India has a long and rich tradition in theatre going back to nearly five thousand years. The origin of Indian theatre is closely related to ancient customs and traditions, rituals and seasonal festivities of the country. Bharata’s ‘Natya Shastra’ was the earliest and most elaborate treatise on dramaturgy. It gives a divine origin to the Indian theatre, attributing it to the ‘Natyaveda’, the holy book of dramaturgy that is believed to have been created by Lord Brahma.
In the ‘Natya Shastra’, Bharata Muni consolidated and codified various traditions in dance, mime and drama. The ‘Natya Shastra’ describes ten classifications of drama ranging from one act to ten acts. The book is addressed to the playwright, the director and the actor alike. The Sanskrit word used for drama is ‘nataka’, which is derived from the word ‘nata’ meaning an actor or essentially a dancer.1 Some other words like ‘rupaka’, ‘drisyakavya’ or ‘preksakavya’ have also been used to describe the drama. In traditional Indian drama, expression was achieved by a combination of music, dance and acting, making these plays a combination of opera, ballet and drama.
Theatre in India began as a narrative form, in which recitation, singing and dancing were integral elements. The encompassing of all forms of literature and fine arts into its physical presentation and the emphasis on narrative elements made the classical Indian drama theatrical right from the beginning. Ancient Indian playwrights conceived two types of plays: ‘lokadharmi’ (realistic), which stands for behaviour (‘dharmi’) in daily life (‘loka’); and ‘natyadharmi’ (conventional), which stands for behaviour in dance (‘natya’) and involves the use of stylized gestures and symbolism.
Broadly speaking, the Indian theatre can be divided into three distinctive types: the Classical or Sanskrit theatre; the Traditional or Folk theatre and the Modern theatre.