The use of traditional elements in modern Indian drama has always been a matter of discussion. There are two altogether different views in this respect. For one group of creative artists, traditional elements have no relevance in the modern Indian drama as they are largely inspired by religious themes. But according to another opinion, the traditional theatre is not just something motivated by religion alone. It has a strong element of social criticism as it also reflects modern and contemporary ideas.
In almost all the traditional theatre forms, we find the presence of social criticism. For example, in tamasha and jatra plays. Even in forms like Rasleela andAnkia Nat which are basically religion-and temple-based theatre, we have the contemporary life and social and secular values expressed through thevidushak(jester) or minor characters. In the song dialogue they keep their mythical gods and heroes to their divine superhuman level. But then they bring down the same gods to their own social level in their impromptu prose dialogues. Thus we find that the traditional theatre has a close relationship with our modern theatre and it is quite natural that a number of playwrights have again and again gone back to the elements of traditional theatre in their search for a personal identity.
In recent years, a number of plays have been written in many languages in which forms, conventions and techniques of the traditional theatre have been utilized in order to bring contemporary ideas and themes into focus.
The most striking factor of the traditional theatre is the relationship of the audience with the actors. This is as a result of the structure of the traditional theatre, i.e., all the forms are basically performed in the open-air theatre where one does not have a division between the stage and auditorium like that of modern proscenium.
This relationship is further increased through the participation of the audience in the total action of the play. For this purpose, the traditional theatre provides with a number of devices like the entries and exits of the actors from the audience, addressing the audience during the action of the play, commenting upon a situation while the action is going on the stage . All these elements add to the close relationship of the actor and audiences. In such circumstances, the audience cannot sit back and relax but he/she is constantly involved and at the same time studying the situations on a conscious level. This level of consciousness on the part of the audience has attracted the modern Indian playwrights to use these devices in their plays. In this respect mention can be made of Brij Mohan Shah’s Trishanku, Giandev Agnihotri’s Anushthan, Adya Rangacharya’s Suno Janmejiya and Evam Inderjit of Badal Sircar. In all these plays there is a constant use of auditorium by the actor during the action of the play in order to focus the audience’s attention to the happenings around them.
Every form of the traditional theatre provides a long series of preliminaries called purvaranga consisting of prayer to the deity, singing with the accompanying music, introduction of the play and then going to its main action . This practice has been taken directly from the classical Indian drama. It is clear that the purpose of all these preliminaries was to cover the time gap. But more than this the main idea behind these preliminaries was to evoke an atmosphere which goes with the total word of the play.
Some of the elements of these preliminaries have been taken in modern Indian plays. The most common and very much in practice is the use of Sutradhar in the beginning of the play. But the use is quite different from that of the classical tradition where the Sutradhar just introduces the play and never comes back. But in the modern plays, we find the functions of Sutradhar on multi-levels, i.e., he can just come in the beginning of the play as in Kaanchanrang and Aadhe Adhure. But even here, the main idea is not to just introduce the play but to raise certain issues which are to be discussed in the total scheme of the play.
As we know, all the traditional forms are performed on a bare stage where the scenic background is suggested through the speeches and movements of the characters. Thus the whole performance becomes an example of presentational theatre which gives much scope to the imagination of the audience as well as a constant fluidity to the action of the play. Moreover, on a stage one can present a vast panorama of life without any realistic effort. The modern playwright has always been inspired by the use of space and suggesting locales in this manner. This is why even in the limitations of the proscenium theatre he has tried to follow the same practice.
The constant action on a number of locales is also taken from traditional theatre. This has been utilized very cleverly in Suno Janmejiya, Panchchi Aise Aatain Hain, Evam Inderjit and Hayabadan, Through this kind of constant playing on different locales, a kind of unity of time, space and action is maintained.
The traditional theatre is full of two styles of acting, i.e., the day- to- day realistic acting and along with it highly stylized action through dance, music, mask and half curtain . In the folk traditions all these stylized elements are explored in order to unfold the mythical level of the plot. The same tradition has been followed in modern plays also. In a play like Hayabadan, we find the use of all the stylized elements of Yakhshagana like the use of half-curtain in order to treat the story in the fantasy level because the main plot is taken from early legends. In the same way, in Pahela Raja, a number of incidents has been presented with the help of half-curtain because, again, the play takes its plot from a mythical source. Moreover, the use of these stylized actions is justified in the sense that all these fantasy-level elements can’t be shown through realistic acting.
But apart from these plays, there are other plays where these very stylized elements like mime, gestures and mask are used in order to emphasise a social statement in contemporary themes. This can be seen in Aanushtaan, Suno Janmejiya, Evan Inderjit, Trishanku and Draupadi . All these plays are based on contemporary themes in modern background but the playwrights have presented different situations and characters through some kind of stylized movements in order to make a statement which is purely social in its context. In this respect, they have a striking similarity with the ideas of Brecht where he also takes the help of stylized gestures, masks and definite attitudes of body in order to make a statement.
Music and dance are the other two elements which help a traditional form in its total concept. Mention can be made of the plays of Tagore here. The way he has utilized the two elements of dance and music is something quite interesting. In his plays these elements become an integral part of the vast canvass of life which has been represented mostly through common path like roads and street where all these elements have their definite existence.
It is true that right from the classical Indian tradition upto the traditional forms, the utmost emphasis has been on the actor as a result of the presentational form of the theatre. But in modern plays he has been treated like a part of the total production just as other elements like scenic background, lighting and make-up . But with the impact of the traditional theatre, we find that the modern theatre is also going towards the prominence of the actor in order to put forward the ideas of the playwright and the interpretation of the director. All the plays mentioned again and again are written for a kind of presentational theatre here in which the total emphasis is on the actor.
In its basic forms and structure, the traditional theatre presents an interesting picture of a total theatre, i.e., a theatre where all the other performing arts like music, dance, mime and painting are also a part of the organic whole. This same concept of the total theatre is being carried forwards with the emergence of the playwrights who are writing plays inspired by the traditional elements. Thus the modern theatre is again going back to the same concept of theatre as it used to be in the classical Indian tradition and then followed by the traditional forms.
In the context of all these elements, the use of traditional elements in modern Indian plays is justified. They take a continuous tradition forward in the exploration of new ideas and themes.
*Professor, National School of Drama, New Delhi