The Indian folk or traditional theatre is a rich and important element of the cultural heritage of India. It incorporates elements from music, dance, poetry, mime, religion and even arts and crafts. It is a reflection of people’s beliefs, social practises and customs and traditions. It marks the second phase of the evolution of theatre in India and is being performed from about 1000 A.D. onwards until today in every part of India. The change of political set up in India and the patronage received by different regional languages in India provided a favourable climate for the evolution and expansion of the traditional theatre. The classical theatre was much more sophisticated in its form and nature and was totally urban-oriented. In contrast, the folk theatre had rural roots and was simpler and closer to lives in the rural milieu.
Historically speaking, the folk theatre emerged forcefully in various regions during the 15-16th century A.D., using different languages and local traditions. The folk theatre was almost entirely devotional in tenor but later it became more secular in content and began focussing on romantic folk stories, ballads of valour and biographical accounts of local heroes.
Bansi Kaul mentions that the folk theatre provides “social wisdom” and should not be merely construed as cheap entertainment. In the post-Independence period, the folk theatre forms have been successfully used to convey social messages on issues such as health, family planning, adult education, etc. Many modern playwrights rely heavily on folk tradition forms for narration and presentation.
Indian folk theatre can be divided into two broad categories – religious and secular – giving rise to the ‘Ritual Theatre’ and the ‘Theatre of Entertainment’ respectively. The two forms thrived together and mutually influenced each other. Some of these folk theatre traditions have many attributes of a classical theatre. The folk and traditional forms are often narrative or vocal, i.e. singing and recitation-based like ‘Ramlila’, ‘Raslila’, ‘Bhand’, ‘Nautanki’ and ‘Wang’, without any complicated gestures or movements and elements of dance. Ballad-singing traditions such as ‘Pabuji-ki-phar’ of Rajastan and ‘Nupipaalaa’ of Manipur are also very popular in India.
In India, there are various folk theatre forms prevalent in different regions, such as ‘Veedhi Natakam’ in Andhra Pradesh, ‘Yakshagana’ in Maharashtra, ‘Bhavai’ in Gujarat, ‘Jatra’ in Bengal and ‘Nautanki’ in Uttar Pradesh. It is interesting to note that though the styles in these folk theatre forms differ, the themes and integral elements are essentially the same. The South Indian forms emphasise on dance forms like ‘Kathakali’ and ‘Krishnattam’ of Kerala, which actually qualify as dance dramas, while the north Indian forms emphasise on songs, like the ‘Khyal’ of Rajasthan, the ‘Maanch’ of Madhya Pradesh, the ‘Nautanki’ of Uttar Pradesh and the ‘Swang’ of Punjab and Haryana. The ‘Jatra’ of Bengal, Tamasha of Maharashtra and ‘Bhavai’ of Gujarat stress on dialogues in their execution, the latter two emphasise on comedy and satire. Dramatic art can also be found in some of the solo forms of Indian classical dances, like ‘Bharatanatyam’, ‘Kathak’, ‘Odissi’ and ‘Mohiniattam’, and folk dances like the ‘Gambhira’ and Chhau.