Traditional Indian Theatre

Dear Students
I know you are all very interested in acting and drama. Today’s post, therefore is about the history of Indian theatre, from its origins up to the present. As you read, you will discover the richness and variety of our cultural heritage in the forms of theatre.


Classical Drama
India has a longest and richest tradition in theatre going back almost 5000 years. The earliest form of theatre in India was the Sanskrit theatre, which began between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE. Hundreds of plays were written until the 10th century CE, a peaceful period of Indian history. Classical Sanskrit drama originated in Bharata’s Natya Shastra and the Natyaveda, said to be created by Lord Brahma.

Natya Shastra describes classifies ten kinds of drama, and addresses the playwright, the director, and the actor. The Sanskrit word for drama, nataka, derives from natya, meaning “dance”. Traditional drama was a combination of music, dancing and acting. 

According to legend, the very first play was performed in heaven by the gods, enacting their victory over the demons.

There were two types of plays: lokadharmi, showing realistic human behaviour on stage, and natyadharmi using of stylized gestures and artistic symbolism. 

Theatre or ‘Natya’ in India included literature, mime, music, dance, movement, painting, sculpture and architecture – all mixed into one. The Islamic invasions between the 10th and 11th centuries led to the decline of classical Sanskrit theatre.

Folk Theatre
Later, from the 15th to the 19th centuries, Indian village theatre developed in a large number of regional languages across the country, reviving religious values, local legends, mythology, biographies of local kings and heroes, and folk stories about romance and bravery. The actors, dancers, musicians and storytellers of Indian theatre are called bhands.


These are some of the folk theatre forms from different parts of India:


Bhand Pather is the traditional theatre of Kashmir, full of satire, wit, parody and laughter.

'Swang' - The Folk Dance of Malwa

Swang shows development of rasa along with character. The two important styles of Swang are from Rohtak in Haryanvi (Bangru) language and Haathras in Brajbhasha.

Nautanki of Uttar Pradesh

Nautanki is from Uttar Pradesh. The verses are in Doha, Chaubola, Chhappai, and Behar-e-tabeel.


Raasleela is based exclusively on the life of Lord Krishna.


Kariyila is the open-air folk drama of Himachal Pradesh, which consists of small plays, farces, skits, revues and burlesques, staged during village fairs. A sacred bonfire is lit in the centre of the Khada or square performing arena. A number of musical instruments like chimta, nagara, karnal, ranasingha, shahanai, basuri, dholak and khanjiri are used to provide background music.


Keertan is also known as Katha, Kalakshepam or Harikatha, praising god.


Khyal is a folk dramatic form of Rajasthan, also known as Tamasha, Rammat, Nautanki, Maach and Swang.


Bhavai is the traditional theatre form of Gujarat, using: bhungal, tabla, flute, pakhaawaj, rabaab, sarangi, manjeera, etc.

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Garodas: The Garoda community of Gujarat narrate stories with the help of pictures on paper scrolls painted in water-colours one below the other and separated with a thick black line.

Picture Showmen in ancient India were known as Mankha, and this art of narrating the story with the help of pictures was known as Mankha Vidha, dating back to the 6th century BC.


Jatra in Bengal are musical plays in honour of gods, or religious rituals and ceremonies.


Daskathia and Chhaiti Ghoda are narrative forms in Orissa. In Daskathia, a Gayaka (chief singer) and Palia (co-narrator) tell a mythological story dramatically to the accompaniment of a wooden musical instrument called kathia. The Chhaiti Ghoda has a troupe of performers playing the musical instruments dhol and mohuri, and a dancer inside a dummy horse made of bamboo and cloth.


Maach is the traditional theatre form of Madhya Pradesh, where Maach means the stage. Dialogue is in the form of bol and vanag, while tunes are known as rangat.


Nachya is a folk theatre from Madhya Pradesh, of two types. One is the humorous Gammat Skit and the other one is the Jokkad Pari performance.


Bhaona is a form of the Ankia Naat of Assam, where the Sutradhaar, or narrator begins the story in Sanskrit and continues in Brajboli or Assamese.

oja pali

Oja-Pali of Assam is a form of storytelling with dramatic techniques associated with the worship of Manasa, the serpent goddess. The performers take many days to narrate the story, which is divided into three parts: Deva Khanda, Baniya Khanda and Bhatiyali Khanda.


Tamaasha is a traditional folk theatre form of Maharashtra, evolving from the folk forms of Gondhal, Jagran and Kirtan. The female actress or Murki is the chief exponent.



Gondhal in Maharashtra is the dramatic narration of mythological stories, hero-lauds and folk legends.


Dashavatar is the theatre form of Konkan and Goa, personifying the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu – Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narsimha (lion-man), Vaman (dwarf), Parashuram, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. The Dashavatar performers wear masks of wood and papier-mache.


Pandavani involves two types of storytelling about the five Pandava brothers by the tribals of the Chhatisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh – Kapilak and Vedamati.

Povadas Dance

Powada in Maharashtra is the narrative hero-laud, like the thrilling episode of Shivaji killing Afzal Khan, presented by the folk singers known as Gondhalis through high-pitched singing and melodramatic acting.


Yakshagaana is the traditional theatre form of Karnataka, based on mythological stories and Puranas.


Therukoothu is the folk drama of Tamil Nadu, meaning street-play, performed at the annual temple festivals of Mariamman (Rain goddess) for a rich harvest. Therukoothu is a cycle of eight plays based on the life of Draupadi.


Villu Pattu literally means bow-song. This form of recitation (using a bow-shaped musical instrument) of Tamil Nadu developed in the 15th century. A chorus of seven to eight persons supports the main singer-narrator in these ballad style songs telling stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas.


Krishnattam is the folk theatre of Kerala. It is a cycle of eight plays based on the life of Lord Krishna depicting victory of good over evil and performed for eight consecutive days. The plays are Avataram, Kaliamandana, Rasa krida, kamasavadha, Swayamvaram, Bana Yudham, Vivida Vadham, and Swargarohana.


Mudiyettu is the traditional folk theatre of Kerala. It is usually performed only in the temples of the Goddess Kali, depicting the triumph of goddess Bhadrakali over the asura Darika.


Theyyam is also a popular folk theatre of Kerala. The word ‘Theyyam’ (derived from Sanskrit ‘Daivam’ or God) is called God’s dance. It is performed to appease and worship the spirits of ancestors, folk heroes, and deities of various diseases. The headgears (mudi) of actors are nearly 5 to 6 feet high.


Koodiyaattam is one of the oldest theatre forms of Kerala, based on Sanskrit drama. The characters are: Chakyaar or actors, Naangyaar, or actors in women’s roles, Sutradhar or narrator, Vidushak or jesters and Naambiyaar or the instrumentalists.


puppetrajasthan The origins of Puppet Theatre in India lie in a dancer’s mask. Excavations at Harappan sites have revealed toys or puppets that can be moved with strings. There are references to different kinds of puppets in the Mahabharata and a Buddhist work called Therigatha.

 There are four basic kinds of puppets – glove, string, rod and shadow. The glove puppets are found mainly in Orissa (Kundhei Nacha), Kerala (Pava Koothu or Pava Kathakali) and Tamil Nadu. String puppets are found in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan (Kataputali), Orissa (Sakhi Kundhei), Tamil Nadu (Bommalattam), Assam (Putla Nach), Maharashtra (Malasutri Bhaulya), and Karnataka (Gombeyatta). The Putul Nach of West Bengal and the Kathi Kundhei of Orissa are the best examples of rod puppetry in India.

Shadow Theatre

According to many scholars, the art of Shadow Theatre originated in India, at least one thousand years ago. Shadow theatre is close to puppetry, but the audience only see the shadow of puppets cast on the screen from a light source. The figures of shadow theatre are made of leather, range in height from 1.2 to 1.82 metres, have jointed limbs and are carefully stenciled so that their shadows suggest their clothing, jewellery and other accessories.

Shadow theatre is found in Orissa, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The shadows are not just black and white but also multi-coloured.

British Colonial Theatre

Modern Indian theatre developed under the British rule from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th centuries. Indian plays voiced protest against colonial rule. Therefore, the British Government imposed the Dramatic Performances Act in 1876.

Theatre After Independence

Indian theatre and drama got a new footing, when Sangeet Natak Akademi was started in January 1953, and later, the National School of Drama under the directorship of Ebrahim Alkazi.
Modern Indian Drama from the 1960s has been a mixture of various styles and techniques from Sanskrit, medieval, folk and western theatre. Famous pioneers of the dramatic revival are Ranchhodbhal and Nanalla Kavi in Gujarat, Verasalingam, Guruzada Appa Rao and Ballary Raghavachari in Telugu, Santakavi Varadachari and Kailasam in Kannada, Laxminath Bezhbarua in Assamese, Kerala Varma Thampuran and C.V. Raman Pillai in Malayalam, Ramshankar Rai and Kalicharan Patnaik in Oriya and P. Sambandha Mudaliar in Tamil.

Contemporary Indian theatre has famous names like Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi (Ghashiram Kotwal), B. V. Karanth, Habib Tanvir, Bansi Kaul Rattan Thiyyam, Feroz Khan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Mahesh Dattani.

Several film personalities also contributed to theatre, including Arvind Deshpande, Vijaya Mehta, Jabbar Patel, Satyadev Dube, Vaman Kendre, Dr Shriram Lagoo, Girish Karnad, Pearl Padamsee, Amol Palekar, Shashi Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Farooq Shaikh, Naseeruddin Shah, Jaya Bacchan and Shabana Azmi.

Talented young actors, directors and playwrights today include Anahita Uberoi, Sanjana Kapoor (Prithvi Theatre), Chetan Datar, Rajat Kapoor, Tara Deshpande, Rael Padamsee. Television also provided Tele-serials and Soap Operas. Today there are relatively few commercial theatre companies in India.

The Future of Indian Theatre

What do you think? Is there a future for Indian theatre – or will they become extinct and completely replaced by films? 

If you wish to know more about Theatre in India, click on my sources:



32 responses to “Traditional Indian Theatre

  1. Mam ,
    Extremely interesting details of folk theatre and it is really bailiwick to me. I have also seen Odissi Chhou dance and Bengali Baoul singing performance of Parvati Baoul. They are also folk arts.

    • If you are brave enough, Eshaan, click on one of the source links to read and know more. Next time you perform for annual day, just think, these same steps have been performed by dancers and actors for thousands of years before our time!

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  4. WOW!! Never thought there was such a long and interesting history on our Indian Theater. Thank you ma’am for sharing such info with us.

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