cave painting

Fig. 1: Cave Painting in Madhya Pradesh

Prehistoric settlements existed in all the regions of South Asia.  Both the Soan Valley Culture in what is now northern Pakistan and the Madrasian Culture in the central  part of South India leave us stone tools from the early Palaeolithic era (the “Lower Palaeolithic”), between 150,000 and 100,000, BCE.

Stone tools and implements don’t tell us much about the possible theatrical activity of prehistoric India.  But the art that these societies left behind provide us with a suggestive glimpse of their aesthetic sensibilities.  Those sensibilities seem touched with theatricality.

For instance, cave paintings in the north central regions of India date back to the late Palaeolithic era (the “Upper Palaeolithic”), and include a variety of naturalistic and non-naturalistic styles.

The depiction of a pregnant cow (Fig. 1), for instance, from Ram Chajja in Madhya Pradesh, exhibits a consciously non-naturalistic style, as well as an especially artistic “vision” of an unborn calf.  This remnant of an early civilization tells us nothing about theatre, per se, but it does indicate an intentional exercise of imagination in an act of representation.  This kind of imaginative re-presentation is at the root of theatrical performance.

bhimbetka painting

Fig 2: Bhimbetka Cave Painting (Madhya Pradesh)

Likewise, the cave painting from Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh) in Figure 2 stylizes human and animals figures.  But this painting also incorporates a narrative element.  Perhaps composed of two or three separate scenes, the painting depicts people on horseback and on foot, in motion and with weapons drawn.  In the upper part of the painting, a leopard is cornered by a trio of riders.  An impetus not only to tell a story, but to give others a more direct, visceral experience of the story by expressing it visually, is a theatrical impulse.

The rural communities of northwestern Pakistan, which seem to have introduced agriculture to the Indian subcontinent between 7000 and 4000, BCE, eventually coalesced around towns like Mehrgarh (located in what is now the Baluchistan province of Pakistan).  Mehrgarh and like communities anticipated the organized, urban civilization that stretched along the length of the Indus River.


Further Reading

Burjot Avari, India: The Ancient PastNew York: Routledge, 2007.

Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.