It is known as the ‘golden age’ of Indian theatre. Roughly a hundred-year period beginning in the early decades of the 19th century and stretching to a little beyond the early decades of the 20th century. In diverse regions like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bengal and Tamil Nadu, we saw the rise and spread of the phenomenon loosely referred to as the ‘Company Natak’ tradition, where an attempt was made to professionalise stage performances and earn a living through box-office collections.
It led to the development of distinct narrative and performative genres in India as well as conventions of visual representation that were to directly influence the course of modern art, musical rendition, theatrical devices and the structure of story-telling that was to be adopted by early Indian cinema.
In the early 19th century, as troupes of theatre performers began reaching Indian shores from England to entertain the British colonial settlements here with what could be described as ‘secular’ (non-religious) art, it inspired a new interest locally among the Indian connoisseurs. It was a period when the performing arts — dance, music and theatre — were languishing here, devoid of patronage and at the mercy of patriarchal indulgence. Performing arts attracted much moral censors from elite society and were considered to be synonymous with pimping and prostitution.
The annual Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival in Bangalore last month, focussed precisely on this genre of theatre. Its opening play ‘Nati Binodini’, interpreted from ‘Amaar Katha’ (‘My Story’), the autobiography of Binodini Devi, the leading Bengali stage actress of the 1880s, dealt critically with this social tension of the time. The adaptation by Amal Allana, explores the agony of the female actor over whose body the story of modern Indian theatre is constructed. It also foregrounds the struggle of Girish Ghosh, the legendary impresario of those years, who has to constantly fight to prevent his theatre being shut down under charges of it being a brothel.
In the 1850s, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, known as the ‘dancing prince’, produced ‘Indra Sabha’, a theatrical production, performed in his court, in which he himself sang and danced. Entrepreneurs in Bombay and Calcutta soon saw the business possibilities of theatre and formed ‘companies’ which were to soon become the primary agencies delivering ‘entertainment’ for the cantonments and new urban spreads. The popularity of the new plays prompted entrepreneurs to start ticketing the shows and earn box-office returns. More enterprising commercial troupes made their appearance soon, particularly the Parsee Theatre from Bombay.
All this led to the confecting of a formula, which came to be known as the ‘Company Natak’ brand of entertainment. Its chief components were riveting melodrama, jaw-crunching, heavy-worded dialogues, magical gimmicks with light, fire and water and, most of all, very high quality of music and singing. This form of three or even four hour long theatrical spectacle was to find a firm footing in Western and Southern India over the next hundred years.
This ‘sangeet-natak’ convention, with its visual grandeur and musical adventurism, provided the oxygen for an entire generation of musicians including Bal Gandharva, Sawai Gandharva, Gubbi Veeranna, Keshav Rao Bhonsale, Garud Sadashiv, Mallikarjun Mansur and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa.
It also inspired the newly popular practice of easel-mounted oil painting, like that of Ravi Varma who was to fashion an entirely new trajectory of visual narrative, on the one hand and also influenced the conventions of cinematic narration on the other as cinema began replacing theatre as the primary vehicle of mass entertainment in the 1930s and ’40s.
Of course, the ‘company’ artists also had to face the moral lash-back from pillars of orthodox society. In Bengal, no less than Rabindranath Tagore denounced it. In Marathi, playwrights like Mama Warerkar and M G Rangnekar responded by writing more ‘literate’ play-scripts. In Kannada, both Sriranga and Kailasam ridiculed the over-the-top content and poor stage-craft that the ‘company-natak’ had deteriorated to. In retrospect, however, it is clear that all these were reactions to the enormous contribution of this genre to the intellectual and aesthetic life of that period.
The Ranga Shankara Festival, curated by Girish Karnad, Surendranath and Arundhati Nag (the Festival Director), took the entire exercise to new levels of experience by not only inviting contemporary recreations of the ‘company natak’, but also actively helping to revive historic plays like ‘Jagajyothi Basaveshwara’ (in Kannada, by the 90-year-old Yenagi Balappa, who actually sings and acts in it). The biggest applause was reserved for the Marathi revival of a 1960s play by Purushottam Darvekar, ‘Katiyar Kaaljaat Ghusli’ (The Dagger Enters the Heart) on Hindu-Muslim identity and the Telugu spectacular ‘Maya Bazaar’ (by the seventy-year-old Surabhi Company, which comprises over 60 members of the cast belonging to the same family).
The Festival managed to frame the important issues in Indian theatre practice today, against the colourful backdrop of not-so-distant theatre history. The ripple-effects are bound to be seen soon