Sanskrit drama was staged in buildings, within temple or palace complexes, constructed according to the principles outlined in the Natyasastra, with auditory and performing spaces clearly demarcated by measurements. The raised platform had four elaborately designed pillars often adorned with flowers at the corners. This leaves a strip in front in the foreground. Stools or simple pieces of furniture may have indicated thrones, chariots, or other such seating. A change in locale was suggested by a circumambulation around the stage, and the new environment described by gestures and words. In the back wall there are two doors for entrances, and a hand-held curtain hid new actors on stage in a manner. That was dramatic as well as a process of revealing the character in phases. Similar stages are presently used for the highly codified Kutiyattam, performed in kuttampalams. Similar half-curtains survive in such forms as Kathakali, where two stagehands bring on a 3 m-by-2 m cloth. Behind this cloth an actor stands in character, 'entering' in medias when they lower it in full view, and sometimes even 'exiting' when they raise it to conceal him again.
Folk theatre normally takes place in neutral, fluid spaces, in the village centre or other such prominent open-air venues. The performing area is at ground level or sometimes raised, the audience seated in about three-quarters of a circle around it. Occasionally, the troupe erects a temporary makeshift structure of wood and bamboo covered with canvas. The 'backstage' usually cordoned off with cloth. These genres depend strongly for their visual art on elaborate masks, costumes, and make-up. Their characters and themes often come from mythology or local folklore. The style varies from region to region, the design elements derived from regional iconography as well.
During the late eighteenth century in Bengal and Maharashtra, a new urban theatre originated. To host their entertainments in India, the British constructed formal proscenium-arch playhouses in growing cities like Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. Interested natives evolved a new concept of theatre, based on Western idioms of performance. A number of indigenous companies came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century, influenced by reading Shakespeare and other European playwrights, presenting texts inspired by their stagecraft but soon incorporating Indian mythological stories. Sanskrit drama in translation, and, later, social themes sourced from local milieus.
The Renaissance Italianate style of painted perspective scenery became Indianized. This offers a simple solution to the production of vast visual extravaganzas, recreating on stage such locales as palaces, forts, jungles, or streets.
In Calcutta, an English artist, David Garrick, formerly principal of an art college, painted four 'tasteful sceneries' at the Great National Theatre, of a court, garden, forest, and interior. The name of the play can be mentioned as Kamyakanan i.e. 'Desirable Garden' in 1873. This was a fairy tale by Amritalal Basu and Nagendranath Banerjee. Dharmadas Sur was the first known Indian scene painter, followed suit, using portable rolled-up scenes on canvas. In Bombay painted sets grew popular during this time. The Painter brothers, who got their name from their trade, later supplied scenery for the theatre as well as silent films.
Initially, single painted curtains depicted different places. Nearly four to six curtains in a production pictured all locations. This technique soon underwent further elaboration. By the turn of the century, a scene was represented by two or three curtains cut in various shapes and placed one in front of another. This is actually to create a feeling of enhanced depth. These were known as 'cut scenery'. The cut-out portions held together by means of transparent gauze-like material to form the entire curtain. The scrim allowed spectators to see through into the depth, from the curtains placed in the foreground to those in the background. This pattern also affected the lighting plan, so that separate sets of lamps used to highlight the different curtains one behind the other. Sometimes the wings were also camouflaged by strips of painted scenery continuing the artwork, to make the illusion complete.
Spectacular devices or 'trick scenes', such as miniaturized railway trains colliding to explosions on stage, fairies emerging from rose petals, and beheadings of characters, comprised some of the special effects and quick changes. These usually create high points of scenic splendour. The management of Kshirod Prasad Vidyavinod's Alibaba proudly advertised that its 'Grand Cave Scene is worth seeing'. Soon this style of design became popular all over India, adopted by Gujarati Theatre and especially Parsi theatre companies. These toured everywhere. Rabindranath Tagore was irritated by this literalism. He advocated a return to the symbolism and stylization of the Natyasastra in his revolutionary essay Rangamancha or 'The Stage' in 1902. He also encouraged his artist nephews, Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore, to cultivate an impressionistic approach for his plays. Ultimately entrusting his sets to the famous painter Nandalal Bose, he mounted productions in open-air natural surroundings at Santiniketan, or specified suggestive minimalism and simplification indoors.
The use of painted scenery continued till the late 1920s and early 1930s. This was done under talented artists like P. S. Kale in Bombay, surviving even till the end of the century in such commercial companies as R. S. Manohar's National Theatres, Madras. A new movement began to take shape. Ibsenian realism became important, coinciding with new plays written on social issues. Painted curtains gave way to painted flats and multiple levels on stage, with realistic furniture and properties. Along with levels came the wagon stage and the revolving stage as early as 1933 in Calcutta, designers like Charu Roy, Ramen Chatterjee, and Manindranath Das becoming the forerunners of the new style. The changing shape of theatre was evident from Sisir Bhaduri's production otjibanranga i.e. 'The Stage of Life' in 1941 and Bijon Bhattacharya's Nabanna i.e. 'New Harvest' in 1944. The Indian People's Theatre Association and Prithvi Theatres began focusing on socialistic drama presented realistically.
In 1953, there was a revival in Marathi theatre. This revival ultimately gave birth to yet another phase of innovation on Bombay's professional stage. This rejuvenation led to the emergence of a large number of artists experimenting with ideas of design using abstract forms and symbolic settings suggestive of locales, rather than replicating them in entirety. To some extent reminiscent of the stylized realism or expressionism of Max Reinhardt, designers like D. G. Godse, Damu Kenkre, Raghuvir Talashilkar, Mohan Wagh, and Shyam Adarkar transformed sets into a new instrument in the theatre.
In Calcutta, Khaled Choudhury made his own statements in designing productions, which he felt must remain true to the essence and style of a play. He was an illustrator as well. He gave his scenes a graphic quality, plus strong structural features that communicated the mood through formal elements like line, colour, and shape. His set for Tagore's Rakta-karabi or 'Red Oleander' in 1954 became a milestone in symbolism.
Also in Bengal, Utpal Dutt's Angar i.e. 'Coal' in 1959 and Kallol i.e. 'Waves' in 1965 with Tapas Sen's pioneering special effects, offered integrated technical teamwork. These were not seen earlier on the Indian stage. The use of lighting to create plastic forms in space marked a breakthrough in this era. Traditional Indian theatre relied on torches or fixed oil lamps for lighting. These are still visible in Kutiyattam and Kathakali, where actors often come nearer the tall brass lamp to convey important facial expressions better. Gradually, kerosene and Petromax pressure lamps, gaslight, and electric lights had arrived. The last two came in urban auditoria during the late nineteenth century.
Developments in the new theatre movement of the 1930s and 1940s had influenced practitioners employing painted scenery, who began their own innovations in lighting. It includes throwing out footlights, illuminating multiple curtains in a manner that created highlights accentuating the illusion of depth, while avoiding actors' shadows on the painted curtains. Following Tapas Sen, other contemporary light designers included V. Ramamurthy from Bangalore, Kanishka Sen from Calcutta, and G. N. Dasgupta from Delhi. The recent son-et-lumiere works of N. Krishnamoorthy in Kerala show the further consolidation of lighting in stage design.
The last four decades of the twentieth century brought many further changes. It is not possible within the scope of this article to detail every significant theatre designer or all the modern and contemporary trends in design. But certain important ones should be mentioned in the article. By the time the National School of Drama formalized theatre training in all its specialities including stagecraft. Its director, Ebrahim Alkazi, himself designed many unusual sets applying the doctrine of interpreting the text, as well as mounted plays at different sites in Delhi. The examples can be given as the ruins of Ferozeshah Koda and the old Fort, incorporating the natural surroundings as the setting.
The 1960s also gave birth to a search for roots in contemporary urban theatre, under the influence of folk forms. This evolves a new idiom both modern yet based on indigenous tradition. This style re-examined the nature of performance, exploring the use of space in the essentially bare picture-frame of an indoor auditorium. The process of evolving an Indian scenography in this mode remains very much at a formative stage. However, some designers like M. S. Sathyu did attain consistent aesthetic success.
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