Bengal Theater Politics of Rebellion
Uploaded by sanity4now on Oct 26, 2011
This paper discusses the development of theater in Bengal and the political plays performed there.
India has a rich theatrical tradition, one that, according to legend, is divine in origin; the result of a “riot in heaven.” (Bharucha, p. 1). When the Silver Age of the world overtook the Golden Age, men grew addicted to sensual pleasures; they became greedy, angry and jealous of one another. Seeing this, the God Indra begged Brahma, the Creator, for some form of recreation that would be accessible to everyone, no matter what their social class. Brahma agreed, and wrote a fifth Veda. He extracted the elements of speech, sentiment, song and mime from the other four Vedas and created “Natyaveda,” or the holy book of dramaturgy. He asked Indra to pass the book to those Gods who were, among other things, “free from stage fright.” But the Gods were unable to act the play, and so it was entrusted to a man, Bharata, and thus theater was born: a gift from the gods to men. (“Performing Arts in India,” PG).
The legend is wonderful, but it also illustrates one of the problems with the study of Indian theater: the tendency of Westerners to see Indian theater as “dangerous,” mysterious and exotic, something so far outside their own experience as to be unknowable. The West tends to fabricate illusions about the Eastern theater rather than actually studying its history, working conditions, and different dramatic forms. (Bharucha, pp. 2-3).
This paper looks beyond the myth and illusion to the history of theater in Bengal, and specifically to the theater as used by activists to support political ideologies.
Our discussion of Bengal theater centers on Calcutta, where most of the plays are produced. The earliest Indian plays were Sanskrit dramas, and “were essentially a reflection of Brahmanical thought.” (Bharucha, p. 7). They were enjoyed by the intelligencia and the aristocracy because the plays mirrored their values, glorified the class system, and essentially confirmed their position in society. The Sanskrit plays were far removed from life as the vast majority of Indians knew it, and its irrelevance meant that the form was already dying by the time of the Muslim invasion. By the time the British arrived in 1757, the only theater left was Jatra.
“Jatra” is a form of...