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Theater in Post-Colonial India

Prior to 1947 India was governed as a colony of Great Britain for ninety years. The British permitted the traditional Indian theater forms to continue but monitored all productions of new plays, which were scrutinized for nationalistic themes critical of British rule. In 1875 one play depicted a white farm owner raping an Indian woman. Angry British spectators stopped the show, closed the theater, and forced the actors to leave town. Such events led to the Dramatic Performances Control Act of 1876 which enforced strict censorship of subject matter considered seditious or scandalous.

One Indian author stands out during the colonial period. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), poet, playwright and actor, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913, the first non-European to receive this honor. Tagore avoided the commercial theater for the most part and staged and acted in many of his own plays with members of his large extended family in a specially built theater on his private estate in Calcutta. Some consider his best play to be Visarjan (Sacrifice) concerning a 17th century conflict between a king and a priest over the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice. Although Tagore achieved the recognition of the Western world, he is not considered representative of most Indian theater during this time.

Since gaining independence in 1947, modern theater in India has flourished, primarily in large cities such as Calcutta, Mumbai (Bombay), and Madras, where hundreds of theater companies are patronized by middle and upper-middle class audiences. Most productions are staged by amateurs but with high standards, sometimes better than the professional companies. In post-colonial India, the debate continues between traditionalists who want to return to classical native roots and modernists advocating an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western forms.  Along with plays by contemporary Indian writers, theaters also produce imports from Europe and America, both ancient (Antigone) and modern (Brecht is especially popular).

The approach to material taken from the great Hindu epics has changed in the last century. During the colonial period, playwrights often veiled their criticism of British rule by dramatizing episodes of injustice and cruelty from the Mahabharata. Audiences perceived villainous characters – such as Kichaka who attempts to rape Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas – as the ruling English and the innocent victims as the suffering people of India. Cheering for these mythic heroes became a covert form of political protest. After independence in 1947, epic-inspired dramas have taken on a more ironic, self-questioning tone. Female characters began to voice criticism of patriarchy in Indian society; heroes once perceived as paragons of virtue came to exemplify self-delusion, equivocation, and defeat. More plays now focused attention on epic antiheroes and outsiders (Dharwadker 179-180).

Andha Tug (Blind Epoch) by Dharamvir Bharati (1926-1997) has been called “the first acknowledged classic of post-independence Indian theater” (Dharwadker 186). At one time an example of heroism and spiritual comfort, in Bhariti’s play the Mahabharata becomes the story of a misguided culture, the actions of short-sighted, self-serving leaders resulting in disaster and ruin.

Blind Epoch (1954) focuses on the aftermath of the famous 18-day war and the defeated Kauravas. The blind king and blindfolded queen (who refused to see when her husband could not) await the news from the battlefield which is not good. Their son lies dying from a brutal assault by Bhima, strongest of the Pandavas. The son of Drona, one of their commanders, has taken revenge for the treacherous death of his father by killing the surviving Pandava children in a sneak attack at night. The queen curses the incarnate god Krishna for taking the side of the Pandavas and prophesies his death. In a departure from the epic, the reign of the new king Yudhishthira proves to be a time of disillusionment and failure. The Pandavas won the war but by treachery and deceit so that victory is tainted by the same self-destructive qualities of their enemies. Yudhishthira describes his reign as a “long, slow, agonizing suicide.”

Blind Epoch maintains its atmosphere of unrelieved suffering through two critical structural choices: by beginning with the end of the epic war, it bypasses the heroic moments and moves directly to the experience of irrevocable loss, and by focusing on the defeated Kauravas rather than the victorious Pandavas, it deals with political and emotional traumas that can no longer find resolution” (Dharwadker 190).

Bharati fills his drama with disturbing images: the blind king in a desolate city waiting to hear of his family’s destruction, vindictive rage transforming a man into a savage beast, a mother’s grief at the loss of her hundred sons, the death of a god at the dawn of a final age of darkness. Rather than a vision of a just society rising from the ashes of war, the reworked epic reveals the continuation of the blind, self-destructive tendencies found in the previous rulers and by implication in all forms of authority and power. Furthermore, “Krishna’s complicity in the Pandava acts of treachery on the battlefield places divinity itself in doubt” (Dharwadker 191).

Bharati’s dark interpretation of the Hindu epic reflects the disillusionment many of his generation felt with the new independence of India, with promises broken, hopes unfulfilled, the dream tarnished by the violent reality of events such as the partitioning of India and Pakistan resulting in religious strife and the deaths of over a million Hindus and Muslims. Bharati was critical of the attitudes of self-praise among Indians and their sense of spiritual superiority to the West (Dharwadker 193). Beyond the immediate context of post-colonial India, Blind Epoch shares some of the major philosophical concerns of much 20th century literature over the perceived decline of modern civilization into moral chaos with the collapse of traditional values and structures of meaning. Two world wars, the rise of totalitarianism, and threat of nuclear destruction have taken their toll on the modern psyche.

Dr. Dharamvir Bharati earned his Ph.D. in literature in 1954. Starting in 1960 he was editor-in-chief of the popular weekly magazine Dharma Yug for over 25 years. He wrote numerous plays, novels, stories, and essays during his long career.

Post-colonial playwrights have freely explored India’s historical heritage as well, no longer dependent on Western evaluations of their culture. Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq (1964) is described as “one of the most frequently read, discussed, and performed contemporary Indian plays, both in India and abroad” (Dharwadker 223). The drama concerns the period of Muslim rule during the 12th-16th centuries which brought the classical age of Hindu culture to a close. The protagonist Muhammad bin Tughlaq is considered India’s most brilliant Muslim ruler in the 14th century but also one of the greatest failures, popularly known as “mad Muhammad.”

The subject of the play, written one year after the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, reminded the author of Nehru’s leadership in the first two decades after British rule, providing a “striking parallel” and reflecting “the gradual erosion of the ethical norms that had guided the movement for independence,” Karnad said about his play (Dharwadker 244). A dramatization of an historical ruler became a subtle critique of a contemporary politician.

Tughlaq is an historical spectacle with a large cast, lavish period costumes and settings; one production performed outdoors on the grounds of an Islamic fortress. Karnad deftly combines pageantry with a complex psychological portrait of a troubled figure, mixing verbatim quotes from the historical records with real-life individuals and fictional characters.

In the play Tughlaq’s vision for the future of India is far ahead of his time, more like modern-day secular democracy. As a Muslim, Tughlaq attempts to be fair and just with the Hindus he rules, despite pressure from his own religion to persecute infidels. Inspired by Greek philosophers, he envisions governing as a secular occupation separate from religious considerations, whereas his Muslim contemporaries insist that the role of the ruler is to secure a strong dynasty and promote the spread of Islam. He establishes a new system of justice designed to treat citizens equally without regard to faith. He abolishes the tax on nonbelievers required by Muslim law. He moves his capital from Delhi to a predominantly Hindu city 800 miles away “to symbolize the bond between Muslims and Hindus which I wish to develop and strengthen in my kingdom.” These actions anger fellow Muslims who plot to assassinate him, and yet fail to win the hearts of his Hindu subjects who continue to see him as a representative of the conquering enemy.

Eventually the sultan betrays his noble ideals by resorting to violence and cruelty to achieve his goals, ruthlessly killing those who oppose him. From an idealistic visionary intent on reform, he gradually transforms into a tyrant who takes his frustration at failure out on his subjects who are not ready for the future he has planned for them. In his protagonist the playwright presents a portrait of a complex mind and tortured soul who acknowledges his guilt to the Almighty: “God in Heaven, please help me. Please don’t let go of my hand. My skin drips with blood, and I don’t know how much of it is mine and how much of others. I started in your path, Lord, why am I wandering naked in the desert now?” His prayer reveals a stricken conscience in spiritual agony.

In contrast to his enlightened ideas of governing, the people Tughlaq rules do not share his values of harmony and equality but strive to maintain their differences, clearly seen in performance as Hindu and Muslim characters dress and speak in distinct manner. The only thing which unites the two factions is their hatred of Tughlaq. Thus, the play questions the genuine possibility in Indian society of the ideal of secularism, tolerant of all religions and cultures, a philosophy which in modern times characterized the teachings of Gandhi and the political philosophy of Nehru. As independent India’s first prime minister, Nehru sought to form a secular government, believing that differences in religion separated people and split the nation into rival factions. This vision of a society united despite conflicting faiths was shattered by the harsh reality of Pakistan’s break with India in 1947 and the bloody fighting that followed.

Girish Karnad (1938-) has gained an international reputation for his plays which he has translated into English. In 1998 he won the Jnanpith Award, the highest prize for literature in India. He has acted in and directed numerous films in India, and was head of the Film and Television Institute of India in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s he served as visiting professor and playwright-in-residence at the University of Chicago. In 2000 he was director of the Nehru Center in London.

In post-colonial times Indian playwrights have re-evaluated their mythic and historical past but also have readily adopted present-day forms of Western culture, in particular the psychological realism of modern drama. The title of Vijay Tendulkar’s Kanyadaan (1983) refers to the tradition of a father giving his daughter in marriage to a suitable husband. In the play twenty-year-old Jyoti tells her parents Nath and Seva that she wants to marry Arun, a young writer from the Dalit community, formerly the lowest “untouchable” caste. The caste system was supposedly abolished by the 1950 constitution, but continues in practice. Her father, a liberal in the state assembly, wholeheartedly approves, as this union would serve as a perfect example of a caste-less society which his political party promotes. Her mother fears that her daughter is rushing into a relationship without considering the difficulties of overcoming their cultural differences. Shortly after the marriage, however, Jyoti says she wants to leave her husband who has proven to be abusive, but her father insists that her duty now requires she remain with him and make the marriage work.

Arun can never be comfortable in Jyoti’s middle-class family home in which every item stands in stark contrast to his family’s one-room hut. Eating meals with them reminds him of the rotten scraps and handouts he used to consume. Whereas Jyoti considers home a safe haven from the world, Arun feels safer on the street among throngs of strangers. Consequently he takes his resentment toward the caste system, which has humiliated and oppressed his people, out on his wife. He blames all his problems on the prejudice of society and fails to see that his drunken rages and vulgar behavior only perpetuate the stereotype of Dalit people which he fights to overcome.

As Arun’s writing career becomes successful, his alcoholism and violence toward his now-pregnant wife increase. Once her father is forced to reassess the situation, old feelings of caste discrimination come to the surface; he remarks that his house has been polluted by this man: “I feel like taking a bath. It’s all filthy. Wash everything.” In the end Jyoti severs all ties with her family and returns to her abusive husband, partly to spite her father whose idealistic and impractical values sold her into this disastrous relationship.

A dauntless social and political critic, Tendulkar (1928-2008) often drew his provocative material from real-life incidents. His Kamala was inspired by the true story of a journalist who purchased a woman from the sex industry in order to reveal police and political involvement in the trade, only to abandon her once he had no further need for her. Tendulkar wrote 27 full-length plays and 25 one-act plays along with two novels, short stories, plays for children, several award-winning screenplays and television dramas.



Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava. Theaters of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India since 1947. U Iowa P, 2005.

Lal, Ananda, ed. Theaters of India: a Concise Companion. Oxford, 2009.

Saini, Alpna. The Construction of Contemporary Indian Subjectivity in the Selected Plays of Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani. Ph.D. dissertation, Punjabi University, 2011.


Page 1: Classical Theater in India

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