INDIAN ENGLISH DRAMA: AN OVERVIEW
Abstract: Drama in India has a grand old history. Tagore, the first major playwright, invested Indian English drama with lyrical excellence, symbolism and allegorical significance. Dramatists like Manjeri Isvaran, Nissim Ezekiel, Lakhan Dev, Gurcharan Das, G.V. Dasani, Pratap Sharma, Asif Currimbhoy, Gieve Patel and Pritish Nandy made significant contribution in uplifting the Indian English drama. Contemporary Indian drama is experimental and innovative in terms of thematic and technical qualities. A cumulative theatrical tradition evolved by Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad, prepared the background of contemporary Indian English theatre.**********
Drama in India has a grand old history. Its origin can be traced back to the Vedic Period. Bharata's Natyasastra is the first and most significant work on Indian poetics and drama. Here Bharata considers drama as the fifth Veda. There are references to drama in Patanjali's Mahabhashya, Vatsyayana's Kamasutra, Kautilya's Arthashastra and Panini's Ashtadhyayi. Bharat’s theory of dramatic art was followed by Ashwaghosh, Bhasa, Shudraka, Kalidas, Harsha, Bhavabhuti, Vishakhadatta, Bhatta Narayana and Murari. The supreme achievement of Indian Drama undoubtedly lies in Kalidasa, the Shakespeare of India. In India Sanskrit drama flourished in its glory till the fifteenth century but thereafter Indian drama activity almost came to an end due to certain invasions on India.
The rise of the modern drama dates back to the 18th century when the British Empire strengthened its power in India. With the impact of Western civilization on Indian life, a new renaissance dawned on Indian arts including drama. For the first time in the history of modern Indian theatre two comedies, Disguise and Love is the Best Doctor were translated from English into Bengali by Lebedoff and Goloknath Das and they were produced in Calcutta. But the real journey of Indian English Drama begins with Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Is This Called Civilization which was written in 1871.Thereby any sustainable creative efforts were not taken place in drama for two decades after Dutt’s play.
In fact there were many difficulties in the way of the development of the Indian English Drama. ‘The difficulty, however, has been overcome to a considerable degree by some talented Indian English dramatists by carefully choosing the situations and language that transcend time and place and the characters that are plausible and convincing.’1 By the end of the 19th century, the literary giants like Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, T.P. Kailasam, Lobo Prabhu, Bharati Sarabhai and so on tried to overcome these difficulties and opened up new vistas in the genre. This pre independence crop of dramatists did not give enough weight -age to the acceptability and stage -worthiness of their plays. During the colonial era, drama in English in Indian soil could not flourish as a major current of creative expression. Although the pre–Independence Indian English drama is notable for its poetic excellence, thematic variety, technical virtuosity, symbolic significance and its commitment to human and moral values, it was by and large not geared for actual stage production.
The post- Independence Indian English drama was benefited by the increasing interest of the foreign countries in Indian English literature in general and Indian English drama in particular. A good number of plays by Indian playwrights were successfully staged in Europe and United States of America. Despite the growth of poetic drama in early post independence, Indian English drama made genuine progress. Dramatists like Manjeri Isvaran, Nissim Ezekiel, Lakhan Dev, Gurcharan Das, G.V. Dasani, Pratap Sharma, Asif Currimbhoy, Gieve Patel and Pritish Nandy made significant contribution in uplifting the Indian English drama. M.K. Naik rightly says that ‘Tagore-Aurobindo-Kailasam tradition of poetic drama continued, but with a difference in the hands of Manjeri Isvaran, G.V. Dasani, Lakhan Dev and Pritish Nandy.’2 In the realm of Indian Drama , Nissim Ezekiel is acknowledged for his exceptional poetic creed and rare dramatic sensibility.In spite of strong sense of dramatic concept, Ezekiel could not transform his poetic talent into appropriate dramatic talent. His plays can be appreciated for symmetrical construction with abundance of irony. They unveil his sharp observation of the oddities of human life and behaviour. It is attributed ‘In his satire of current fashion, in his exposure of prose and presence, Ezekiel comes very close to the spirit of some English social satirist in theatre’.3
Asif Currimbhoy is one of the most prolific playwrights of the Post-Independence period. He is India's first authentic voice in the theatre. He is one modern Indian playwright who has shown great interest in producing drama. His love for Shakespearean drama has influenced his body of work. His first play Goa deals with racial discrimination as a paradigm of post colonialism. In spite of comprehensiveness, Currimbhoy`s dramatic art has been a subject of criticism. ‘His symbols are often crude, conventional and mechanic but the greatest limitation of his technique is revealed especially in his later plays in which Currimbhoy appears to confuse dramatic technique with theatrical trickery and stage gimmicks with dramatic experience’.4
Mohan Rakesh, Dharamvir Bharati, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Mahashweta Devi are the most representative of the Contemporary Indian drama not only in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, and Kannada but also on the pan Indian level. They are widely considered to be among the finest dramatists writing in Indian languages. They have made use of remarkable innovations and experiments in technique and theme. They contributed to the modernization of the face of the Indian theatre. While drama in English struggled to sustain itself, drama in other Indian languages kept on experimenting, growing and absorbing folk forms.
Mohan Rakesh, a Hindi playwright, projected Marxism in his plays which presented a relentless fight against the traditional stranglehold of Hindi drama. As a playwright, his main concern was to portray the crisis of contemporary man caught in the web of uncongenial surroundings and the persistent threat to human relationship. His plays dramatize the suffering of men and women who fall victims to socio-economic hierarchy and cultural hegemony. He made extensive experiments in theatre. He uses historical characters to present the breakdown of communication in modern life. He used words and languages not as dialogues or direct statements but as the tools of suggestion to convey the meaning beyond the verbal connotation. In Indian English drama the influence of Mohan Rakesh can not be ignored.
The modernization of Indian theatre was done with the literary excellence of playwrights like Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. These dramatists have approached with their innovative ideas to present in front of the larger audience. They made fruitful experiments with the thematic concerns and technical virtuosities. They used legends, folklores, myths and history with splendid results. They broke the barrier of regional works and produced many good works at national level. They dramatized universal aspects of human life in India.
Badal sircar, a prestigious name in the realm of contemporary theatre, represents New Theatrical Movement in India. He created a genuine people’s theatre known as Third Theatre, a theatre supported and created by people. This theatre was once described by Rustom Bharucha ‘as the most rigorously non commercial political theatre in India’.5 Sircar’s notable plays project existential philosophy of breakdown of communication and depict the existential attitude of modern man in the postcolonial India. Through his plays Sircar suggests constructive action aimed at social change. The concept of modern man representing a new generation was challenging enough for dramatists like Badal Sircar to take up as the subject matter of his drama.
A Marathi playwright, Vijay Tendulkar, significantly changed the form and pattern of Indian drama. He bridged the gap between traditional and modern theatre. In all his plays, Tendulkar harps upon the theme of isolation and suffering of the individual and his confrontation with the hostile surroundings. He explores the socio-political matrix of contemporary Indian subjectivity in his plays. He strongly believes that ideas are firmly entrenched in our psyche at an early age and ‘our attitude has a lot to do with what we internalize in our early formative years’.6 He relates the problem of anguish to the theme of violence in most of his plays.
Girish Karnad is an important contributor to Indo-Anglian theatre. His contribution goes beyond theatre. He has directed feature films, documentaries, and television serials. He represented India in foreign lands as an emissary of art and culture. Karnad has the widest range in terms of theme and technique. He has experimented with the fusion of the traditional and modern dramatic forms and content. The purpose of using traditional forms is to achieve a rare insight into the contemporary reality because Karnad believes that complexities of post colonialism are inherited from the colonial and pre-colonial times. Pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial experiences in literature can not be compartmentalized in true sense. They are not divorced from each other. Girish Karnad uses the devices of myth, folklore and history not just to visit the past but to look at the present and also to foreshadow the future. He uses myth and history to create a new consciousness of the absurdity of human life with all its passions and conflicts. He borrowed his plots from history, mythology and old legends but with intricate symbolism, he tried to establish their relevance in contemporary socio-political conditions. Karnad’s dramatic art lacks stability still his success lies in technical experiment with an indigenous dramatic form.
Apart from the above mentioned playwrights some women dramatists also tried to enrich the soil of Indian drama by projecting the inner world of feminine psyche in the theatre. Among them Mahasweta Devi is a noteworthy playwright. She satirizes the prevailing social system in her plays. Her plays represent a profound concern for human predicament and sincere hope for the better future of mankind. She emerged as a dramatist having a quest to explore something challenging and new. ‘Like Brecht, Mahashweta Devi never tries to disguise the stage apparatus so as to make the audience aware that it is sitting in a theatre’.7
Contemporary Indian drama is experimental and innovative in terms of thematic and technical qualities. It is not an off spring of any specific tradition and it has laid the foundation of a distinctive tradition in the history of world drama by reinvestigating history, legend, myth, religion and folk love with context to contemporary socio-political issues. A cumulative theatrical tradition evolved by Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad, prepared the background of contemporary Indian English theatre. Recently Indian English drama has produced two brilliant playwrights like Manjula Padmanabhan and Mahesh Dattani who elevate Indian English drama at its summit of success. Both of them raise English drama not only in Indian theatre but also in the world theatre in rich quality and thematic presentation. Manjula Padmanabhan is the first Indian to earn international fame with her play Harvest, a futuristic play.
It deals with an impoverished family living in a single room in a chawl of Bombay, fading up by extreme hunger and unemployment, protagonist decided to sell his organs of body. Here she projects a dehumanized, terrifying world in which mothers sell their sons for the price of rice. The plays of Padmanabhan are intellectual but not suited for stage.
Mahesh Dattani is one of the best playwrights the country has ever produced. The plays of Mahesh Dattani emerged as ‘fresh arrival’ in the domain of Indian English drama in the last decade of twentieth century. He is taken to be a true successor of Girish Karnad and responsible for the revolutionary progression of English drama. He emerges as a compelling playwright who projects the postcolonial dichotomy at various levels. He keeps women at the centre of his dramatic world and may be called a great feminist. He was greatly influenced by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and others. He says ‘Change does not happen overnight, we grow liberal after not because we want to, but have to’.8 Mahesh Dattani used the contemporary sensational issues as a theme for his plays such as – Gender discrimination in Tara, Gay community in On Muggy Night in Mumbai, Status of eunuch in Seven Steps around the Fire, and Communalism in Final Solution. He has an array of themes to offer us. His plays and issues he chooses to project are the most topical but also the most controversial. ‘The most significant contribution of Dattani is perhaps his use of language. Dattani uses in his plays the kind of English spoken by people in India’.9
A survey of contemporary Indian drama shows that the works of Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani represent a powerful and resurgent Indian drama. These playwrights have given new directions to Indian drama. One of the things which profoundly unite them is their mutually complementary treatment of the problematic of contemporary Indian subjectivity on the various axis of gender, sexuality, history, politics, tradition, class and socio-cultural change. Indian English drama is on the right path of progress at present and in future it has a bright prospect.
1. R.K. Dhawan and V.K Reddy, Flowering of Indian English Drama (New Delhi: Prestige, 2004), p. 2.
2. G.S.Amur, “Kailasam`s Quest for Greatness”, Critical Essays on Indian Writing In English (Madras: Macmillan, 1977) p. 186.
3. Chetan Karnani, Nissim Ezekiel (New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1974), p. 126.
4. M.K.Naik, A History of Indian English Literature (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1995), p. 257.
5. Rustam Bharuch, Rehearsals of Revolution: The Political Theatre of Bengal (Honolulu: U of Hawaii Press, 1993), p. 127.
6. Shoma Chaudhury and Gita Rajan, ed., Vijay Tendulkar (New Delhi: Katha, 2001), p. 65.
7. E. Satyanarayana, The plays of Mahasweta Devi (New Delhi: Prestige, 2005), p. 128.
8. Vandana Dutt, “The Dramatic Art of Mahesh Dattani”, Journal of Commonwealth Review, Vol. XIII, No.2, p. 157.
9. R.K. Dhawan, The Plays of Mahesh Dattani (New Delhi: Prestige, 2005), p. 20.