Performing arts can be interpreted to include the entire gamut of human creativity expressed on a proscenium primarily directed towards an audience. It is a vast field. Music, dance and drama are primary and complementary components. In this section we will attempt to sketch a historical and cultural perspective to the art and traditions Anubhav aspires to establish, promote and disseminate.
Performing arts are as ancient as civilization itself. In the Indian subcontinent, the earliest forms of theatrical arts were perhaps the dance dramas evidenced by iconography from of the Indus Valley Civilization, 5000 years ago. Sanskrit drama flourished from about 1500 B.C. to 1100 A.D. and like Greek drama, owed its origins to religion. Certain episodes from the Rig-Veda are among the earliest forms of drama in the world. The sublime and philosophical conversation between Krishna and Arjun in the Bhagavat Gita is another fine example. Mythology has it that the Creator Bramha, at the request of other gods and goddesses created Natya-Veda, ie., the Veda of the Theatre drawing the quintessence of drama from the other four Vedas – dance from the Rig, song from the Sama, mimicry from Yajur and passion from Atharva. In reality, it is likely that dramatic tradition arose from the custom of reciting Sanskrit verses at social and religious gatherings. Over time, the verses were translated to vernaculars or Prakrit, and music accompaniment and dramatic gestures added. Probably, the oldest dramas were composed in Prakrit and not Sanskrit with themes from the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. These have not survived but, the dramatic tradition has been well preserved in many Sanskrit plays that form enduring national literature.
The governing rules of Sanskrit drama evolved over time and were studied in the ancient universities of the sub-continent. Panini, the Sanskrit grammarian noted the existence of these rules in the 4th century B.C., well before the Greek invasion of the Indus valley. The rules were formally laid down in the Natyasastra by Bharata in the second century A.D. Sanskrit drama is very different from Greek classical theatre in temperament and methods of production. In aesthetics as well, the Navras theory in Natyasastra bears no resemblance to Aristotle’s theory of Catharsis. There were no true tragedies in Sanskrit theatre as aesthetic principles prohibited death or defeat of the hero on stage and also any extravagant display of emotions. An enlightened audience of a Sanskrit play experienced nine rasas, emotions or sentiment (consisting of erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrible, odious, marvelous, and spiritual peace) each associated with a corresponding bhava or expression portrayed on stage (consisting of love, laughter, pathos, anger, energy, fear, disgust, wonder and quietude). The Natyasastra also lays down rules for almost all aspects of drama including background music, stage size and proportions and even definition of people fit to be drama critics.
It is interesting to note that in a Sanskrit play, while the principal characters spoke Sanskrit, the minor characters spoke Prakrit. Following Alexander’s invasion, Hellenistic influences enhanced Sanskrit drama. The curtain used on stage in the background (to conceal the dressing room behind the stage) was called Yavanika, derived from the Sanskrit word for Greek, Yavana.
The earliest known Sanskrit play is Mricchakatika, or The Little Clay Cart, attributed to Shudraka in the 2nd century BC. It is rife with romance, erotica, royal intrigue and comedy. Thirteen plays by Bhasa (and a disputed fourteenth) were discovered in an old library in 1913 and these include Swapnavasavadatta, or ‘Vasavadatta’s Dream’. The most renowned playwright and poet in Sanskrit was Kalidasa (3rd – 4th century A.D.). Abhijnanasakuntala or ‘The Recognition of Shakuntala’, often considered to be the greatest play in Sanskrit, is reputed to have enraptured Goethe more than a millennium later. The works of several other playwrights also survive to this day. However, the only surviving Sanskrit dramatic tradition in India today and governed by the strict rules of Natyasastra, is Kodiyettam, preserved by the Chakyar community of Kerala.
The middle ages saw a decline in Sanskrit theatre. However the dramatic tradition continued in the vernacular theatre. In Bengal, the folk drama forms, Yatra, Yatra Kirtaniya and Pala-gan were popular and continue to be so to this day. The origin of Bengali theatre is sometimes attributed to a short-lived experiment by a gifted Russian scholar, Gerasim Lebedev (1714-1818) who adapted a couple of French comedies with the help of his Bengali tutor, Golknath Das for two packed shows in Calcutta during 1795-96. Later, in the mid-nineteenth century, several makeshift private stages were built by the affluent and plays translated from the Sanskrit classics as well as contemporary social satires became quite popular.
One of the early successes was Nildarpan, by Dinabandhu Mitra that exposed the inhuman exploitation and cruelty of the indigo planters, staged at the newly formed National Theatre of Calcutta on December 7, 1872. The success infuriated the British but, a year later, an English translation by Michael Madhusudhan Dutt was played to open applause. It was around this time that Bengali theatre shook off the influence of Sanskrit drama and adopted a more western style. Suddenly contemporary social issues in the form of satires began to take centre stage. Michael Madhusudhan Dutt brought forth true tragedies in plays such as Padmavati (1860) and Krishnakumar (1861). Several theatres were built during the later half of the 19th century that included the Bengal Theatre, The Great National Theatre and the legendary Star Theatre. Most of these theatres burnt down, but a few continue to this day as movie halls.
One of the stalwarts of late-19th to early 20th centuries was Girish Chandra Ghosh, who reigned in the world of Bengali theatre for four decades as a playwright, actor, director, producer, manager and teacher par excellence. Bengali theatre reflected the rising spirit of nationalism and the essence of Bengal Renaissance. Adaptations from Shakespeare, like Hariraj (1897) by Amarendra Dutta, based on Hamlet, were very successful. So were historic themed plays by Dwijendralal Roy and Kshiroda Prasad Vidya Vinode. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s repertoire included several highly acclaimed poetic plays or dance dramas including Balmiki Pratibha (1881) and Chitrangada (1892). One of the greatest actors during the 1920’s was Sishir Kumar Bhadhuri.
The 1930’s brought about a gradual decline in Bengali Theatre owing perhaps to the unstable political climate during the struggle for freedom and the infamous Bengal famine (1943-1944). Post-independence (1947) brought a reawakening of Bengali Theatre. Since then, plays of every genre are being written and performed to high acclaim. Mahaprem, or ‘The Great Love’ by Manmath Roy and Sainik, or ‘The Soldier’ by Dhananjoy Bairagi bolstered the patriotic spirit during the war with China in 1962. Several western plays were translated and adopted for the Bengali stage such as Gorky’s ‘The Lower Depths’ as Neecher Mahal by Umanath Bhattacharya, Chekov’s ‘The Seagull’ by Ajit Gangopadhyay as Thana Theke Esechi, Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ by the theatre group Bahuroopie as Putul Khela and G.B. Shaw’s ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ by Utpal Dutta as Madhu Chakra. One act plays have been gaining popularity. Several novels have been dramatized to very successful plays. Socialist and progressive themes have been adopted such as Chabi Bandhopadhyay’s Keranir Jeeban, or ‘A Clerk’s Life’ and Street Beggar. Badal Sarkar has carved a niche for himself in Bengali theatre by his unique compositions and technique in ground breaking works such as Baro Pishima or ‘The Elder Aunt’ (1961) and Baki Itihas or ‘The Remainder of History’. Manoj Mitra is another complete theatre personality who has produced dramatic plays such as Chakbhanga Madhu, ‘Honey From The Broken Hive’ (1971) and Kothay Jabo or ‘Where Do I Go’ (1972).
There is a wealth of talent and dedication in Bengali theatre that is truly commendable. Shambhu Mitra, wife Tripti Mitra and daughter Shaoli Mitra have put in stellar performances on stage and also written and produced plays as well as founded new theatre groups. Tapas Sen has earned world-wide recognition as a great craftsman in light-effects. There are many professional theatre groups who perform regularly in theatres and in drama festivals that are held during the winter months in Calcutta and other towns in temporary stages set up under awnings. Experiments with theatrical themes, form and technique are carried out regularly. This is too small a platform to mention and honour all personalities and their contributions to Bengali theatre. It is a tradition kept alive by the appetite and expectations of the Bengali commoners and cognoscenti alike for vibrant and intelligent entertainment.
Besides West Bengal in India, Bengali theatre in a professional level is very active in Bangladesh. Professional theatre in other Indian languages especially, Marathi, Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam and Urdu are very popular. At the amateur level, theatre in Bengali and other Indian languages are performed by theatre lovers in the sub-continent and among diasporas world wide.
Dance also is a performing art. Classical forms such as Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Mohiniattam and Kathakali are the most prominent. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore put together a genre of modern dance set to his own songs in Bengali. There are many other forms and genres of dance that together make up Indian Culture.
A few worthwhile web-links:
1. The Drama of India:
2. History of India Drama:
3. Modern Indian Theatre:
4. Bengali Theatre:
5. Images of Bengali Theatre:
6. Bengali Theatre & performing Arts: