Kathakali actor applying makeup

Most students in the United States who are interested in theatre at all first encounter Indian forms of theatre in the classroom, if they encounter Indian forms of theatre at all.  And many of this small population of students encounter Indian forms of theatre only in the classroom.  Only in a few, large, metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles do students in the United States have any direct access to Indian theatre forms in actual performance, and even then only on an irregular basis and with the overwhelming predominance of a very few of the many theatre forms that are indigenous to India.  Due to some very straightforward constraints, Indian theatre does not show up much in the United States, with the consequence that its place in the curricula of theatre departments is almost exclusively limited to the pages of books.

Theatre textbooks in the United States, therefore, bear a significant responsibility, at least insofar as Indian theatre ought to be some part of a theatre student’s education.  College courses titled “Theatre History” or “Dramatic Theory” ought to strive to deal with theatre history or dramatic theory in a global way, or else re-title themselves “European Theatre History” or “Theories of Drama Descending Directly from Aristotle”, as appropriate.  An “Introduction to Theatre” course that does not introduce students to theatre in India, for honesty’s sake, ought to be titled “Introduction to Theatre as Practiced in the United States over the Past Five Decades”, or in some other way that accurately reflects the course’s content.

Of course, implicit in this argument is the assertion that a Theatre History course ought to deal equitably with theatre in classical Greece, in pre-Mughal India, in renaissance Italy, in Tang-era China, in pre- and post-colonial Africa, in Indonesia, in Argentina, in Korea—both north and south—in Russia, Thailand, Australia, Afghanistan, Haiti, and so on.  And the obvious problem with this argument is that only three or four people on the planet have the necessary expertise.  Consequently, theatre textbooks bear even greater responsibility as the material by which an instructor’s breadth of expertise is supplemented and expanded.  As the American Theatre scholar Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei wrote in 1997, “A good text supplements a good teacher… [it] offers reassurance, clarification, and bibliographic guidance in fields with which the professor is unfamiliar.”



Many instructors in the United States approach theatre in India with a sharp consciousness of what they don’t know on the subject, and this largely prevents them from approaching the subject at all.  Or, they rely exclusively on what their theatre history textbook of choice has to say on the matter.  Unfortunately, the theatre textbooks in common use in the United States these days are often bewilderingly weak on the subject of theatre in India.

In a 2004 article in TDR, Steve Tillis surveyed theatre history textbooks and drama anthologies used by theatre departments in the United States, as well as the curricula of theatre departments.  His assessment included the following: of twelve history textbooks, the amount of text devoted to the world beyond Euro-America very rarely exceeds ten percent, though the titles of these books give no indication of their geographic focus.  The tenth edition of Oscar Brockett’s History of the Theatre, published in 2007, for example—and this is the history text in use in the United States—represents itself as a history of theatre (not only of European and American theatre), and has around six hundred and seventy pages of historical text, of which about forty pages are collected in a concluding chapter titled “The Theatre of Asia”.

A quick survey of four major drama anthologies, all published in multiple editions and in use by “Introduction to Theatre” courses and the like at large and small institutions across the United States, reveals that only one includes a play originating in India (Manjula Padmanabhan’s 1997 play Harvest).  Three of these anthologies include more than one Shakespeare play (the fourth concerns “modern” drama, and begins with plays written in the late 1800’s), and one of these three, general, world drama anthologies not only includes three Shakespeare plays, but plays by Marlowe and Jonson, besides.  Neither Kalidasa, Shudraka, nor Bhasha—monumental authors of classical Sanskrit drama representing a few centuries of the tradition—appear alongside this phalanx of Elizabethan dramatists, whose plays all appeared within a few decades.  Nor do any of these Sanskrit playwrights appear in the other anthologies, either.

No wonder that, of the college courses in fifty-five departments examined by Tillis around the United States that require students to take academic or scholarly courses, only ten—ten of fifty-five—offer any courses that include non-Western content.

The deficiencies of this approach are, perhaps, obvious.

This online resource is an attempt to supplement the shortfall in our theatre textbooks that prevents the inclusion of theatre from India in theatre courses.  This Introduction to Theatre in India ‘text’ hopes to be a free and accessible resource that provides a beginner’s look at theatrical forms and practices, dramatic literature, performance theory, and performance history, either rooted in or relevant to theatre in India.  In this online form, this resource hopes to address some of the problems inherent to the academic study of theatre, in general, some of which are particularly vexing with respect to the study of theatre in India.

Kathakali: Dushasanavadham

Theatre must be seen and heard, at a minimum, and there are good reasons to say it must be smelled, tasted, and touched, as well.  No book, no matter how floridly written, no matter how lavishly illustrated, communicates the tempo, the volume, the peculiar energy of a kathakali performance.  American students who first encounter kathakali only in a photograph with a few paragraphs of description and analysis often end up with less appreciation for the form than when they had never heard of it.  The best remedy, of course, is a trip to the Kerala Kalamandalam in southern India to see kathakali up close.  This resource can’t make that happen, but it can integrate text, images, audio, and video in a way that no printed book can, and this approach to studying theatre better introduces students to the dynamic flow of performances.

Existing online, as it does, this resource is also a living textbook.  New ideas and new approaches to topics must wait for enough new ideas and new approaches to justify a new edition (and a new price) of a printed text.  This resource is always in development.

râs lila

Râs Lila Actors

This Introduction to Theatre in India text tries not to be a catalog of forms.  James Brandon’s Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre and Samuel Leiter’s Encyclopedia of Asian Theatre adequately catalog the major types of theatre in India, and these catalogs serve a very useful purpose.  However, this Introduction presumes that neither a teacher nor a student can understand and appreciate kathakali without a familiarity with the content of the Mahabharata and the multi-faceted significance of the Mahabharata in India for the last two thousand years.  Nor can a person understand râs lila performances without knowing something of Krishna bhakti.  Likewise, the various manifestations of street theatre in India require a discussion of their setting in India’s communist movements.

Nor is this resource a history of theatre in India.  A few histories of theatre in India already exist, and this resource relies on them.  Such books, along with other scholarly material, are included in Further Reading notes throughout this resource, and in this project’s general bibliography.

In order to serve theatre teachers who have no grounding in any part of India, but who feel an interest or a responsibility to include topics of Indian theatre in their courses, this online Introduction textbook aspires to offer a planned approach to theatre in India: not a catalogue of forms, or a historical survey, but a syllabus—a pedagogically useful coordination of history, theory, literature, and culture that promotes a broad understanding of theatre and how it operates in Indian contexts.

Towards these objectives, this resource will be, admittedly, incomplete both with respect to the forms it catalogs and with respect to the history that it surveys.  The project recommends items for Further Reading with a conscious appreciation for the limitations of any single resource.

Because this text is intended for English-speaking audiences with little familiarity with India, and because of the limits that web browsers generally place on diacritical markings and Roman characters, the transliterations here try to approximate standard phonetic approximations of words from Indian languages, with very limited use of diacritical marks. For readability’s sake, this text also avoids some of the web practices that employ capital letters, double consonants, and so forth, to render terms from Indian languages in Roman alphabet. Hence, Natyashastra, rather than Nâṭyaśâstra or nATyashAstra. Exceptions are made for words that might, otherwise, be confused. Rasa and râs, for instance.

Living on the Internet, as it does, this text need never be ‘finished’.  As it is now, this is a very young project that makes no pretense about its state of development.  This is very much a work in progress, and not much progress has been made, yet.


Further Reading

Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, “Desperately Seeking Asia: A Survey of Theatre History Textbooks”, Asian Theatre Journal 14.2 (1997): 224.

Steve Tillis, “Theatre History’s ‘View of the World’”, TDR 48.3 (2004): 6-10.