To begin with, most scholars dealing with the subject of Indian theatre agree that, around 1000 AD, after the decline of Sanskrit theatre, and the Muslim conquest of north India by the twelfth century, significant theatre activity resumed in the Indian regional languages only in the nineteenth century. Some classical theatre forms survived in the areas where people speak the Tamil language and Malayalam language, and religious forms, such as the Ramlila and Raslila dominated the north. In such languages as Bengali language, Marathi language, Kannada language, and Gujarati language, a variety of folk and popular forms took shape during the postclassical period. The vitality of these traditions actually weakened the Western impact in the beginning, delaying the westernization of the Indian stage for some time. But in languages like Hindi, Punjabi, or Kashmiri, there was no notable theatre at all until the late nineteenth century, and therefore little for colonialism to displace.
Second, the nineteenth century critique of indigenous forms was not primarily a British but an Indian preoccupation. The British were equally contemptuous of the immorality of traditional Indian theatre and the presumptuous crudity of Indianized versions of Shakespeare. As the folk theatre in India was alien and inaccessible, the British were also interested in developing alternative cultural spaces in the interests of better political control. But indigenous forms came under attack because of the self-critical thrust of social reform movements, the emergence of middle-class culture in the cities, and the commitment of such major authors as Dwijendra Lal Roy and Rabindranath Tagore to the literary and cultural possibilities of the new aesthetic.
Thirdly the westernized theatre may have devalued indigenous forms in cultural and critical discourse, but the conditions of its existence were so radically different from those of traditional theatre that there could hardly be any genuine rivalry between the two models. Nineteenth-century urban theatre was, first and foremost, a product of new forms of entrepreneurial capital, best symbolized by National Theatre of Kolkata that began charging ticket prices when it opened in 1872, and the major Parsi theatre companies, which were based in metropolitan areas but also travelled throughout the country. The audience for this theatre came mainly from the urban (initially English-educated) middle class, though the travelling companies gradually acquired a larger popular base. New theatre architecture and the proscenium stage dictated new staging conventions, which involved the full range of modern theatre arts, acting, costumes, sound, lighting, scenic and set design, and stage machinery. In contrast, folk forms had a rural or semi-urban base, depended for patronage on the landed gentry or religious institutions, and needed minimal physical organization in terms of location and staging.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, urban theatre may have been an alien form at its inception, but went through the same rigorous process of indigenization and assimilation as the print genres of poetry, fiction, and non-fictional prose. Following the orientalist recovery of Sanskrit theatre between the 1790s and the 1830s, the dual theoretical frames of reference for the new theatre were the classical Indian and the modern Western dramatic canons. Far from erasing the Indian past, this theatre made the past available to the discourses of identity, selfhood, culture, and nation.
The genres of colonial Indian theatre reflect this hybridized duality perfectly. As noted earlier, nineteenth-century performances ranged over plays in English, European plays in English translation, Indian-language versions of English and European plays, translations of Sanskrit plays into modern Indian languages, and original Indian-language plays that were Western in form but not in content. From the beginning, the material of the new Indian plays was also resolutely Indian, deriving from mythology, history, folklore, and the social texture of contemporary life.
Colonial Indian plays therefore exemplify one of the basic claims of postcolonial theatre criticism, that colonial cultures generate new theatrical forms by negotiating between indigenous performances modes and imported imperial culture.
|More Articles in Modern Indian theatre (19)|