Development of Urban Theatre in Modern India
The development of urban theatre in modern India can be traced back to the three interlinked but antithetical historical movements. The first consisted in the increasingly powerful identification of theatre with nation during the period from the 1870s to the 1940s, initially in "regional" expressions of nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment in Bengali theatre and Marathi drama and theatre, and later in the "national" purview (real or imagined) of such organizations as the Indian People's Theatre Association, the Indian National Theatre, and the Bharatiya Natya Sangh (Indian Theatre Guild). The second movement, orchestrated largely by the nation-state and a fledgling cultural bureaucracy in the 1950s, weakened the radical positions of the 1940s and developed a re-visionary view of theatre's socio-cultural role in the now independent nation. Although this discourse was synchronous with the appearance of the first important dramatic works of the 1950s, it remained largely disjunct from them and instead articulated many of the theoretical, ideological, and polemical positions that continue to inform debates in Indian theatre half a century later. The third movement coincided with the explosion in theatre activity (in terms of both playwriting and production) that gave shape to the post-independence tradition between about 1950 and 1980, largely outside the ambit of the radical positions of the 1940s and the revision theory discourses of the 1950s.
Nehru Centenary Theatre Festival
Thirty-three years later, in September 1989 the Sangeet Nataka Akademi organised a two-week "festival of contemporary theatre" to commemorate the birth centenary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru - the first prime minister of independent India (1947-64), a legendary theatre enthusiast and, as the "architect of modern India," a fitting symbol for the celebration of modernity and contemporary thought in theatre. In fifteen consecutive performances beginning on 3 September 1989, the Nehru Centenary Theatre Festival presented the work of twenty-six contemporary practitioners: fifteen directors, four of whom were also authors of the plays they presented, and eleven other playwrights, including the Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa (A.D. 275-335), in revival. During the two weeks of performances, the Sangeet Nataka Akademi arranged for informal discussions among the participants, which were recorded but not transcribed. The evolution of cultural forms is a continuous process, without determinable beginnings and ends.
Role of IPTA in the Development of Urban Theatre
The IPTA was, in any case, a movement rather than a finite event. But there is an inherent and intentional self-consciousness about all three occasions that invites symbolic interpretation. The IPTA offers the first serious critique of colonial commercial practices and a radical redefinition of theatre in relation to "the people"; the 1956 seminar revisits both colonial theatre and the IPTA and attempts to anticipate a theatre that has not yet come into existence; the 1989 festival, in contrast, represents a theatre that has already achieved a degree of canonicity. Between these poles, it is possible to chart the formation of the new national canon. Admittedly, in any chronological framework "Indian theatre" connotes such a multiplicity of theoretical positions, genres, languages, and locations that description constantly runs the risk of collapsing into meaningless generalization or impossible detail.
But if one focuses on the formative and distinctive features that separate post-independence theatre from earlier and other forms of performance, those features can be inferred symptomatically from the kinds of evaluation and revaluation evident in the three events under discussion. The founding of the IPTA marks the moment when the rejection of colonial commercial forms was translated into actual nationwide theatrical practice. The 1956 seminar is a "report on the condition" of theatre a decade after independence and a programmatic commentary on the relation between the past and the future in Indian drama. The 1989 festival serves as a blueprint of the emergent dramatic canon: the particular view it offers of linguistic, formal, generic, thematic, and aesthetic elements in a selection of important plays leads, by extrapolation, to the first inclusive view of the notable urban playwrights, directors, and theatre groups of the 1950-2004 period.