The Indian Context(s)


Laying Pavement in India

It’s become something of a cliché to say that India is a land of contradictions.  New visitors to India are often struck by the close proximity in India of modern and prehistoric technology.  When driving the national highway between Delhi and Agra—that is, between India’s capitol city and the site of the country’s most famous building, the Taj Mahal—one must be careful not to run one’s Indian-made Tata Sumo SUV into the bullock carts and camel caravans which also use the highway.  Ninth Century, CE, rock-cut temples, such as Pataleshwar in Pune, are still frequented as places of worship by engineering students, who can’t resist checking their iPhones for new email during puja.  Perhaps thirty percent of India’s one billion people are functionally illiterate, while the country exports computer software to the tune of more than $50,000,000 annually.

World Map

Location of the Indian Subcontinent

But these contrasts aren’t contradictions so much as the natural circumstances that arise in a country trying to incorporate an almost innumerable number of peoples, side-by-side, into a single geo-political entity, a country with a wealth of very different cultures—each with their own identities, histories, and languages—with extremes of geography and climate, and with an economy suddenly expanding faster than anyone can measure.

The Indian subcontinent, a landmass that drops out of the Himalayan mountains, incorporates very disparate environments.  In the far north, along India’s borders with China and Nepal, mountain altitudes reach twenty-eight thousand feet–very near the height of Mount Everest.  Many Indians in these regions live in places above ten thousand feet, and deal with the harsh winters that are typical to such elevations.

By contrast, the eastern areas of India that border the Bay of Bengal, including Calcutta, one of India’s largest cities,  are paradigmatically tropical, receiving heavy amounts of rainfall annually, and enduring very warm temperatures for half of the year.

india relief map

The Indian Subcontinent

Much of the state of Rajasthan, on the other hand, in India’s western region, is a desert.

Between the eastern states and Rajasthan lies the Deccan Plateau, extending in a droopy-diamond shape toward India’s southern tip.  Although cut by several major rivers running eastward to the Bay of Bengal from the narrow strip of mountains that runs down the western coast of India, and although the Plateau receives a share of annual monsoon rainfall, much of the Plateau is dry and very hot in the summer.  In the southern region of the plateau, where the elevation is higher, temperatures are more moderate (Karnataka’s state capitol, Bangalore, sits at three thousand feet above sea level).

The southern coasts, both east and west, are tropical regions.

In all these geographical areas live people with distinct cultures.  The diversity of India in this respect may be indicated by the fact that the Indian constitution recognizes twenty-three official languages (including English).  State borders in India are drawn mostly according to boundaries between major languages.  Each of these languages represents the unique, historical identity of another culture, so that, in traveling across India, the crossing of each state boundary puts one into a new cultural environment.

In effect, these socio-linguistic borders that more-or-less coincide with state boundaries in India indicate what were until recent history separate countries.  For most of India’s history, these various cultures have lived independent of each other, as separate kingdoms and countries.

For more than a century prior to 1947, when the country we now call India came into existence, most of the Indian subcontinent had been united as a colony of Great Britain.  In order to secure the subcontinent as a source of colonial revenue, Great Britain had brought these separate countries together under a single, governmental administration.  Subsequently, as an independent country, India has faced the difficulty of maintaining unity across peoples who have lacked a common cultural history apart from their shared post-colonial identity itself.

Additionally, significant portions of what had been administered as a British colony on the subcontinent did not end up as India at all, but as East and West Pakistan, two halves of a single country with India in between.  The political tension between India and Pakistan since independence and the ‘partition’ of the territory that had been unified under the British has been continuous and often violent.  (In 1971, the people of East Pakistan agitated for their independence from Pakistan and became what is now Bangladesh.)

Imagine that all the countries of Europe, with all their distinct languages, histories, and cultural identities were consolidated under a single, foreign government, which then abruptly left Europe to manage itself, as two political entities including East and West Franglovakia with Deutschaly in between, and you will begin to appreciate the cultural complexity of India and of the Indian subcontinent.

Besides its colonization by the British, the Indian subcontinent has been hosting migrations for more than four thousand years.  All of these migrating populations have brought things to India that were not in India before, including languages, religious traditions, political structures, and art.  All of these migrating populations, and all of the things they brought with them, have been changed by India.  India, perhaps more than any other region on Earth, has been a mixture-maker, finding ever-renewed life in the mixed civilizations that have formed there.

One principal cultural (if not political) division in India lies between north and south.  As with the smaller, regional divisions, this north/south divide in India is marked by language.

The languages of India’s northern regions—including Hindi, Gujarati, and Bengali—are heirs of Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that enters the subcontinent with the Aryan people after 1500, BCE.  Sanskrit has a genetic relationship to Greek and Latin, which display similarities of sentence structure, morphology, and vocabulary.  Sanskrit’s many children, such as Hindi, share some characteristics with the descendants of Greek and Latin.  It is no coincidence, for instance, that the words pater, patêr, and pitr look the same (“father” in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, respectively), nor that each of these terms can be declined in case forms such as nominative, genitive, dative, etc.  Nevertheless, contemporary spoken languages that largely derive from Sanskrit show the influence of other indigenous and exogenous language traditions, such as Arabic and Farsi.

The languages of the southern regions—including Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu—are classified as Dravidian languages.  Although linguists have proposed historical relationships with other language groups, the Dravidian languages still seem to be a language family unto itself.  Because of the important role that Sanskrit has played in religion, arts, and learning on the subcontinent, these languages include many Sanskrit loan words; but their morphology and structure is entirely distinct from the Indo-European family.

Other general distinctions lend themselves to the identification of a significant north/south divide in India, including the expression of  identity in art, architecture, religious practice, political philosophy, and so forth.

In prehistoric times, people seem to have arrived in southern India from Africa, and India’s southern coast has always played host to sea trade from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

In historical eras, the large migrations of people originating outside the subcontinent have most commonly entered India by way of mountain passes in the northwest.  The “Aryan” Caucasians slowly entered India through the Hindu Kush mountains.  Alexander the Great and his Greek armies came nearly to what is now India the same way.  Scythian and Mongolian and Chinese peoples also came down into India, settling beside, sometimes ruling, and inevitably mixing with the people who were already there.  In the centuries prior to the British colonization of India, Persians and Arabs also moved into India through the northwest corridor from Afghanistan to Pakistan to India.

Theatre in India is as complex as this mixture of cultures.  While kutiyattam may be one of the oldest, continuously practiced theatre traditions in the world—a theatre form that is in many ways a highly codified, historical relic—theatres in the major cities of India commonly mount very modern, even very post-modern, productions of contemporary Indian plays and of the major works of Western playwrights.  The performers of other traditional forms of theatre such as chhau are primarily dancers, who may not say anything over the course of a performance.  Political street theatre, on the other hand, relies on rhetoric as its principal means of expression.

And there are the performance traditions in India that might be theatre, and might not be.  Bharatanatyam dance includes a clear narrative component.  The pat tradition of West Bengal is essentially narrative, but uses painted scrolls to ‘dramatize’ the telling of a story—a sort of pre-modern television.  The religious services known as katha include storytelling, but no mimetic dramatization at all.  In the ways that they involve their audiences, events such as qawalli, which may seem only to be musical recitals, have complex dramatic structures and modes of representation.

Definitions of the term theatre, then, may do a disservice to the variety of theatrical performances that one finds in an artistic environment as variegated as India’s.  Rather than premise a study of theatre in India on an exclusionary definition by which what is theatre is sifted from what isn’t, we might consider what India itself tells us is theatre—assertions, which, themselves, are likely to vary from era to era and from place to place.  Nevertheless, India might help us better understand the phenomena of theatre if we let its various cultures and traditions speak to us on the subject, rather than interrogating it for those forms that coincide with the understanding of theatre that we already have.