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Манас 5 (2019), 1.

Публикувано в 01.12.2019

ISSN: 2367-6256

Димитрова, Диана. Разбирането на „индийското“ и съвременната индийска драма. – Във: Манас: Индия в българската наука - Втора национална конференция, Том 5, 1, 2019.

2019 / Том 5 / Брой 1 : Индия в българската наука - Втора национална конференция

Разбирането на „индийското“ и съвременната индийска драма

Диана Димитрова


Тази статия изследва съвременната хинди драма във връзка с идеята за „индианството“. Авторът разисква „индианството“ и драмата на хинди, като разсъждава върху културните елементи, вдъхновили растежа на хинди театъра.


Основен текст

Rethinking “Indianness”  

The notion of “Indianness” as a constructed collective cultural identity is not to be defined in simple terms. It should be emphasized that “Indianness” is not an academic category that exists in real life. Rather, it is a concept that is present and identified in ideologically coloured discourses.  Furthermore, it constantly undergoes changes and transformation over time – in this way it is being shaped by the ideological notions and positions during a specific period. Benedict Anderson has spoken of the notion of ‘imagined communities’ and the ways in which this concept constitutes is a key-notion by means of which we can imagine nationalism (Anderson, 1983). Another influential scholar, Stuart Hall, has pointed to the composite character of cultural identity of individuals nowadays as constantly varying and oscillitating between different positions (Hall 2000, 595-634). I have discussed the intrinsic links between nationalism and identity with regard to interpreting otherism and otherness (Dimitrova 2014, 1-16).

If we assess the inferences of all three contributions mentioned above, we may consider looking into the presence of a ‘national’ or ‘collective cultural identity.’ This collective cultural identity is not pertinent to Indian reality only – it is to be seen in all national and cultural formations and has some shared characteristics. Thus, it is informed by multiple strands, and it is not fixed, but constantly evloving, and most importantly, it is always ‘imagined’ and shaped by our ideologies – to be always reinvented and rethought in our narratives, be it social, cultural, economic or academic. Thus, we may state that the only way to think of ‘collective cultural identity’, in this case “Indianness” would be to discuss specific texts and discourses while always considering the specific cultural, historic, religious and socio-economic discursive context (Dimitrova 2017, 1-11). Thus, I will proceed to study Hindi drama and how it has been defined by the idea of “Indianness” – or constructed and imagined collective Indian cultural identity – that is present in specific ideological discourses in a particular historical period.


Hindi Drama

The growth of Hindi drama is to be seen in the context of the emergence of British colonial state (Gaeffke 1978, 93-5). The Indian elite came to know major works of European theatre through English literature and the English translations of European drama. This familiarity with European dramatic literature resulted in the establishment of many professional theatrical groups in Calcutta in 1835 (Gaeffke 1978, 93-5). Hindi professional theatre, however, came into being only after Independence in 1947. Peter Gaeffke points to the lesser influence of British education and economics in the Hindi speaking area than in Bengal and Maharashtra. He also seeks to explain the lack of professional theatre in the Hindi-speaking area as the result of the strong presence of Muslims in North India in the past centuries and of what he considers a culture that took no interest in theatre. Thirdly, he states that Hindi dramatists did not rework creatively the tradition of nauṭaṅkī (“name of a type of folk-drama in Brajbhāṣā or Khaṛī Bolī languages on legendary themes with music”) up to the 1960s (Gaeffke 1978, 93-5).

Gaeffke argues that the Parsi theatre and the folk dramatic tradition rāslīlā (“Krishna's round love-dance with the cowherd girls of Braj”) and nauṭaṅkī were the sole thriving theatrical forms during the 19th century. He considers the Parsi theatre as not influential enough to prompt the development of professional Hindi drama, as its main preoccupation was commercial success and as its language until the 1910 was Urdu, and not Hindi.[1] This point of view has been questioned by Kathryn Hansen and Jan Marek who point to the influence of both the Parsi theatre and Urdu court drama on the growth of Hindi drama (Hansen n.d., 43-63; Marek 1984, 117-28; Dimitrova 2014, 84-99). Thus, we may argue that not the existence of Parsi theatre and Urdu-Islamic culture, but rather their erasing from the Hindi tradition which had begun to be increasingly understood as mainly Hindu and neo-Sanskritic, may be the reason for the uneven growth of Hindi professional drama in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rethinking of the Hindi dramatic tradition as a neo-Sanskritic one should be understood in the context of the emergence of Hindi-Urdu nationalism and the linking of the Hindi language with ‘Hindu-ness’ and of the Urdu language – with Islam (Orsini 2002, 176-93; Dimitrova 2014, 84-99).

Thus, even though Western drama, Western education and the consolidation of Hindi as a literary language are essential to the growth of Hindi theatre, they should be discussed together with all the other elements that informed its rise (Dimitrova 2014, 84-99).

The dramatic achievement of Bharatendu Harishcandra (1850-1885), Jayshankar Prasad (1889-1937), Laksminarayan Mishra (1903-1987), Mohan Rakesh (1925-1972), Bhuvaneshvar (1912/4-1957), and Upendranath Ashk (1910-1996) denote significant milestones in the history of Hindi drama from the 1880s and up to the 1960s (Dimitrova 2004, 11-37; Dimitrova 2008, 3-15). These dramatists created historical and social problem plays reflecting on questions topical of the day. While Bharatendu, Prasad and Rakesh made their dramatic figures speak a highly Sanskritized Hindi, Mishra, Bhuvaneshvar and Ask used a more easily understood Hindustani full of Urdu words. The use of highly Sanskritized vocabulary and the glorification of the great Hindu past together with the employment of stylistic devices of classical Sanskrit drama gave rise to the neo-Sanskritic drama of Hindi. It has greatly impacted the development of Hindi theatre and has received much acclaim by the critics (Dimitrova 2004, 11-37; Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).    

After the 1950s, naturalistic Hindi theatre, which interpreted social issues topical of the day, became prominent and most representative. The ideology of Progressivism stimulated playwrights to link issues in the family to major social questions. The dramas of Upendranath Ashk and Bhuvaneshvar are most influential in this period (Dimitrova 2004, 11-37; Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).

In the 1960s there was a new ideological trend which resulted in new thems and new theatrical techniques. Many Hindi dramatists were interested in an alternative to the dominant position of Western theatre and sought to create nativistic plays by rethinking themes from folk theatre. In North India, most influential are the dramas of Habib Tanvir and Shanta Gandhi (Dimitrova 2004, 11-37; Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).


Rethinking “Indianness” and Hindi theatre

Western dramatic school and naturalistic Hindi drama were essential to the rise of contemporary theatre in Hindi. Indian criticism, however, considered Western influence deeply rooted in British colonialism in India. This is why the notion of ‘Western’ also came to be perceived as ‘non-Indian’ in the field of literature and culture. ‘Indianness’ was envisioned as Hindi, Hindu and neo-Sanskritic (Dimitrova 2014, 84-99). This resulted in a negative stance toward naturalistic Hindi drama and naturalistic playwrights, as their work was informed by the legacy of Western theatre. 

Naturalistic Western theatre aimed at depicting the characters’ social universe in a realistic way. In this way, the impact of Western theatre is also apparent in the fact that all playwrights discussed critique social evils of society in India of their times, and expose social injustice and corruption in their dramas (Dimitrova 2017, 77-92). In Hindi drama, we can consider Bhuvaneshvar as a recipient of Strindberg’s dramaturgical genius. In his work he discusses difficult relations between husband and wife in marriage.[2] Thus, we can find many similarities in subject matter and dramaturgical technique as regards Bhuvaneshvar’s plays Sṭāīk (Strike), 1938 and Lāṭī (Lottery), 1935 and Strindberg’s Play with Fire, 1892, and Dance of Death, 1902 (Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).

Similarly, Ashk was inspired by Ibsen's dramas and critiqued women’s oppression by the system and pleaded for women’s rights. In this way, we may draw a parallel between Ashk’s drama Uān (Flight), 1950, and Alag alag rāste (Separate Ways), 1954,[3] and Ibsen’s A Doll House, 1879 (Dimitrova 2008, 49-71: Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).

Hindi theatre is indebted to Western drama, as naturalistic Hindi theatre and the sophisticated and mature plays of Ashk and Bhuvaneshvar were influenced by European dramatics. These playwrights wrote in the immediate decades before and after Independence. These times involved the historical and political struggle for Indian independence, which gave birth to nationalistic movements and to strong anti-Western attitudes (Dimitrova 2017, 77-92).

We may argue that the strife for a culturally independent India did not show any liking for naturalistic Hindi drama and naturalistic playwrights. The dominant position of Western world views was soon countered by the hegemony of Sanskritic or Brahmanic revivalist agendas (Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).

 This new ideology was essential to promoting Prasad’s dramaturgy which was “neo-Sanskritic” and which instilled admiration for the ideas of Brahmanic revivalism.  It was instrumental in the construction of this new neo-Sanskritic cultural identity. Similarly, theatrical establishments, such as the Academy of Music and Drama and the National School of Drama, which were founded in the late 1950s, did not endorse the naturalistic plays of Bhuvaneshvar and Ashk, who proclaimed openly their admiration for European theatre. We may state here that ideological discourse imagined “Indianness” as neo-Sanskritic. Therefore, the neo-Sankritic play could speak for “Indianness” while naturalistic drama was considered ideologically as ‘Western’, and thus ‘non-Indian’ (Dimitrova 2017, 77-92).

Dramatists, such as Ashk and Bhuvaneshvar did not idelaize traditional Hindu practices and values. This is why their dramatic production was not considered to be in harmony with the ideological narratives pertaining to Hindi theatre during this period. They aimed at exposing and critiquing what they considered conservative and outdated Hindu traditions and to prpagate values that were instilled by Western thought. As their plays could not speak for “Indianness” along the lines of the dominant ideological narratives, they were marginalized and even excluded from the canon (Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).

The negative views on Western influence, aesthetic and ideals in Indian nationalistic critical discourse resulted in cultural and literary innovations and a new rethinking of “Indianness” after the 1950s. This rejection of everything Western permeated the field of Indian art and Indian drama as well. Deśīvād or nativism is a literary and cultural movent which should be understood as militating against both the Anglicized and the Sanskritized elites of contemporary society. It empahsized the important role of the language of the common people in the creation of art. Many Indian intellectuals have welcomed it at the beginning as a way to free a formerly colonized nation from the dominant position of Anglo-American universalistic critical discourse (Prasanna 1997, 95-100; Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).  However, they have later considered it to constitute “indigenism” and cultural nationalism leading to marginalizing the pluralistic and multi-stranded Indian literary culture (Prasanna 1997, 95-100, Dimitrova 2006, 173-83).



It would be difficult to rethink the complex character of the notions of “Indianness” and the ways in which it has shaped Indian drama without discussing the articles of two Indian intellectuals – Prasanna and Girish Karnad and their views on “Indianness” and the plight of Indian drama. At first, it may seem, as if they expounded two different ideological points of view.

Prasanna gives vent to his disillusionment with the establishment of literary criticism and the ideological discourses which asked dramatists to write according to the prescribed nativistic genre for their region in order to qualify for a prize or an award. Playwrights were required to create in the mode of folk theatre traditions, and influential critics propagated this new theatrical policy.[4] The National School of Drama and the Academy of Music and Drama organized forums and bestowed prizes and awards on pslywrights following these new guidelines of creating a deśī (“national”) theatre (Prasanna 1997, 95-100).

Girish Karnad, on the other hand views critically the blind copying of Western models by dramatists and appears to propagate a naturalistic mode, which is more ‘deśī/nativistic’. In his article Theatre in India, Karnad argues that this is one of the major reasons for the plight of Hindi drama in modern India (Karnad 1989, 331-53). He states that modern Hindi drama is untruthful as reagrds the essence of “Indianness.” Thus, it propagates double set of values in the life of the urban middle-class and affirming Western values of equality, individualism, secularism, or free competition in public while holding on to caste and family loyalties at home. Karnad argues against the blind copying of Western interior and props for the setting of the interior of an Indian house. At the same time, Karnad also implies that Hindi theatre needs to adapt to the world of social and family life in India, which is marked by hierarchies (Karnad 1989, 331-53).

Prasanna’s and Karnad’s views are important for our reflection on the plight of Hindi theatre. We may interpret their remarks in the light of the mis-representation of the Indian cultural ‘habitus’ or “Indianness” (Dimitrova 2017, 77-92). Furthermore, they do not reflect on the new developments on the theatrical stage, for example the increasing popularity and significance of new dramas by women directors as well as the success of performances staged by community theatre-activists re-enacting the traditional versions of the Rāmāyaa and the Mahābhārata in a new way (Bhatia, 2004: Dimitrova 2017, 77-92). We may argue that these dramas rethink “Indianness” in an innovative way and offer new possibilities of interpretation of the themes. They involve women spectators in thought-provoking performances that aim at questioning and challenging the status-quo, thus representing a truly living theatrical tradition for both urban and village audiences. In my view, it would be impossible to rethink “Indianness” and modern Hindi drama without also taking into account the important role of community theatre of today.





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[1] Some of the well-known Parsi companies were active in Bombay (nowadays Mumbai), Lucknow, Varanasi and Delhi (Gaeffke, 1978, 94-5).

[2] My discussion is based on several texts. For more information, see R. Bedār and R. Śarmā (1992, 45-51.53-61.95-103. 87-903).

[3] My analysis refers to the plays published in 1954 and 1950 respectively and included in the newer editions of 1986 and 1972.  For detailed information, see U. Aśk (1986) and U. Aśk (1972).

[4] Prasanna refers to the literary critics Suresh Avasthi and Nemicandra Jain. See Prasanna, “A Critique of Nativism in Contemporary Indian Theatre”, Nativism: Essays in Criticism, ed. Makarand Paranjape (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1997) 95.

За автора

Диана Димитрова e проф. д-р в Монреалски университет, Канада