A new book that takes you through the history of Indian theatre

Text and Performance, authored by K.G. Paulose, documents the evolution of theatre in India and its interpretative and narrative traditions

June 09, 2023 05:06 pm | Updated 05:06 pm IST

Text and Performance, published by Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (Rs. 890) is an in-depth study of the evolution of theatre in India authored by K.G. Paulose. Divided into three parts and 21 chapters, it delves deep into the interpretative and narrative traditions of Indian theatre. While Part I, Classical Period, gives a detailed account of theatre from early beginnings to the end of the first Millennium, Part II is an analysis of the Popular Theatres and Part III, Theatres of Popular India.

‘Concepts of Aristotle and Bharata on Verbal Texts’ in chapter I, highlights the intrinsic differences between the two. This comes under the Classical Period. For Bharata, story is the very body of the play. But for Aristotle, conflict is the target. “It is self-defeating; the hero has no escape. Everything ends in catastrophe,” Paulose points out. Contrary to this, Bharata’s works lead to an auspicious end. The argument is convincing as corroborated through numerous paradigms drawn from both Indian and Hellenistic plays.

Exploring concepts

The second chapter ‘Performance: From Text to Stage’ expatiates mainly on the tenets enshrined in the Natyashastra. Paulose establishes that the intellectual tradition of India is basically interpretative. Commentaries help in understanding the meaning of the various knowledge systems. In this connection, contributions of Abhinavagupta and Anandavardhana are explored. While discussing the ‘Science of Language’, Anandavardhana, inspired by the sphota theory propounded by Bhathruhari, averred that dhvani is the soul of poetry. All the five types of dhvani have been explained. Here, the important aspect is that while Bharata enunciated rasa for theatre, his medium to reach the audience was abhinaya. What Bharata gained through abhinaya, Anandavardhana gained through dhvani. But a synthesis of the two – abhinaya and dhvani – could be achieved by Abhinavagupta. Here, Paulose underscores that before discussing this synthesis, the contribution of Kulasekharavarma (844 – 883 CE), the ruler of Kerala with his capital at Mahodayapura, presently known as Kodungallur, has to be taken into account. He is sore that unfortunately this still remains unnoticed.

Kulasekharavarma’s contributions

Koodiyattam maestro Ammannur Madhava Chakyar during a performance

Koodiyattam maestro Ammannur Madhava Chakyar during a performance | Photo Credit: VIBHU H

The next two chapters are a comprehensive discussion of Kulasekhara’s ‘Vyagyavakya’, which Paulose himself had published a few years ago. One gets a graphic picture of his immortal contributions in interpreting dhvani and the mode of acting prescribed in Vyagyavakya. Koodiyattam in the present form emerged during the post-Kulasekhara period, 11 to 12 CE. In the chapter, ‘From Imitation to Interpretation and Narration’, we see that, while Bharata’s actor is only an imitator, in Koodiyattam he assumes the role of a narrator and interpreter too.

Rare collection

Ebrahim Alkazi, who shaped modern Indian theatre, at the exhibition of costumes used in his play at the Triveni Gallery in New Delhi on September 15, 2008.

Ebrahim Alkazi, who shaped modern Indian theatre, at the exhibition of costumes used in his play at the Triveni Gallery in New Delhi on September 15, 2008. | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

Didactic is the full text of the papers presented in the seminar on ‘Indian Drama’, organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1956, was the first to be held in independent India. Veterans such as V. Raghavan, C.B. Gupta, K. Narain Kale, Mulk Raj Anand, Kapila Vatsyayan, H.V. Gupta, Charles Fabri, E. Alkazi and Adya Rangacharya had participated in the seminar. Interestingly, the arguments among them are also given in full. This is a rare collection, indeed.

Under ‘Oral Transmission’, there are innumerable stories, both humorous and socially relevant, that are told by the Sutas and Chakyars, which throw more light on this topic.

Kavalam Narayana Panicker reciting poetry at Kochi on October 23, 2014.

Kavalam Narayana Panicker reciting poetry at Kochi on October 23, 2014. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

Use of Sanskrit in theatre

A significant fact underscored by Paulose is that theatre cannot ignore the plurality of Indian languages and their different phases of development. This is dealt with under ‘Emergence of Regional Identities’. They rose to prominence by the end of the first millennium enriching its literature from Sanskrit sources. According to him the presence of Sanskrit became ‘Invisibly visible’. This has its impact on theatre as well. Bhakti movement during this period also contributed much. Dasarupakas (major plays) and their classifications, and also Uparupakas (minor plays) with their characteristic features have been listed. Geya-rupakas (regional category) and desi-rupakas (indigenous forms) have also been explained with suitable examples.

Coming to the Colonial period, ‘Neel Darpan’ incurred the wrath of the British rulers and they banned the play. Further, an Act empowering the government to censor every dramatic performance was promulgated in 1876. Interestingly, to hoodwink the foreigners, some troupes turned it into mythical stories like Keechakavadha, produced in Maharashtra in 1907. Allegorically, Keechaka was Lord Curzon and Draupadi was India, which everyone understood. Tagore is the beacon during the first decades of the 20th century who demystified theatre.

A photograph of Rabindranath Tagore at a photo exhibition to mark his 150th birth anniversary, taken on September 22, 2010.

A photograph of Rabindranath Tagore at a photo exhibition to mark his 150th birth anniversary, taken on September 22, 2010. | Photo Credit: DEEPAK KR

The last part of the book opens with a discussion on National Theatre. While analysing the divergent views expressed by stalwarts, Paulose concludes that “the need of the hour is to revitalise the local idioms to reach a larger national concept, because what we see around are attempts to interpret national/classical forms to suit the regional aspirations. Admittedly the validity of his argument is established in the next two chapters — ‘Synthesis of Classical and Folk’ and ‘Re-Interpreting the Classics’ quoting contributions by many thespians. In this connection, a whole chapter has been devoted to highlight the contributions of Kavalam Narayana Panicker.


RABINDRANATH TAGORE AT SANTINIKETAN IN 1932. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The description of the chronological phases of development of Indian theatre as given in the book is an unprecedented attempt and highly useful for students and practitioners of the thespian art.

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