Various movements, personalities and institutions have helped Hindi theatre grow in stature over the years.
The modern Hindi theatre began with the creative venture of Bhartendu Harishchandra in the 19th century. In contrast to crude commercial theatre of the time, his theatre had aesthetic appeal, social relevance; farce was his weapon to expose colonial oppression. A pioneer of amateur theatre, Bhartendu wrote about 20 plays. Music was an essential element in his plays.
Since then, the journey of resurgence of Hindi theatre has been phenomenal. It has produced many genres, diverse styles, themes, gifted directors, actors and playwrights. After Bhartendu the most significant playwright was Jayasahankar Prasad. Essentially a poet, he evolved a complex and intricate technique of the craft of playwriting. Prasad mostly wrote historical plays, trying to find the answers to present day problems through the historic characters. Among his plays four are outstanding: “Ajatsatru”, “Skanda Gupta”, “Chandra Gupta” and “Dhruvaswamini”.
The formation of the Progressive Writers' Association and Indian Peoples' Theatre Association contributed to sharpening the satirical edge of Hindi theatre. These organisations influenced the works of Bhisham Sahni who wrote plays like “Hanush”, “Madhvi” and “Muaze”. Mohan Upreti, who produced the folk ballads of Uttarakhand in the form of operas and formed Lok Kalakar Sangh at Almora, has a long association with IPTA. One of our greatest theatre pioneers, Habib Tanvir, was actively involved with IPTA in Mumbai. Committed to theatre, actor-director Prithvi Raj Kapoor highlighted the need for Hindu-Muslim unity through his socially relevant and technically impressive productions like “Deewar” and “Pathan”. He laid the foundation of professional theatre in Hindi.
Hindi theatre was basically enriched by amateur groups like Anamika in Kolkata, Theatre Unit in Mumbai, Abhiyan and Dishantar in Delhi and Darpan in Lucknow. These groups produced meaningful theatre in the 1960 and 70s. The contribution of Padatik and Rang Karmi in Kolkata was also immense.
With the establishment of National School of Drama, in Delhi in 1959, Hindi theatre assumed the role of vanguard of modern Indian theatre. When E. Alkazi directed “Andha Yug” by Dharamvir Bharati for NSD in 1964, it became a national theatrical event. Again, M.K. Raina directed it for NSD in 1986. A perfectionist, Mohan Rakesh's two plays, “Ashadh Ka Ek Din”, and “Adhe Adhure” brought fame to Hindi drama. Alkazi staged “Ashadh Ka Ek Din” for NSD in 1969. Om Puri did it for Dishantar. Later, Satyadev Dube, Shyamanand Jalan and Amal Allana produced it. All these productions received rave reviews in the press and accolades from discerning audiences. Another important dramatist was Laxminarain Lal whose two plays, “Vyktigat” and “Abulla Diwana”, were welcomed by audience and directors. With deep knowledge of Greek tragedies and contemporary western theatre and drama, Alkazi imparted Hindi theatre a modern temper in terms of stagecraft, acting and interpretation.
The greatest achievement the Hindi theatre could justifiably claim is the path-breaking works by Habib Tanvir who created a body of work that is acclaimed by Indian and foreign critics alike. His “Charan Das Chor” created waves in India and abroad. He gave Indian theatre an identity. In a similar vein, Bhanu's experimental works with the Bheel tribals of Rajasthan are remarkable for the synthesis of tribal forms with modern theatrical technique. Thanks to the efforts of Bhanu Bharti the Hindi theatre came to know about Bhuvaneshwar Prasad.. “Tambe Ke Kide” and “Azadi Ki Need” are his most significant dramatic works.
Other notable playwrights include Mani Mudhukar and Surendra Verma whose “Surya Ki Antim Kiran Se Surya Ki Pehli Kiran Tak” has been translated into six Indian languages. The NSD Repertory Company staged it in 1974. His other well-known plays are “Athwan Sarg”, “Need Kyon Raat Bhar Nahin Aati”, “Chhote Saiyid Bade Saiyid” and “Shakuntala Ki Angoothi”. Eminent directors like B.V. Karanth, Ram Gopal Bajaj, and Rajendra Gupt have staged all these plays.
New playwrights have emerged in the last decade: Rameshwar Prem (“Charpai” and “Jal Damroo Baje”), Nand Kishore Acharya (“Dehantar” and “Zillesubhani”), Swadesh Deepak (“Court Martial”) and Asghar Wajahat (“Jin Lahore Naheen Dekhya”). There are more new voices but these are sporadic efforts.
Until the early 80s Hindi theatre was full of excitement, exploring new frontiers of dramatic art. It produced great actors and directors. This wave of creativity reached towns like Bhopal, Patna, Lucknow, Nanital, Jaipur and Udaipur where amateur theatre movement was strong. But Hindi theatre remains Delhi-centric. Great Hindi theatre was mainly produced in Delhi.
Gradually the excitement subsided and mediocrity descended. Of course, theatrical activities have increased manifold. College theatre is vibrating with activities. There is a need to break fresh ground to infuse it with new life to meet the challenges of globalisation. Meanwhile, meaningful and artistically produced plays are being staged to capacity crowds in halls across Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata; it augurs well for the future of Hindi theatre.