Is Theater a Sacred Ritual or Entertainment?

Cramped Performance Spaces
Cramped Performance Spaces – yet the spirit of theatre prevails

 ‘The world is hungry and not concerned with culture,’ (Artaud, 1958, 7, The Theater & its Double). In talking about culture Artaud was primarily referring to the theater of the West. I am not in a position to comment on all art and culture, but I can say without hesitation that the world is not concerned with the theater. Today, theater groups in Delhi perform in cramped, poorly ventilated rooms because they cannot fill seats in a standard 200 seat auditorium in Mandi House. Theater makers say the audience has switched preferences but it might be worth examining whether theater itself has lost touch with its purpose and language. People go to the theaters for entertainment, but the end goal of theater is not mere entertainment. In both ancient Greek and Indian traditions drama was supposed to bring about emotional arousal and aesthetic pleasure.  The Greeks called this end goal, Katharsis and Natayshastra calls it Rasa. The future of theater lies, perhaps, in understanding its true spiritual-aesthetic purpose because the purpose informs the form. 

     If theater is merely a mode of entertainment then it is expensive and inconvenient for the audience. A viewer can watch shows on his phone from the comfort of his house, whereas to watch theater the audience has to travel to a hall, buy a ticket that costs more than their monthly Netflix subscription, and then sit cramped for two hours.  Theater is inconvenient even for the actor because it brings neither fame nor money.  Also, an actor can reach millions of fans via live streaming, why should he perform for 200 people? The cost of mounting a production is going up, but the audience has got used to what seems like free entertainment on TikTok, You Tube and other portals. 

      Theater as a mode of spectacle has limited resources at its disposal. For example K-Pop live performances have more visual appeal than a Chekov’s play. A typical K-pop show has huge LED Screens, pre-recorded videos, installations, fireworks, laser lights show, flying cars, fantastic costumes, choreographed dance, storytelling and live music – that is all the elements of theater. On the other hand, cinema and OTT platforms are advancing technology for camera, lighting, editing and CGI to make binge-worthy shows. Media companies also employ social media algorithms to reach their target audience.  How can theater with its humble resources match the spectacle sponsored by corporate money? This realization dawned upon Grotowski, a Polish theater maker, as early as 1960s. Grotwoski was categorical that theater could never match cinema or Television and it should stop trying. 

      Urban theater is trying to re-invent to remain relevant. Theater companies are creating digital versions of their shows to stream on demand in the hope that a Netflix like subscription will earn them revenue.  It is theater’s desperate attempt to stay afloat because the economics work against it. On the other hand, Broadway and West End continue programming musicals like ‘The Lion King’, “Mama Mia’, and ‘Moulin Rouge’. The show makers at Disney and Broadway are convinced the audience comes to the theaters to watch a spectacle.  I doubt digitization or extravaganza can save theater. Whereas, digital theater is neither live nor cinematic, Disney/Broadway/West End shows are beyond the reach of an average person. 

      Antonin Artaud, the French theater director-writer was the first Western theater maker to write about the spiritual dimension of theater. By comparing Oriental theater with Western theater in his seminal book, The Theater & its Double (published 1938), Artaud establishes the real purpose of theater. ‘Everything in this theater is immersed in profound intoxication which restores to us the very elements of ecstasy’ (65)  Artaud calls Oriental theater as pure and metaphysical theater that alone can express secret truths by gesture, poetry, mime, symbols, hieroglyph costumes, music and more. By secret truths Artaud means the sacred truth that can be revealed and experienced through religion and art. ‘Here is a whole collection of ritual gestures’ (55) says Artaud. Aratud makes repeated reference to ritual, metaphysical and spiritual aspect of Oriental theater. ‘This aspect of matter as its revelation, suddenly dispersed in signs to teach us the metaphysical identity of concrete and abstract’ (59). There is no mention of commercial success or entertainment. Artaud talks of ecstasy, joy and a state of trance triggered by this theater as if theater were a ritual or a mystical experience.  ‘In a spectacle like that of Balinese theater there is something that has nothing to do with entertainment, the notion of useless , artificial amusement, of an evening’s pastime which is the characteristic of our theater. There is something of the ceremonial quality of a religious rite.’ (58) 

      Balinese theater is based on Natyashastra, a treatise on ancient Indian drama, written at least 5,000 years ago.  Therefore, a study of the ancient texts on aesthetics and performance be it Natyashastra or Poetics can inform us on the real nature of theater. Let’s not forget these texts have created dramatic works that have lasted a few thousand years. The story of the origin of Indian drama itself explains the purpose of drama in ancient India. The story goes that one day Gods approached Brahma and requested him to create a play like activity that would impart the knowledge of the four Vedas to all men and women, irrespective of their caste and vocation. Thus Brahma created the fifth Veda called Natyaveda. Then Brahma imparted the knowledge to sage Bharata Muni and instructed him to compose Natayshastra, a book that deals with all aspects of theater. Natayshastra lays out a complex Rasa theory of aesthetics. Dr. Bharat Gupt, an eminent Classicist and scholar explains rasa, ‘Dominant emotions like sexual passion, attachment, anger, fear and others are transformed into rasa, or are tasted as rasa, when they are mixed with transitory emotions like dejection, guilt, doubt, intoxication and so forth. This occurs when they are communicated through verbal and physical acting.’ (Gupt, 1994, 262, Dramatic Concepts Greek & Indian) The above definition suggests that Indian classical drama aimed to bring about a transformation of emotions in the audience.  

       Even Poetics, the ancient manual of Greek drama, upholds Katharsis as the primary aim of tragedy. Dr Bharat Gupt explains Katharsis, ‘As the tragic action progresses, the lower forms of emotion are found to have been transmuted into more refined forms. This purification is also a change of the personal emotion to the Universal. Katharsis is a restorative process; it frees the spectator of emotional unbalance.’ (Gupt, 257) Here again transformation of emotions is the goal of drama. Even though Aristotle talks of hedone or the pleasure proper to tragedy, but it is not pleasure alone that is the aim of drama. ‘In ancient Greece the plays were performed as a ceremony in a chain of ceremonies at Dionysian festival’. (Gupt, 128) The festival was held on auspicious days that were marked as auspicious because of their astronomical significance. It was a time when the ancient Greeks came together as a community to celebrate, purge, restore balance, and communicate with the Gods. Drama was just one part of the whole sacred process. 

      Let us now examine the purpose of a religious ritual. ‘Purpose of ritual was to conduct people across the difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in patterns not of conscious but also of the unconscious life.’ (Campbell, 1949, 6, The Hero with a Thousand Faces) These thresholds are the important milestones of human life like birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Campbell says the ritual purges man of infantile fixation.  Religious rituals were created to purge and transform. ‘The prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.’ (Campbell, 7) We can see both ritual and drama had the same purpose to assist human beings to restore balance in their lives. The unbalance that life experiences bring about needs a constant correction and the ancients created rituals and drama as therapy. Also, both ritual and drama are performed in a sanctified space.  When an audience/devotee enters the space he agrees to participate in the transformation. What is worth considering is that not all stories were considered worthy of dramatic presentation.  ‘In all ancient societies the purpose of retelling the muthoi/story, particularly on festive occasions, was many-fold; it was to preserve and transmit the stories, to re-state the beliefs they enshrined and to relive the behavior patterns sanctified by the tradition. The retelling always had a ritual significance even if it took the form of dramatic enactment for the purpose of entertainment.’ (Gupt, 259)

      A discussion on theater and ritual is incomplete without talking about Richard Schechner's Performance Theory. In the eighties anthropologists like Victor Turner were already writing about social drama that plays out in everyday life. ‘Something like drama was constantly emerging, even erupting, from the otherwise fairly even surface of social life.’ (Turner Victor, 6, From Ritual to Theater, 1982) ‘Every type of cultural performance including ritual, ceremony, carnival, theater and poetry is explanation of life itself.’ (Turner,8) Schechner, a theater director, actor, and drama theorist built on Turner’s work and redefined performance, ‘performing onstage, performing in special social situations (public ceremonies, for example), and performing in everyday life are a continuum’. (Schechner, 2002, 143, Performance Studies) In a video lecture series available on Companion Websites, YouTube Channel, Schechner says, “we are always structuring our lives as performance.” As in we are always performing, be it social roles e.g. being a father, or an occupational role e.g. a judge in the court, or an aesthetic performance or when we perform a sacred ritual. Schechner shifts the meaning of performance by including every human action in its realm, “there is an infinity loop between social performance and aesthetic performance.” 

     It is not as if there is no difference between a ritual proper and a dramatic performance. Their end goals are different and a ritual in drama cannot replace a religious ritual. ‘The prime purpose of a ritual act is to seek a benediction. In case a ritual is not a prayer, it may be enacted for the recognition of a social contract or for a pledge such as marriage.’ (Gupt, 65) A religious ritual is performed by an individual to seek fulfillment of a wish, but the dramatic performance is done only to please or perhaps instruct. Dramatic performance was a ritual only to the extent that it was meant to please both Gods and men, whereas a ritual was meant to please only Gods. Dr. Gupt insists ‘ ritual, myth and drama have co-existed. With change of purpose, one form changes into the other. Many rituals grow into entertainments..For example, the Garba dances of Guajart, were performed till the last decade on a specific religious occasion, but they are now being danced as a form of secular celebration. Many rituals were originally entertainments which became converted to into ritualistic repetitions for maintenance of tradition. The swing festival ‘teej’ of North India, now done ritually, was an entertainment for the rainy season.’ (Gupt, 66).  

     Today’s secular theater is removed from its ritual roots. In treating theater as another source of entertainment we have put it in a false competition with TV and OTT shows. As a result theater looks weak and outdated. We must remember that theater has a spiritual dimension and theatergoing should be both cathartic and pleasurable. It’s the higher kind of pleasure that theater strives for. Even porn gives pleasure but what we seek in theater is a pleasure worth tasting.  Bharata Muni says only that which is worthy of tasting is rasa vishesh or capable of giving rasa. Art that can lead to the four purusharthas or the goals of human life - dharma, artha, kama, and moksha is capable of giving rasa. So how do we create a piece of theater that can help the audience and the performer realize all the purursharthas?  It is not possible to return to the ancient sacred theater but perhaps we could borrow elements from sacred rituals to create powerful dramatic performances.  For example a fire in a yajna or a shaman ritual or a tribal dance evokes an emotional response that is primeval and psychic. When effectively employed in a performance, the fire or even embers can tap into the same emotion. Even today in a Koodiyattam performance an oil lamp is the focal point of the performance. Hymns, chants, bells, conch, incense sticks that are part of most religious rituals, when used in a performance can create an immersive sensory experience. At a deeper level, theater makers need to ask themselves are they making a performance that can elevate our experience of life. If theater makers remain clear sighted about the sacred purpose of theater, they can make theater a mystical and aesthetic experience. 
Garba Gujarat
Garba Dance Gujarat – Courtesy Encyclopedia Britannica

(I am grateful to Dr. Bharat Gupt for his expert advice on theater and to Dr. Otis Haschemeyer for his feedback on structure and writing. I wish to extend special thanks to Aparna Sridhar for the critique on the final draft.)

If any of you have any reactions then please comment on the website below the article so that the author can respond and know that people are engaging with the content. Thanks Ed.

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.