalar deserve special mention in this context. Interestingly, the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 did not have that severe an impact on Tamil theatre, since it was more stringently imposed to curtail the rising anti-colonial narrative in North India.
In the countryside, folk theatre at this time had an interesting additional feature of catchy patriotic songs, which were easy to memorise by the masses. Later, the culture of these songs became a part of mainstream urban theatre as well.
Contribution of other states
Apart from Bengal and Tamil Nadu, other states also contributed a pivotal amount to the nationalist theatre. For instance, in Maharashtra, P.L.Deshpande, Shahir Sable attempted to create a sense of unity among the people through their patriotic literary works and consequent stage adaptations. Among folk theatres, Burrakatha of Andhra Pradesh, Bhavai of Gujrat and Tamasha of Maharashtra also spread social awareness, often condemning social ills and colonial despotism.
IPTA – the final push
The next chapter of importance in the history of pre-Independence Indian theatre comes in 1941 with the foundation of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Involving eminent playwrights from all over India, this association was more inclined towards the slowly growing communist philosophy, which blatantly called out the capitalistic exploitation by the British, which was the sole cause of recurring famines and persisting poverty in India. The graphic portrayal of the dire scenario definitely hit the masses hard, pushing them a notch ahead to bring forth the Indian Independence.
AESTHETICS AS RESISTANCE: RASA, DHVANI, AND EMPIRE IN TAMIL “PROTEST” THEATER – DHEEPA SUNDARAM
Indian Folk Theatre Instrumental in Independent India’s Socio-Political Transformation By Sayali Indulkar
THEATRE FOR DEVELOPMENT IN INDIAN CONTEXT: AN INTROSPECTION – Priyam Basu Thakur
FOLK THEATRE-ITS RELEVANCE IN DEVELOPMENT COMMUNICATION IN INDIA – Sheelita Das
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