skip to Main Content

India: Classical and Traditional Theater

Theater in India has a long and illustrious history, taking many forms not always distinguishable by Western categories. Dance, music, storytelling, religious ritual, ceremony, and dramatic acting blend to create a variety of theatrical performances, the oldest being Sanskrit drama. This classical art demands a highly refined and strictly traditional technique of performance, relying on an experienced audience’s knowledge and appreciation of the craft. A second type, devotional drama serves a religious purpose, expressing devotion to a particular god as one means of seeking moksha or liberation from this life’s struggles; through these performances believers hope to experience the divine. Third, Kathakali is a popular dance drama.

In all of these traditional types of theater, most stories are taken from the two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the medieval Puranas, stories of the gods, and most share similar philosophical themes of Hinduism: this world as maya or illusion, part of the endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth, from which we must liberate the soul, and the role of dharma, one’s duty within society and the cosmic order (Richmond 7-11).

Sanskrit Drama

Sanskrit is one of the world’s oldest languages, still considered one of 22 official languages of India, although very few continue to speak it. The classical drama of India was written in other languages as well but commonly referred to as Sanskrit drama. An ancient work of dramatic criticism, the Natyasastra (200 BC – 200 AD) gives a description of Sanskrit drama in a more complete and comprehensive text than what survives of Aristotle’s work on Greek tragedy.

This Hindu “poetics” provides a mythic origin of drama. After the first golden age, the level of dharma (righteousness) declined in the second age, and the people became engrossed in sensual pleasures, greed, jealousy, and anger. The sky god Indra requested that Brahma the creator devise a diversion for the people of all castes. Taking elements from the four sacred Veda texts, he brought together recitation, song, acting, and aesthetics. Brahma asked Indra to perform the new plays with other gods but he refused, saying it was beneath the dignity of divinity. So Brahma asked the priest Bharata and his 100 sons to learn the new dramatic art. When the first performance began, the demons felt insulted by the story which concerned their defeat at the hands of Indra, and caused the actors to forget their lines and dance movements. Indra took his sacred pole and fought them off, but they continued to interrupt. Brahma ordered Visvakarma, the architect of heaven, to design a space for performance which would protect the actors from the assault of the demons. Different gods were assigned to ward off any evil presence from the stage. Brahma declared that the purpose of the new art of drama was to provide relief to the unfortunate afflicted with sorrow or heavy work, to educate them in the proper ways of duty, long life, intellect, and doing good.

The actual origins of theater in India are obscure. The oldest fragments of Sanskrit plays date from the first century AD but show evidence of a long tradition before that time. The classical period of Sanskrit drama lasted until the 10th century. Unfortunately, unlike in ancient Greece no early theater structures in India have survived in any form.

The ancient Sanskrit word for actor was bharata after the legendary first actor in the myth. Both men and women performed, each playing roles of either sex. Women were considered better at singing, men at recitation. Much of the text was sung accompanied by strings, cymbal, drums, and flute, with the musicians sitting on stage. Although a noble profession created by the gods, acting was looked down upon in society, and actors were considered little better than thieves or prostitutes. Priests could not accept food from actors without being ritually polluted. The last chapter of the Natyasastra tells how actors fell from the highest caste of brahmin to the lowest sudra caste: Bharata’s sons mocked the sages in one play, causing the audience to laugh at them, and the sages cursed their descendants to be born into the lowest caste.

Actors performed with few stage props and little scenery. Real objects such as swords or bows and arrows were not used, but lightweight props were made to look like them. Plays describe locations such as mountains, temples, and caves which seemingly were represented by paintings on cloth stretched over bamboo frames. Certain stage areas may have conventionally represented often used locations such as a garden or palace, or the stage may have been a neutral space with locations indicated verbally or with small set pieces.

Five chapters of the Natyasastra focus on the art of movement and the precise rules required for performing Sanskrit drama. Three types of movement are defined – pure, abstract dance; interpretive mime or gesture for narrative; acting and dance combined – as well as two styles of movement: tandava, considered strong, vigorous, and masculine, and lasya, which is fluid, graceful, feminine. Movement falls into three categories, that of the face, limbs, and the rest of the body. Precise movements of the eyes, eyebrows, nose, lips, and chin must be mastered to communicate various emotions and sentiments, including thirteen head positions and thirty-six types of glances. Next, hand gestures are discussed, each with a specific meaning. Characters must walk in specific ways depending on sex, rank, age, and temperament.

A narrator would interact with the audience, providing exposition and explanations. The plays include passages where the narrator compliments the audience’s education and intelligent, implying their knowledge of the theatrical conventions. The Natyasastra describes appropriate audience reactions: cries of “excellent” or “How wonderful” were deemed a human success, but audiences moved to a state of bliss offered no audible reaction in what was called a divine success. Specific spectators who sat in front served as judges who awarded prizes for the various aspects of which they were experts; priests judged religious ritual, archers evaluated stage combat, musicians the effectiveness of the singing. Sanskrit theater was designed not for the masses but the elite, those who had education and skill in appreciating the fine points of the performance, somewhat like a connoisseur of good food (for this entire section, see Richmond 33-87).

Sanskrit plays were performed to celebrate great occasions: the dedication of a temple, festivals honoring a god, the coronation of a king, royal marriages, births, and victories in war. Unlike actors, playwrights had higher social status; members of the royal court and sometimes even kings wrote plays. The earliest significant Indian playwright was Bhasa who lived perhaps in the fourth century AD, although his dates are uncertain. Thirteen of his plays survive.

Based on a work by Bhasa, The Little Clay Cart by Sudraka is considered one of the masterpieces of Sanskrit drama. The prologue of the play describes Sudraka as a king, but this may be legend as his name is not found in the historical records. He lived sometime in the 4th – 5th centuries. Whereas many Sanskrit dramas draw their stories of famous heroes from the great Hindu epics, this play is an example of an invented story about commonplace characters. A merchant finds himself penniless due to his excessive generosity. He offers protection to a beautiful courtesan who is being pursued by the lecherous brother-in-law of the king. The title of the play comes from a scene in which the merchant’s young son misses a gold toy cart, sold to pay his family’s debts; all he has now is a little clay cart. The courtesan takes pity on him and fills it with jewels. The brother-in-law meets with the courtesan in a garden and strangles her, leaving her for dead, and frames the merchant for the crime. As he is being led to his execution, the courtesan appears and saves his life. Despite the melodramatic story, the play contains humorous scenes such as when an inept thief breaks into the merchant’s house to steal the jewels, following the guidelines in a handbook on burglary. The plot is distinguished from others of the period by its strong dramatic conflict and a genuine villain, rare in Sanskrit literature. Also The Little Clay Cart is the only extant Sanskrit play with a courtesan as a heroine, a virtuous, idealized woman. The play ends happily which is typical of Sanskrit drama; stories in which the hero does not achieve his or her goal were considered unsatisfying and “unfit for production” according to the Natyasastra.

Unlike Western drama’s emphasis on characters as individuals with unique personalities, Sanskrit drama portrayed universal types, drawn from the epics and from the social castes (priests, warriors, merchants, peasants). In Hinduism individuals are part of a larger cosmic drama in which each must play an assigned role. Members of each caste must fulfill their specific roles in society to uphold dharma, the universal order. Sanskrit dramas did not seek to portray daily life in India so much as to provide a model for appropriate behavior and to educate the people in the ways of Hindu religion and philosophy.

As in almost all forms of Indian theater, performances commonly opened with religious rituals to ward off potential problems, to sanctify the playing area, and to honor the teachers of the acting traditions. Likewise a play would close with a prayer or dance to the gods asking forgiveness for any mistakes or anything displeasing in the production.

Devotional Drama

In Hinduism the word for devotion is bhakti, which is one way of achieving release from the endless cycles of life. In India’s devotional drama the performance is dedicated to a particular god, expressing love and praise, in hope of experiencing the divine presence by means of the performance. Devotional drama rose to prominence in northern India in the 15th – 17th centuries, honoring the epic heroes Rama and Krishna, both avatars of the god Vishnu. In Hindu belief Vishnu the Preserver enters the world at various times in history to defeat the demons and restore cosmic order (dharma). One of his incarnations, Rama was the ideal son, husband, and king, reigning in peace and justice, thus these dramas relate national themes of what makes a strong society. Krishna was a popular figure with romantic exploits which were legendary; worshippers seek a personal relationship with Krishna as beloved to a lover (for this entire section, see Richmond 177-236).

These two heroes are the focus of the two types of devotional drama. The ram lila given in honor of Rama is a public ceremony with processions, games, street decorations and pageantry, open to the entire community, Hindu and non-Hindu alike. The ras lila devoted to Krishna is more private, held within a temple or home where only believers are welcome. The ras lila is more of a professional production, whereas the ram lila invites amateurs to participate. Lila means playful deeds. Hinduism describes the gods as playing to explain why perfect deities, who need nothing, act at all. Gods by nature have no need for action but freely play with no goal except pleasure (Lal 284).

The ras lila consists of two parts. The ras expresses through song and dance the love between Krishna and his favorite lover, Radha. In modern times a sermon on the virtues of Krishna occurs after the initial part of the ras. Second, usually with less dance and more dialogue, the lila portion depicts three scenes from the earthly life of Krishna, chosen from famous stories recorded in the medieval Puranas, for instance, his mischievous boyhood prank of stealing butter or killing the serpent-demon; the young lover, desired by all women, who hides the clothes of bathing milkmaids; the heroic prince who returns to his home city to kill his evil uncle Kamsa who had usurped the throne. There are over 100 scenes involving Krishna to choose from, sometimes selected according to the season, such as the birth of Krishna around the festival of his birthday.

Performed in a circle or mandala, symbol of eternity, two thrones for Krishna and Radha sit on one side in front of a curtain, musicians on the other side, with audience on three sides seated on the ground as sitting on chairs would show disrespect toward the gods. In the ras, once the actors have crowns placed on their heads, they are thought to take on the presence of the god and goddess and are treated with appropriate respect. The spectators come not for entertainment but to participate in a religious experience. They may sing along with the musicians or join in the dances. They clap and shout out praises to the gods in ecstatic frenzy similar to a Pentecostal tent meeting. The performers interact with the audience: after stealing the butter, the boy Krishna might climb into someone’s lap and share butter with other spectators which they eagerly receive as a holy offering. In that moment the actor becomes the god in the presence of the devoted.

Training is passed down from generation to generation, as there are no schools which teach the techniques of ras lila. Boys begin training by the age of eight, playing the lead roles until they reach puberty. Older men act in minor roles as needed; no women perform in the ras lila.

Ram lila is a fall festival lasting from ten to thirty nights. According to Darius Swann, “Among all the traditional theater genres of India, the Ram lila comes closest to being a national drama, as it is performed over a larger portion on the country than any other” (Richmond 215). This festival tells the epic story of Rama and Sita, symbols of ideal manhood and womanhood in Indian culture. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, Rama is the seventh avatar of Vishnu. A prince unjustly exiled, he and his wife must live in the forest where, with the help of the monkey-king Hanuman, he rescues his kidnapped wife from the demon Ravana, represented by multiple heads. Each character represents the best qualities of Hindu society: Rama is wise and self-controlled, Sita modest and uncomplaining, Hanuman devoutly loyal.

Produced in small towns and villages by locals and performed in fairgrounds or open-air marketplaces accommodating large crowds, ram lila differs considerably from town to town. In larger cities there may be several performances going on simultaneously; spectators walk through the city viewing different episodes from the life of Rama. Scenes are played by amateurs although some may take the same role year after year. Performing is considered an act of worship. Actors may have some training to speak clearly in order to be heard in large crowds, in a declamatory style with broad gestures. The local maharaja has an important role in the ram lila. The performance cannot begin until he or a family representative arrives. When he leaves for evening prayers, the action stops until he returns (Lal 354).

See an example of Ram Lila here.

Dance Drama

Kathakali dance drama began in the 17th century. In kathakali the actor-dancers do not sing their characters’ lines; these are provided by onstage vocalists accompanied by percussion, allowing the actors (all male) to focus entirely on the intricate movements of their dance. Kathakali performers communicate their stories, usually taken from the Hindu epics, through a complex language of expressions and gestures based on an ancient Sanskrit manual which, for example, defines twenty-four gestures for the hands, each with a specific meaning. Performers require rigorous training to perfect the precise and independent movement of various muscles. There are exercises for moving the eyes in nine directions and at different speeds, likewise for hands, wrists, cheeks, lips, and eyebrows. Students must master each of these movements independently and then learn to combine them to convey specific emotions. Starting at age 12, training takes up to ten years to learn the basics, and a lifetime to become a master.

In the afternoon before a production audience members, especially children, might enjoy watching the actors being transformed by their elaborate makeup into gods or demons. At dusk the beating of drums signals the beginning of the play, usually held outdoors in the village courtyard or on the temple grounds. During the first few hours kathakali students gain valuable experience giving preliminary dances introducing the story and main characters before the lead performers take over. Traditionally kathakali performances would last all night until dawn, although some modern performances are condensed to three or four hours. In another accommodation to modern times, kathakali plays have been adapted from non-Indian sources such as the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare.


Distinctive makeup identifies six main types of traditional characters which an experienced spectator immediately recognizes from their first entrance. For instance, green makeup signifies a strong, noble character such as a god, king, or epic hero; a king with an evil disposition will have red streaks added to the green. Yellow-orange (referred to as “shining”) indicates a character of high spiritual nature such as brahmins or virtuous maidens. A red beard with black lips indicates an evil and vicious character or demon; a white beard represents Hanuman the monkey king. As the ideal heroic figures, green roles demonstrate refinement and complete self-control; they have very precise movements and never make a sound. Red beards are more exaggerated and outrageous, may wear fangs, cry out in rage, and use violent and energetic movements, stamping the ground in large steps.

For a Western audience unfamiliar with the conventions of dance drama, kathakali is difficult to explain in words, so view the video here.



Richmond, Farley, et al. (ed). Indian Theater: Traditions of Performance. U Hawaii P, 1990.


Page 2: Modern Theater in India

Back To Top