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Nationalism, Modernity and Knowledge Production: Shaping the Terrain of
Modern Theatre in Colonial India- Its beginning
There are three fundamental ideas, nationalism, modernity and knowledge production and its
processes which shaped the modern Indian theatre in the post colonial period. These three
ideas are interconnected and functioned with mutual association in generating the sense of
‘Indian’ theatre in the complex cultural context governed by the different regional languages
and cultures especially the strong performance cultures in different genres, along with the
colonial and classical liabilities on English and Sanskrit.
This paper will be focusing on the theatre initiatives happened in the first half of 20 th century
which is in oblivion but which has made the foundation for the new departure under the
canopy of post colonial. This is one of the areas falling under the major rubric of the title. Even
in the colonial time itself the idea of theatre has been problematised and the colonial models
were also questioned in order to establish a new culture of theatre by theatre enthusiasts to
liberate theatre from the ongoing models of theatre practice in the colonial India.
The idea of nation and nationalism- which is connected to the history and to be a subject to be
problematised in Indian colonial context- and the necessity to instill the idea of modernity in
different spheres of society and culture are the major terrains motivated for knowledge
production in the field of theatre in the beginning of 20th century. In different junctures of
history we could see that nation is an essential idea to articulate the idea of modernities and
formulas for action in the concerned fields. ‘Nationalism was a response of individuals affected
by dysfunctions of the society of orders- the traditional structure modern society replaced- to
the sense of disorder they created. Many other responses were possible; the choice of
nationalism was not inevitable, but contingent.’i Hence modernity and nationalism are
essentially associated each other and functioned in a manner that mutually connected. This has
been reflected in the different spheres of theatre. ‘A well ordered society, therefore requires a
comprehensive mirror where the unit can detect their faults inter se and the effect of such
faults on the beauty and symmetry of the group itself. That comprehensive mirror is the stage’ ii,
the legendary actor Bellary Ragahava’s interventions in theatre in the first half of 20 th century
demonstrates the synergy between nationalism, modernity and knowledge production in order
to accelerate change not only the form and content of the theatre but even in its position in the
society and its interwoven relationships. He quotes Sarojini Naidu in connection with women’s
participation in theatre, ‘If you believe that the stage is meant for a simple and easily
understandable interpretation of human emotions, human experiences; if you believe the stage
is meant to reflect life as it is and try to forecast life as it should be; if you believe that the stage
is meant for scientific analysis of the burning social problems of the day and their solutions; if
you really believe (as you who pose as holding advance views, really profess to do) that the
stage is a factor- an important factor- in an effective scheme of education to the masses I
cannot understand why women should be denied a place in this system of education’.iii This
exemplifies the idea of nationalism and its relationships with the terrains of modernity in the
frame work of theatre. ‘Once chosen, nationalism accelerated the process of change, limited
the possibilities of future development, and became a major factor in it. It thus both reflected
and realized the grand transformation from the old order to modernity.’ iv It has been reflected
in multiple ways and in diverse constituencies of theatre during the second and third decades
of 20th century in theatre with specific focus in regions as well as evolving a perception of the
national. According to Liah Greenfeld ‘…nationalism is viewed as a cultural and psychological
function of the process of modernization, a superstructural product of its basic "objective"
structures’,v which is reflected in the statement of Bellary Raghava on national theatre in his
article on South Indian Stage; ‘Once again let me repeat my statement: let us be honest and
true to ourselves. If we honestly believe that the stage is a potent factor in the scheme of our
national education, let us fearlessly ask our rulers and leaders to budget as much money for the
stage as for other educational places. I hope the members of the Mysore senate will take up
this question for consideration… ‘vi
‘The designation, modern Indian theatre, refers to a new genre that developed between the
late-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries.’vii The idea of modern theatre in Indian
context is constituted by different components with emphasis on text and staging. The
dramatic structure of the newly written plays during the end of 19 th and 20th century was
continuity to the literature/literature modernity. Elements of staging were a subsequent entry
in connection with the complementary relationship with the text and performance. Until the
middle of 20th century performance culture associated with modern dramatic texts were devoid
of theatricality, where the referential meanings in a text is embodied in a performance. This has
to be seen as part of the textual tradition. The available theatre models consumed by the wider
public like Parsi theatre and its hybrid nature of theatrical form was seen as popular and non
textual as it was away from the elite notions of textuality. ‘The influence of Western textual
models produced a body of new “literary” drama and dramatic theory in several Indian
languages, led to large-scale translations and adaptations of European as well as Indian
canonical plays, and generated the first nationalist arguments about the cultural importance of
a national theatre in India.’viii Here in Indian context during the beginning of playwriting and
subsequently in the later period text became a cultural entity to invigorate the modernity
project as there were initiatives to replace the canonical texts of coloniality and modernity by
instilling units like Ibsen Society, literature circles etc. ‘The text is a good example of the
complications that ensue when a genuine impulse toward modernity collides with the demands
of a historical consciousness or of a culture based on the disciplines of history.’ix The
establishment of Ibsen Society in Chennai in the year 1927, to translate the play of Ibsen to
Indian languages to disseminate the social reformist ideologies of Ibsen has to be seen in this
juncture along with the other efforts of translating plays from other non British modern
The constituent elements of theatre and its grammar was an alien domain for Indian theatre
practitioners because of not having any exposure to it. ‘The notion of modernity played out into
multiple spheres of theatrical life, including venues of performance, theatre architecture,
patronage, space, lighting, proscenium stages, the commercialization of theatre through the
sale of tickets, and even shift from the actor manager to director.’x
There may be points of departures from the ongoing practices towards evolving better models
during the course of history but in this paper I would be primarily looking at the conscious
efforts to instill a modernized practice of theatre through different efforts during the just more
than two hundred years of history of Indian theatre specifically focusing the period from the
beginning of 20th century. And the trends to invent a new modern theatre in the post colonial
context as a counter to the colonial models and as a nationalist enterprise connecting to the
tradition to bring in a tradition modernity continuity also will be discussed in the paper. Keeping
in view that ‘Theatre’ emerged as a modern entity with western frameworks and notions in
India there were several transformations and transmutations in its history intertwined with
complex elements of anti colonialism, modernity, encounter with different models of tradition
and multiplicity of languages cutting across the periods of colonial and post colonial in the
contour of Indian culture. It paved ways to different manifestations in theatre in the form, text
and performance audience relationships. Precisely the Indian theatre during colonial and post
colonial period interwoven with elements of modernity in theatre as well as strongly imposed
structures of tradition with a desire to be an original native theatre. Sometimes both are
amalgamated and sometimes delineated to each other, but could be seen as multi linear
stream under the rubric Indian theatre.
Establishment of organizations and institutions has made significant contributions towards the
modernization of Indian theatre in different directions. Especially the youngsters exposed to
the non English literature and against far removed imitations of English stage took a lead in this
direction. In 1930s there was an awakening among the literary people that the literature or art
is not only English which they have exposed through the development in the west. During this
time many non British but European works were accessible to them and it has broken the
notion of British as the representation for European culture. It can be read as a reflection of
anti colonialism also. Translations of many non English works happened in different Indian
languages this time. Henrik Ibsen is one of the prominent writers who casted a strong influence
in Indian literature and theatre among many others in this decade. In 1932 under the influence
of new trends in world theatre and inspired by the new sensibilities a group of youngsters
organized Natyamanvantar Ltd in Bombay, Maharashtra to break the ongoing formulas by
giving attention to the constituent components of theatre like lighting, set design and overall
presentation of the play in order to create meaning on the stage. Major objective of this group
was to introduce modern intellectual drama of Europe to Marathi theatre.xi ‘There was an
organized and active protest against the conventional style of acting, against theatricality,
against declamation, against narrative soliloquies, against painted cloth curtains that rolled up
and down at the end of scenes, against over-emphasis and exaggeration, against indiscriminate
use of songs in the midst of dialogue, against start system, against play written for this or actor
and against the atrocious practice of men playing women roles.’xii In 1933 Natyamanvanthar
produced Andhalyaanchi Shaalaa (Blind School)- adaptation of a Norwegian play which has
been considered as the first Marathi play with a female actor. The task was to stage a non
conventional text and to introduce the meaningful use of space with set, properties, lights and
music in compliance with quality/style of the play and through it to create a new theatrical
sensibility among the audience. Bringing naturalistic set, acting, back ground music and lighting
to create meaning on the stage was revolutionary in Marathi theatre. It had only four years of
existence but it could inspire for such works later and works of Natyamanvantar has been as
point of departure from the regular track of theatricality of that time. Shantaram see it as an
effort to save the stage. ‘In the thirties, some frantic efforts were made to 'save the stage.'
Some of these even tried to incorporate a bit of the film into the body of the drama and served
merely to underline the helplessness of the stage. S. V. Vartak of Andhalyachi Shala fame, with
a band of educated enthusiasts like himself, set about the task of ushering in a 'revolution' on
the stage. He did succeed in modernizing the stage to an extent but he himself as a writer fell
short of his noble ambition. With Vartak came modern lighting and the box-set. His
introduction of actresses on the Marathi stage set a vogue for natural acting which was
The performance models emerged during the nationalist movement was primarily directed by
the political ideologies especially with a left lineage. Emancipation of India from the British
through a series of cultural activities was the major motif behind this and towards it the Indian
People’s Theatre association (IPTA) was thriving to explore the possibilities of finding out a new
form of expression in theatre which should not be colonial in its nature. The dominant English
performance models available in Calcutta and Bombay limited to small amount of elite
audience and the commercial Parsi formulas were to be ideologically addressed as a task for
the IPTA during that time. It was essential for them to emancipate the form of theatre on the
background of Indian traditional expressions. IPTA was in need of inventing a non colonial form
with a political rationale. IPTA has seen theatre as a site of political and cultural autonomy with
a new form as a counter to the colonial forms of expressions focusing the performance cultures
of the soil drawing performative resources from the folk traditions seeing folk as the grass root
expressions of the common people and rural India. But this never prevented the IPTA
abandoned the western theatrical notions. It was impossible for them as the modern theatre
was an offshoot of westernization with it s secular nature and contemporanitiy. ‘The IPTA’s
attacks on colonial structures did not mean that it was cut off from European theatrical
traditions. British rulers attempt to co-opt the Indian bourgeoisie from time to time (even
though it was done to make British control stronger) had led to the circulation of British and
European drama and an increasing awareness of Western dramatic theories and conventions.
These included the use of box sets, footlights and proscenium stages.’xiv The modern education
and English studies also enhanced the understanding and diffusion of Western notions of
theatre practice and dramatics. The ideas of theatre and notions of staging practiced
historically in India including its context and patronage differ from the paradigms of modern
theatre practice. Political motif of IPTA was to adapt the structure of western form of theatre
and infuse it with traditional elements of performativity manifested mainly in folk performing
arts. ‘The most important contribution of the IPTA is that it has awakened people from all
levels of society to the fact that India can and should develop a modern indigenous form of
drama.’xvThe effort to develop a modern indigenous drama culminated in to the exploration of
new performative idioms inherent in the folk forms of different regions. It had been seen as a
means to reach out to the masses as ‘IPTA turned to indigenous popular traditions of different
regions such as the Jatra of Bengal, tamasha of Maharshtra and burrakatha of Andhra
Pradesh.’xvi Though the ideological position of the communist party dominated the activities of
the IPTA with its’ anti fascist stand and anti imperial positions with the wider participation of
the middle class intellectuals and writes it has disseminated the form of theatre with
contemporary issues contained with global perspectives and assimilated with indigenous
performance structures. ‘…the IPTA was at once the first national-level theatre movement in
India, and, as the cultural front (at least initially) of the Communist Party of India, an
organization linked to antifascist and anti-imperialist movements on a worldwide scale. Its
international models were the Paris-based International Association of Writers for the Defence
of Culture against Fascism, the Little Theatre groups in Britain, the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) and the Federal Theater Project in the United States, and the Moscow Art
Theatre; in India it paralleled the Progressive Writers’ Association, a national organization of
novelists and poets launched in 1936. The IPTA posed the first concerted challenge to “the
‘cheap commercial glamour,’ ‘pseudo-aesthetic posturing,’ and ‘sobstuff,’ of the contemporary
theater” (Bharucha, Rehearsals, 40), and developed the first serious program for “revitalizing
the stage and the traditional arts” as important vehicles for the “people’s” struggle for political,
cultural, and economic justice.’xvii The regional units of IPTA spread across the country could
attract many artists belongs to music, dance, literature and drama to the theatrical activities of
the movement and reached to the masses without a commercial motif and through it could
instill the means of theatre to the masses as a meaningful medium connected to their life. The
use of tradition in the productions was an extrapolation of tradition without any revivalist
agenda. And it was a model widely practiced across the country as a form of Indian theatre
especially with a nationalist motif and used the folk tradition in a new context alien to its
natural context which was marginalized under the Indian cast system. Conventionally these
forms were considered as sacred within the religious frame work by the respective
communities and IPTA could bring it out a secular context with a new political function. Later
the ideas of IPTA became the reference point in the post colonial nation building process as
part of the new nationhood but devoid of its historical past and acknowledgements to the
The new nationhood has kept the movements and initiatives which created the domain of
Indian theatre in interaction with the concepts of nationalism, modernity and knowledge
production in the oblivion and generated a new history for the field of theater devoid of
acknowledging the foundations laid down by these efforts. To conclude let me quote P C Joshis
Statement: ‘Thus the cultural renaissance and the anti-colonial national struggle had the same
historical genesis and both were expressions of people's search for a national identity. The
cultural workers of the pre-independence period did not live and work in a social vacuum or in
ivory towers. They were deeply involved in the social problems and challenges of their times.
They did not believe in the philosophy of art for arts sake. The anti-colonial struggle at its best
assumed the form of a cultural movement and the cultural movement grew as an anti-colonial
mobilization in the realm of consciousness.’xviii
i Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism and Modernity
Vol. 99, No. 2, Theory in Humanistic Studies (Spring, 1970)
Bellary Raghava, The South Indian stage, 5
Bellary Ragahava- 20
Liah Greenfeld P-10
Liah Greenfeld P-7
Bellary Raghava, The South Indian stage, 32
Rakesh Soloman
Aparna Dharwarkar 4/3
PAUL DE MAN, Literary History and Literary Modernity, Vol. 99, No. 2, Theory in Humanistic Studies (Spring, 1970), pp. 384-404
Nandi Bhatia,2009
Kamalesh OCIT-307
Marathi theatre
Shantaram, Marathi DramaAuthor(s): ShantaramSource: Indian Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Apr.—Sept. 1958), pp.
112-117Published by: Sahitya AkademiStable URL: .Accessed: 20
Sudhi pradhan/quoted Nandi Bhatia
Abbas indias anti fascist theatre; asia and the Americas, dec52 711
Ad 25/26
P. C. Joshi, Culture and Cultural Planning in India, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 18, No. 50 (Dec. 10, 1983), pp. 2128-2131-p 2128.