(Last Updated on : 29/01/2009)
The historical play is a nineteenth-century phenomenon in Indian theatre. The growth of historical plays in various languages coincided with the growth of interest in history in general and the Indian past in particular. It was further accelerated by Indian writers' warm response to European historical romances and drama. The initial motivation was mainly with the romanticization of the past as a means of escape from the harsher present, but the Indian dramatist soon realized the genre's potential, making it an effective instrument for the propagation of socio-political ideals.
Historical plays followed a parallel line of development to historical novels and poems, based on well-known episodes and exploiting, more or less, identical ideas projecting a new vision of national history. However, compared to drama dealing with contemporary social problems or interpreting myths, which revealed a remarkable unity of themes, the historical plays presented a widely divergent world of subjects and characters. Mythological drama derived inspiration mainly from pan-Indian Hindu sources, whereas historical drama accorded greater importance to regional sources. The Assamese authors Padmanath Gohain Barooah and Lakshminath Bezbaroa
, for example, chose the tragic life of the princess Jaymati, who bravely suffered at the hands of an Ahom king, for Jaymati in 1900 and Jaymati Kunwari i.e. 'Princess Jaymati' in 1915 respectively. Similarly, Kanchi-Kaveri in 1880 by Ramshankar Ray and Engrez kartrika Kataka vijaya i.e. 'Conquest of Cuttack by the British' in 1901 by Bhikari Charan Patnaik drew upon the history of Orissa. Venkataraya Sastry's Prataparudriya natakam i.e. 'Prataparudra's Play' in 1897 in Telugu portrayed the glories of ancient Andhra. Likewise E. V. Krishna Pillai's Malayalam Sitalakshmi in 1932 dealt with the time of Martanda Varma, several Marathi writers projected Shivaji with great pride, and Bengali dramatists discovered new icons like Pratapaditya and Sirajuddaula. The celebration of regional heroes and heroines contributed significantly to the growth of patriotism as well as towards the search for identities of different cultural and linguistic groups.
Curiously, ancient India provided subject matter occasionally. The examples can be mentioned as D. L. Roy's Chandragupta in 1911. This was one of the most popular plays based on ancient history, whereas medieval India fired the imagination of dramatists more significantly. The palace intrigues, heroism, romance, lust for political power, treachery, and self-sacrifice formed the stuff of which most Indian historical plays were made. The most important role that the genre played till Independence was the creation of secular national heroes and heroines. Political theatre had its beginnings in historical drama. Among the distinguished writers was Girish Chandra Ghosh
, whose Sirajuddaula in 1905 and Mirkasim in 1906 both lionizing protagonists who died protecting the freedom of India.