At the time when Sophocles was writing Oedipus the King and Antigone in Athens, in India, Bharata Muni created the first ancient Indian text entirely dedicated to the theatre and performing arts. It was called as the “Natya Shastra”. Estimated to be written around 500 BCE, this text consists of 36 chapters describing every minute detail of the theatre like dramatic composition, structure of the play, creation of stage, make up, costumes, integration of music with the performance and what not.
The theatre in India flourished from 1st century till 10th century AD when thousands of play (including folk) were written and performed all across the subcontinent. When the Mughals started conquering lands in India, theatre received huge setbacks when it was discouraged or completely forbidden. It again gained momentum with the British when it was hugely influenced by the western theatre and specially Shakespeare.
Post the Indian independence in 1947, it was the beginning of the modern Indian theatre which we know of today. It was also the time when Geoffrey and Laura Kendal with their moving theatre group called Shakespearana toured the entire country and performed many of Shakespeare’s plays.
Over the years, many veteran artistes, playwrights and dramatists from the regional (especially Marathi and Bengali) theatre have worked tirelessly to give a new face to the modern Indian theatre. Some of them were pioneers in bringing Sartre, Chekov and other stalwarts of the world theatre and their plays for the Indian audience. While few of them were instrumental for driving and spreading the experimental theatre which has helped in shaping up the new upcoming and budding artistes. Below is the list of 10 such architects of modern Indian theatre scene who can be credited with bringing the Indian theatre where it is today.
1. Ebrahim Alkazi:
The first director of the National School of Drama, Ebrahim Alkazi revolutionized the Hindi theatre by the magnificence of his vision. He did rigorous research before staging a play leading to important advances in scenographic design. He directed some of the milestone plays from the theatre history including Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, Mohan Rakesh’s Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Dharamvir Bharati’s Andha Yug and numerous Shakespeare and Greek plays. He trained many talented artistes like Vijaya Mehta, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, who themselves became veterans later on. Alkazi’s methods and standards are still considered the benchmarks for any new theatre enthusiast.
2. Satyadev Dubey
Satyadev Dubey is one of the great minds behind the expansion and growth of the theatre scene in Mumbai in the 60s and the 70s. He produced some of the major plays like Girish Karnad’s first play Yayati and Hayavadan, Badal Sircar’s Ewam Indrajit, Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhure and Vijay Tendulkar’s Shantata Court Suru Ahe. He is credited with the discovery of Dharmavir Bharati’s Andha Yug staged in 1962 which brought in a new paradigm in Indian theatre of the times. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1971 and Padma Bhushan in 2011.
3. Badal Sircar
Badal Sircar is one of the most celebrated dramatist from the Bengal and is renowed for his anti-establishment plays during the naxalite movement of of West Bengal in the 1970s. A pioneering figure in street theatre as well as in experimental and contemporary Bengali theatre with his egalitarian “Third Theatre”, he prolifically wrote scripts for his Aanganmanch (courtyard stage) performances, and remains one of the most translated Indian playwrights. He successfully portrayed the angst and frustration of the society through his plays like Ebong Indrajit which became landmarks in the Indian theatre.
Just like Badal Sarkar in Bengal, Vijay Tendulkar was an extremely influential dramatist and playwrights in Marathi for over five decades. His intense and dark plays like Shantata court Suru ahe, Ghashiram Kotwal, Sakharam Binder were influenced by real life incidences and social upheavals of the times and became the turning points in the history of Indian theatre. One of his plays “Gidhade” written in 1961 was banned from staging and became controversial due its unabashed portrayal of violence. Tendulkar’s writings have contributed to a significant transformation of the modern literary landscape in Marathi and other Indian languages. He was awarded Padma Bhusahn in 1984 and Sangeet Natak Academy fellowship in 1988.
5. Mohan Rakesh
Born as Madan Mohan Guglani, Mohan Rakesh is the flag bearer of the Nai Kahani (“New Story”) literary movement of the Hindi literature in the 1950s. He wrote the first modern Hindi play “Ashadh ka ek din” in 1958 and also one of the milestone plays of all times Adhe Adhure. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1968. He died in 1972 and his works were mostly appreciated posthumously.
6. Girish Karnad
Much known for his contribution in art house films of the 70s, Girish Karnad’s contribution to the Indian theatre and especially the Kannada theatre is equally humongous. For four decades, he has been writing and producing some of most notable plays of all times including Tughlaq, Yayati, Hayavadan and Nagamandala. His plays have been directed by some of the biggest directors of India including Ebrahim Alkazi, Vijaya Mehta, B V Karanth and Satyadev Dubey. He has often used mythology and history to tackle contemporary issues. In 1998, he was conferred the Jnanpith Award – the highest literary honor in India.
7. Vijaya Mehta
Vijaya Mehta founded the Mumbai based theatre group called Rangayan in the 1960s with Vijay Tendulkar and went on to become one of the most eminent and instrumental figures in the Marathi experimental theatre scene. She introduced Bertold Brecht into Marathi theatre with adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Ajab Nyay Vartulacha), and Ionesco with Chairs. Fondly called as “Bai” (teacher) she is one of the most respected theatre Gurus of India and her numerous students have become theatre veterans themselves and carried forward her legacy all over the world. She won the Sangeet Natak Academy award in 1975.
8. B V Karanth
B V Karanth was a major figure in the Kannada and Hindi theatre and throughout his career he directed, acted and gave music to many modern plays. He attended the National School of drama (1962) and later also became its director. His plays like Jokumara Swamy, Sankranti, Huchu Kudure and Oedipus, were trendsetters in the Kannada theatre which was steeped in old formal style. His innovative use of music and ability to combine classical and folk music forms into his plays gave a huge boost to what is today called as “Natya Sangeet”. He directed over hundred plays and also contributed greatly to Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu theatre along with Kannada.
9. Sombhu Mitra
Sombhu Mitra, along with Badal Sircar is considered as one of the pioneers of the West Bengal theatre movement and is especially renowned for his theatre group Bohurupee. His most notable plays include Rabindranath Tagore’s Rakta Karabi, Bisarjan, Raja and Char Adhyay. He is one of the significant theatre artiste to take the Bangali theatre out of India and tour around the world. He was awarded Sangeet Natak Academy fellowship in 1966 and the Padma Bhushan in 1970.
10. Geoffrey and Laura Kendal
Geoffrey Kendal and his wife Laura can be undoubtedly considered as the flag bearers to bring the Shakespeare to the Indian sub-continent. Kendal started the theatre company called Shakespeareana which toured through India and performed Shakespeare in front of varied audience right from the royalty to the rural audience. For the Indian audience fed on the mythological, classical and folk theatre, this format brought in a refreshing change and a major breakthrough. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, numerous artistes and performers got influenced by their moving theatre to actually join them. Several of today’s theatre stalwarts have once been his students. In fact, Naseeruddin Shah, in his autobiography has dedicated one entire chapter to Geoffrey Kendal and his work yet sadly, very less information is available in the written form about this great artiste.
Source Images: Wiki