Live theatre in India: A student’s perspective

By Rinjisha Roy

Hi everyone! This is Rinjisha again and in my post today, I would like to tell you a little about myself, and theatre in the place I come from. I am from Kolkata, previously Calcutta, in east India. Kolkata is famously known as the city of writers, poets, painters and actors, and is home to the world’s second largest cricket stadium, the Eden Gardens. Considered the ‘cultural capital of India’ and an intellectual hub, Kolkata once had a strong history in housing ‘group theatres’, a tradition which, although not as popular today, still continues to grace several parts of the city.

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SPEA graduate student and theatre aficionado, Animesh Priya

While preparing for this post, I was in a dilemma about which part of India I should talk to you about, since the country is so diverse (each of the 29 states has its own language!), with each region having its own artistic and cultural identity. Consequently, I decided to focus on a region that is separate to where I am from and fortunately enough, I was glad to be joined by one of our students, Animesh Priya, to help explain theatre specific to south India. Animesh is an MPA student at SPEA, and he is from the city of Ranchi in northeast India. Interestingly, he has been associated with theatre for quite some time, and together he and I would like to draw up a little picture of Indian theatre for you.

Let us start at the very beginning, when the concept of theatre was first introduced. The earliest live theatre in the country was the Sanskrit theatre, originating around 1st century AD. It came about as a manifestation of the Hindu religion, with theatre being performed by priests on a sacred ground to the accompaniment of traditional rituals, classical dance and music that the priests were trained in. The purpose of theatre back then was to both entertain and educate audiences. Gradually, theatre moved to princely courts where the first official theatrical groups were formed. These groups, coordinated by a stage manager, received extensive training in acting styles, music and dance. Theatre was the source of entertainment during royal gatherings, or on nights when kings emerged victorious at war. As time passed, theatre during late 19th and early 20th century evolved to depict themes such as identity, nationalism, spiritualism and emancipation, ideas prominent under the British rule.

So where is theatre in India today? Well, after the introduction of TV and the availability of affordable ticket prices for movies since the late 20th century, audience visits to theatre declined. However, regionally throughout the country, certain groups still continue to perform shows. Other than some prominent live theatres, theatre today is presented in various forms like street play, mobile theatres (where theatre groups travel different places to perform), puppet theatre (showcasing classical art by using puppets) and so on. And not only do these plays reflect contemporary Indian society, but they also aim to bridge the gap between theatre presenters and non-theatre goers.

Take for example the Rangashankara Theatre in Bangalore in south India, a place Animesh is well-acquainted with. This theatre showcases plays staged by professional groups in English and some Indian languages, and draws crowds who work at the IT sector, which constitutes a large section of Bangalore’s population. Animesh, who last lived in Bangalore in 2011, observes how the theatre is growing today. “From what I hear from my friend who is still there, it is going strong. And that’s only because of the people who come from outside. And again, these are not people who have had an exposure in art”, says Animesh.

So how does the Rangashankara successfully draw audiences? Animesh says that it is due to the quality of the plays staged, which always turns out to be good. And there is variety too, he observes. From staging a series of monologues, to creating a miniature representation of reality within an imaginary setting, the theatre covers big ground. One particular favourite of Animesh’s is an adaptation called Mrs. Meena by the group Perch. In it, an actress comes to a village which has been in shambles for twenty years and she undertakes the task of restoring it. Gradually, the plot reveals how she belonged to the very same village, had fallen in love with a man and was asked to leave, disgraced. So when she gains power, she comes back to her village to make people realize the injustice meted out to her. Original and creative in content, plays like Mrs Meena keep audiences eager for more such stories, thereby successfully building a strong audience base.

It can therefore be said that live theatre has the potential to foster a strong connection between the play being staged and the individual watching it from afar. And this connection has inculcated a strong interest for the art form within students like Animesh and myself, who have been able to discover our artistic interests in Bloomington’s live theatres. An avid theatre goer, Animesh, particularly, is able to associate his theatre experiences in India with those in Bloomington. He has watched all performances staged by the IU Theatre department since last semester, and has enjoyed those experiences, observing a subtle difference between audiences here and those in India. “People are much more interested here in giving theatre a chance,” he says, referring to how he sees people from a middle class background show a keen interest in theatre.

I would second that – there is certainly greater scope and potential for theatre to grow and develop further in Bloomington, given the variety and number of live theatrical performances that happen every week. And the fact that playwrights and theatre directors recognize the same is motivating, encouraging audiences from diverse backgrounds like ours to come, watch and learn from such plays.

The Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance appreciates the valuable contributions of IU’s SPEA arts administrators to the cultural life of Indiana University and the Bloomington community. We look forward to seeing how they continue to be powerful advocates for the arts, here and abroad.

Rinjisha Roy is graduate student in the Arts Administration program at SPEA and a graduate assistant for IU Theatre’s marketing department. She is from Calcutta, India and was a literature major as an undergraduate at St. Xaviers College in Calcutta. Her interests include writing, poetry, Shakespearean theatre and classical music. This is her second semester at IU and she is very excited to be a part of the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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