The End and the Future of Theater

NYC Theatre District – Will it be the same?

Theater halls have opened in the UK and Australia, and the lights will shine bright on Broadway after two years. It is too early to say whether the policymakers are being over-optimistic or careless. But for most of the world, specifically, India, theater shows will not go live for at least a couple of years. And even when the theaters open with safety protocols, the theater may not remain a financially viable business. Is it the end of theater as we know it? Is it the end of an art form that has been performed for at least 5,000 years? But then theater has survived the plague and the Spanish Flu. Before we speculate about the future, let’s take a moment to investigate the past.

The first obituary of the theater was written in the 1920s when the talkies ushered in a new era of entertainment. But not only did the theater survive the competition from cinema, the Broadway Book Musicals became a billion-dollar industry around the time. The first real blow to small regional and off-off-Broadway theater came from the television in the 1960s when a television set became a household item. But that did not stop Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller from writing great plays. They forced the audience to return to the theaters. Harold Pinter, Beckett, Albee, and more recently Mamet created scintillating works for the stage despite the competition from the cinema and the television industry. The competition challenged theater to become more daring and intelligent.


Talking of India, we must first understand that the Indian theater is more diverse than anywhere else in the world. Indian theater is in part sacred, ritualistic, and regional.  There is a deep wide chasm between the text-centric theater that is performed in the cities and the traditional theater that exists in rural India. The traditional Indian forms of performance like nautanki, pandavani, bhavai, terukkuttu, yakshagana and even the classical theater Koodiyattam have a significant regional presence and local patronage. Some of these forms are a few thousand years old and we can assume they have survived epidemics, attacks by Mughal invaders, World wars, famines, floods, earthquakes, poverty, and competition from TV and cinema. Did they survive because they spoke to the audience in their dialect? Are they immortal because they tell the local stories of the land?  Or did they survive because of their sacred-spiritual nature and patronage by the temples? The temples were the seats of arts and any attack on the temple was an assault on the arts and the artists of the land. Hence this continuity of art forms is no small miracle. But the urban theater has neither local patronage nor loyalty of committed artists. Therefore, it is starting to crumble under competition from OTT and entertainment in the digital space.

Modern theater, such as we see in the cities, lacks the spectacle of traditional theater and sometimes even entertainment. The traditional theater is non-realistic and highly stylized. The costumes, make-up, body movements, gestures, music and accentuated abhinaya/acting create a performance that is moving, surreal and mesmerizing. The modern theater relies heavily on dialogue and story-telling through realistic verbal acting. The sitcoms on TV and binge-worthy shows on the OTT are also pivoted around the story and dialogue. Why would someone watch a dramatic performance cramped in a theater when they could watch drama on their phones sitting on their couch or even the toilet seat? It isn’t just the ease of watching drama on the phone, but the addiction to the phone that has become an impediment. Not to fault the story-telling. The shows are gripping and fast-paced. But then it is so easy to manipulate the audience and keep them hooked till the end. There are formula sheets, beats, and tricks that every writer in the industry uses to keep you glued to your phone.

The straight plays in Delhi and even Mumbai theaters be it English or the regional languages are laced with activism. Polemics has replaced aesthetics. Left-leaning plays have so much propaganda thrown in the script that the audience can see through it. Can we really blame the audience for not wanting to watch social activism on stage? Directors think they can compensate aesthetic appeal with lighting but they forget the audience is not here to watch a sound and light show. The audience craves good stories. It wants to see life through a clean lens. The audience is done watching Brecht, Beckett, Karnad, and Tendulkar. Bedroom comedies are passé. OTT gives the audience enough sex, comedy, and violence. What can you give them on stage that TV and cinema can’t?

Audience at the Awards

The irony is the directors and actors who are flag bearers of socialism in the theater circle abandon their ideals to work for the commercial OTT and Cinema. The crew and extras are treated as third rate citizens in Bollywood, worse than apartheid, but the champions of social equality on stage never raise their voice against the injustice. And let’s not even discuss the underbelly of theater where fresh actors are made to sweep floors in the name of training. While the artists in traditional art forms are committed to the tradition and the art, the modern actors distance themselves from the theater as soon as they break into the TV/OTT industry. Without fresh ideas and dedicated theater practitioners, theater as we know in Indian cities, is at the brink of extinction.

The pandemic has given us distance and time away from the theater and rehearsal halls to re-imagine our future. It has been a time to experiment and create many futures of theater. Theater companies and individual practitioners moved the theater online within a few months into the pandemic. Broadway HD has been streaming ace-quality theater productions shot on multiple cameras since 2015. National Theater and the Royal Opera House streamed their old productions at the start of the lockdown in UK. The Melbourne Theater Company has recently launched its Digital Theater version where they stream their running shows for a limited time. Going forward, all their productions will be available to watch online for $25. While the digital productions are a great option for the theater aficionados, but a good digital production needs multiple cameras and sophisticated editing.

Watching theater production with limited camera movement can be a tad boring because our minds compare it to the cinema and TV shows. Our minds are accustomed to two second shots. Watching an hour-long play set in the same space, in more or less the same frame becomes tiring unless it’s a fast-paced comedy like ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’, by National Theater. The musicals lose their grandness on the small screen. Lest we forget, the audience goes to the Musicals for live music. The experience of watching a musical on a small screen is unsatisfying.

Independent theater groups experimented with and adapted short stories for online presentations. It started with some artists performing or even reading short stories and plays live on Zoom. The production quality of the online plays was worse than YouTube content because they were shot on phone without professional lighting and sound equipment. The shows were under 30 minutes to accommodate the audience’s attention span. Story-telling was restricted by time and technology. As time passed these experiments faded away and it became clear that the future of theater is not online.

One future of theater could be virtual reality theater that has been in the making since 2016. National Theater has launched a studio where they will use virtual and augmented reality to create shows for a communal virtual experience. It’s the high-tech, AI technology used for immersive story-telling. But this future requires a capital investment of 100 plus cameras, edit suites, and technical crew on top of the cast and the musicians. How many companies can produce this kind of theater? How many of us can afford a ticket to this show?

Of the many futures of theater, one future could have its origin in the past. Richard Schechner, a performance theorist and a veteran performer has been working with Natyashastra for over four decades. Dr. Bharat Gupt, a classical theorist and Natyashastra expert, is mentoring students in Greece, Romania, India and the US to create performances using the principles of Natyashastra. These performances are an organic convergence of music, movement, myth, abhinaya and story. Theater makers could look to Irish story telling as one kind of performance. This is our time to study the past so that we can shape a meaningful future.

Whatever form the theater takes from here, it has to become more immersive, aesthetic, poetic, non-realistic, surreal, intense, and communicative. The stories have to break fresh ground. The writers have to muster courage to experiment with the shape and the structure of the story. The performers have to make a connection with the audience. Theater has to go beyond activism and entertainment to become truly transformative and cathartic.

Folk Theatre of India: Nautanki

Everything that makes Indian Theatre more special | IWMBuzz

Nautanki is one of South Asia’s most famous folk theatre performances, especially in northern India. Nautanki was the most significant source of entertainment in most of the cities and villages in north India.​1​ Nautanki’s rich musical compositions and humorous storylines hold a strong influence over rural people’s imagination. Nautanki, also known as svang, originated in the late 19th century in Uttar Pradesh and steadily gained popularity.​2​ Nautanki’s origins lie in the Saangit, Bhagat, and Swang musical theatre traditions of Northern India. One Saangit called Saangit Rani Nautanki Ka became so popular that the whole genre’s name became Nautanki.​1​

File:DevendraSharma SultanaDaku.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Nautanki performances can be performed anywhere where some space is available that can accommodate a few hundreds or thousands of people. Sometimes this place is made available by village Chaupal or the village community centre.​3​ Other times the school playgrounds can also be used as a performance site. A Nautanki stage is usually elevated and is made up of wooden cots that the local villagers generally provide. A few decades ago, since there was no electricity in Indian villages, the light was provided either by giant lanterns or Petromax, a device run by kerosene oil. Traditional Nautanki performances usually start late at night and go until dawn the next day without any intermission.​4​

North Indian Folk Theatre - Nautanki - Melodramatic rendition of popular or  historical tales accompanied by musical sco… | North indian, The  incredibles, Orchestras
India: Rangapat Theatre's "Dharmashoke": A New and Fresh Look into  His/Herstory | The Theatre Times

Traditionally storylines of nautanki performances were inspired from folklore or are sometimes based on mythological themes, stories of contemporary heroes etc.​3​ For example, nautanki plays such as Bhakt Moradhwaj and BSatya-Harishchandra are based on mythological themes, whereas Indal Haran and Puranmal originated from folklore. ​2​Pandit Ram Dayal Sharma, a renowned Nautanki maestro and Dr Devendra Sharma have co-authored many new Nautankis.​2​ These recent Nautanki performances focus primarily on social messages such as health, women’s empowerment, dowry etc. These issues generate awareness among the poorer sections of society and create a sense of togetherness. It brings locals together to stand against the atrocities of the community and fight for their rights.

Bidesia" - The Folk Theatre of Eastern India | The Theatre Times

Nautanki was introduced in America by Dr Devendra Sharma, a Nautanki artist, singer, writer and director. The participants in his nautanki performances are usually engineers, doctors, and other Indians living in America, who are given a rare opportunity to connect with their cultural roots.​2​ At the same time, these performances have exposed other communities in America to Indian culture.
Nautanki has undoubtedly been a valuable part of our hearts and will survive in the future and flourish in multiple contexts to secure a special place in our culture.

Independent Project by Sezal Chug
Guide: Prof. Manohar Khushalani

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    devnautanki H. devnautanki. A Brief History of the Nautanki Performance Tradition.

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    the free encyclopedia W. Nautanki. Wikipedia.

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    sahapedia S. shades-nautanki-north-indias-operatic-theatre. sahapedia.

Folk Theatre of India: Yakshagana

Hidimba Kalyana - Yakshagana Part I 2019 - YouTube

Yakshagana is a traditional folk art developed in the western parts of Chikmagalur districts in Karnataka and Kasaragod district in Kerala. Yakshagana comprises music, dance, theatre, costumes, and makeup with a blend of unique style and forms.​1​ It is said to have evolved from pre-classical music forms and theatrical arts during the Bhakti movement. Yakshgana is referred to as ‘Thenku thittu’ towards the south from Dakshina Kannada to Kasaragod in Tamil Nadu, whereas it is referred to as ‘Badaga Thittu’ north of Udupi.​1​ Both of these forms are equally played all over the region. Yakshagana is inspired by ancient Hindu literature like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata and other Hindu and Jain epics. Yaksha-gana means the song (gana) of a Yaksha. Yakshas were an exotic tribe mentioned in Sanskrit literature.​1​

Yakshagana is a product of the Vaishnava bhakti movement, which originated in southern India from the fifth to the seventh centuries. It emphasizes the love and devotion for Lord Vishnu as the chief means for spiritual perfection.​2​ Existing folk music and dances were adopted to create new performing arts to spread and propagate the message of love and devotion among the common folk. Yakshagana is also a result of this blend of existing dance and drama.

Let muktesaras run Yakshagana Mela: Karnataka HC | Deccan Herald

A Yakshagana performance usually consists of background music played by a group of musicians and percussionists, also known as the himmela and a dance and dialogue group known as the mummela, who together enact poetic epics on stage.​1​

Yakshagana Bayalata (Open-air Field Drama) “Mahishasura Mardhini” – A true  physical sensation!!

In the early 19th century, Yakshagana began to see a significant change from its traditional strict forms. Practitioners of the day produced several new compositions. The early 20th century saw the birth of ‘tent’ troupes, giving performances to audiences admitted by ticket only. Gas lights were replaced with electrical lights, seating arrangements improved, folk epics and fictional stories formed the modern thematic base of the discipline.​3​
The Yakshagana form that we witness today results from a prolonged evolution that drew its essence from ritual theatre, temple and secular arts, and the artists’ imaginations—all interwoven over several hundred years.​3​

Independent Project by Sezal Chug
Guide: Prof. Manohar Khushalani

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    wikipedia Y. Yakshagana. wikipedia.

  2. 2.
    karnatakatourism yakshagana. yakshagana. karnatakatourism.

  3. 3.

Folk Theatre Forms of India: Tamasha

Tamasha is considered a major traditional dance form of the Marathi theatre, which includes celebration filled with dancing and singing and is performed mainly by nomadic theatre groups throughout the Maharashtra region. The word “Tamasha” is loaned from Persian, which in turn loaned it from Arabic, meaning a show or theatrical entertainment.​1​ In the Armenian language, “To do a Tamasha” means to follow an exciting and fun process or entertainment. Unofficially, this word has come to represent commotion or display full of excitement.​1​ The traditional form of Tamasha was inspired by a lot of other art forms like Kathakali, Kaveli, ghazals etc.

The region of Maharashtra had a long theatrical tradition, with early references to the cave inscriptions at Nashik by Gautami Balashri, the mother of the 1st-century Satavahana ruler, Gautamiputras Satakarni. The inscription mentions him organizing Utsava’s a form of theatrical entertainment for his subjects.​1​ Tamasha acquired a distinct form in the late Peshwa period of the Maratha Empire and incorporated elements from older traditional forms like Dasavatar, Gondhal, Kirtan etc. Traditional Tamasha format consisted of dancing boys known as Nachya, who also played women’s roles, a poet-composer known as Shahir, who played the traditional role of Sutradhar, who compered the show. However, with time, women started taking part in Tamasha.​2​

Marathi theatre marked its journey at the beginning of 1843.​3​ In the following years, Tamasha primarily consisted of singing and dancing, expanded its range and added small dramatic skits known as Vag Natya.​3​ These included long narrative poems performed by the Shahir and his chorus, with actors improvising their lines. There are two types of Tamasha dance forms: dholki bhaari and the older form known as sangeet baari, which contains more music and dance than drama.​4​

The government of Maharashtra has instituted annual awards in the memory of the late Vithabai Narayangavkar Lifetime Achievement Award for those who had extensively contributed to the preservation of the Tamasha Art form throughout the world.​1​

Independent Project by Sezal Chug
Guide: Prof. Manohar Khushalani

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    encyclopedia wikipedia. wikipedia. Tamasha.

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    encyclopedia britannica. tamasha. tamasha.

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Siddheshwar Sen’s RAJA HARISHCHANDRA (MAACH) Director: Babulal Deora

Playwright: Siddheshwar Sen

Director: Babulal Deora

Group: Individual, Ujjain

Language: Malwi

Duration: 1 hr 30 mins

The Form

Maach is a folk theatre form of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh. This form was initiated around 200-250 years ago by Guru Gopal Ji of Bhagsipura of Ujjain. Even today three major akhadas of this theatre form viz. Daulatganj Akhada of Ustad Kaluram Sharma, Jaisinghpura Akhada of Balmukund Ji, and Mali Pura Akhada of Ustad Radhakishan Ji are prevelant. Maach has more than 150 scripts/ manuscripts and 125 melodies sung on 5/7 different rhythms. The main musical instruments of Maach are Harmonium, Dhol and Sarangi. Maach is a musical theatre that begins 10 at night and runs till 8 in the morning. Traditionally Maach is performed by men only, but Ustad Kalu Ram Ji’s Gharana has always had female artists as well.

The Play

Raja Harishchandra denounced his kingdom and mortgaged his own, his wife’s and his sons’s life to repay his guru’s debt, and to preserve the Truth. Written by Siddheshwar Sen and directed by Maach guru Babulal Deora, this presentation Raja Harishchandra has been staged by the group in many festivals held in different cities like Jamshedpur Tatanagar, Jharkhand; All India Craft Festival, Shilpramam, Hyderabad (Telengana) and at Ankur Rangmanch & Pratibha Lok Kala.

The Director

Born on 11 October 1963 in village Nayakhe of Ujjain District, Babu Lal Deora, at the age of 15, participated in the stories of Lokarg and Tejaji Maharaj and decided to step into the field of Maach. He was inspired and trained in Maach of Malwa by Guru Shri Siddheshwar Ji Sen and elder brother Ratan Maharaj Lokesh Sen. His first performance was as a singer in the chorus. After the death of his guru he continued the tradition. Later he went to Chittor for a workshop with Hafiz Khan, where he was introduced to some more melodies of Maach associated with Turra Kalangi folk theatre. Since then he has constantly been staging and promoting this folk art.

Cast & Credits

Raja Harishchandra: Babulal Deora

Guri Vishwamitra: Sudhir Sankhla

Kalua: Mangilal Bhati

Pradhan Ji: Babu Bhati

Rani Tara: Visnu Chandel

Pharaasan: Sonu, Tikaram Bhaati, Teju Solanki

Harmonium: Mangilal Vaishnav

Dholak: Pappu Chauhan

Tek: Lakhan Deora, Madanlal Deora, Vinod Paanchal

Chela: Ravi Akodia, Kuldip Panwar

Playwright: Siddheshwar Sen

Director: Babulal Deora