Theatre was a principal pursuit of a number of kings across northern India in the period from 1600 to 1850, and they patronized theatrical performances held in their palaces as well as in public to amuse and edify the populace. Passing reference has been made to Braj dramas such as Hasyarnava and Madhava vinoda commissioned by or performed in the presence of royalty; the legendary connection between the Rajput courts and the early Khyal theatre has also been noted. The exact relation of court performances to the local drama traditions and available vernacular texts is a topic requiring research beyond the scope of this book. It would be particularly useful to know more about performance styles and their affinities to the secular folk traditions. For the present, we scan the range of court-related theatre, culminating in the appearance of Urdu theatre or drama in association with the mid 19th century court of Lucknow.
A flourishing court theatre based upon the Vaishnava movement was patronized by the ruling dynasties of Mithila, Nepal, Bundelkhand, and Assam from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. About a hundred plays were written by thirty-five dramatists during these four centuries, inspired in the main by the devotional songs of Vidyapati Thakur and Baru Chandidas and traceable ultimately to Jayadeva's Gita Govinda, written at the end of the twelfth century.
The Malla kings of Nepal were great patrons of drama from whose courts in Patan, Bhatgaon and Kathmandu come many of the surviving play texts. Although the Mallas' native language was Newari, a Tibeto-Burman tongue, various Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the vicinity were widely understood.
The last of the Nawabs of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah (reigned 1847-1856), ranks among the pre-eminent royal patrons of the arts in nineteenth-century India. Seated on the throne at the time of the British takeover of Awadh, Wajid Ali has been alternately praised for his magnificent court with its aesthetic refinement and condemned for his moral decadence and inattention to administration. Several important performance genres such as the Kathak style of dance and the light classical song form thumri received his early support, and a host of minor forms thrived too. In the theatrical realm, the Nawab encouraged the Radha-Krishna themes found in other North Indian courts. Attracted to song and dance from childhood, he established a Rahaskhana (drama hall) where the amorous exploits of Krishna and his female devotees were enacted, and he maintained a Pankhana (harem) for the ample provision of female artists. Hearsay has it that Wajid Ali himself participated in these private sports in the role of Krishna. He also penned a skit, Radha Kanhaiya Ka Qissa, first played in Huzur Bagh in 1843. Upon ascending the throne, he adapted several Persian-style romances for the stage and sponsored performances of them in Qaisar Bagh.