With the reoriented cultural politics of the first decade of independence as a backdrop, the Sangeet Nataka Akademi's 1956 drama seminar marks a symbolic end to the theatre movement of the 1940s. It recognised the need to dissociate theatre from a specific political influence. A finite event rather than a movement, the seminar therefore represents a revision moment of transition from pre to post-independence theoretical and polemical positions. With its meticulously detailed agenda, it is also the first sustained exercise in historical self-positioning an early postcolonial reflection on the singular problematic of a multilingual theatrical tradition that had classical and pre-modern as well as colonial antecedents, the emergent modernity of which was synchronous with colonialism. The object of the commentaries and exchanges at the seminar was to relate this complex legacy in theatre to the aesthetic, social, and political needs of the new nation and to develop a program for "the future Indian drama" that would separate what the participants viewed as authentic, intrinsic, and hence desirable lines of development from those that they considered spurious, extrinsic, and undesirable. Such attempts at cultural legislation in the cause of "nation building" belong to a different discursive register than the manifestoes of the IPTA, but in retrospect it would be reductive to dismiss the proceedings of 1956 as largely superfluous, state-sanctioned, cultural-nationalist discourse. Because of their very self-consciousness about the role of cultural forms in postcolonial contexts, the discussants managed to establish the boundaries of much subsequent polemic about theatre, and they foresaw many of the formative features of the post-independence canon without being able to anticipate either its scale or its quality.
The attack on colonial theatre forms follows mainly from the perception that they were imperialist impositions, destructive of the indigenous aesthetic and performance traditions that had prevailed for more than a millennium. Nothing symbolizes this process of displacement more powerfully than the conventions of Western naturalism and their spatial embodiment, the urban proscenium stage. The arguments for the rejection of naturalism are therefore multiple and interrelated. From the mid-nineteenth century onward urban proscenium theatres created fixed and enclosed theatre spaces, in radical opposition to the mobile, open-air performance venues of Indian traditional and folk theatre. The system of commercial ticket sales made theatre subservient to popular taste and destroyed older systems of patronage involving religious or landed elites and their institutions. The naturalistic conventions of the proscenium stage were fundamentally opposed to the pervasive antirealism of indigenous forms (classical, traditional, folk, and popular) and imposed an alien aesthetic on the urban audience.
The multidirectional attack on Parsi theatre at the seminar follows from the belief widely held by the 1950s, that commercialism and the profit motive are fundamentally incompatible with the art of theatre. As the late nineteenth-century Indian equivalent of Victorian spectacular theatre, the Parsi stage was an elaborate, highly profitable private enterprise based on a historically new relation between theatre, popular culture, and the sociology and demographics of the colonial city.
(Last Updated on : 05-05-2012)