Theatre The evolution of theatre in Bangladesh, which follows more or less the South Asian tradition with a European mix later, may be narrated in terms of three distinct streams: (i) sanskrit theatre and derivatives, (ii) the indigenous theatre and (iii) the European theatre. In the South Asian tradition dramatic conflict is not an indispensable structural element.
Sanskrit theatre and derivatives Ancient period With the Gupta annexation of the greater portion of Bengal by the 4th century AD, the Aryan culture of the upper Gangetic plain penetrated into the region. The flourishing trade of Bengal led to the rise of urban centres patronising art and culture. It is quite logical to believe that in such urban centres, performances of classical Sanskrit theatre would be a part of cultural life, at least among the urbane classes of the society. A few literary evidences strongly support this assumption. The most important of these is a Sanskrit play titled Lokananda by chandragomi (6th c), a reputed Buddhist grammarian from Bengal. Lokananda is structured in four acts with a prologue. The play must have been popular, for I-Tsing states, 'people all sing and dance to it throughout the five countries of India'.
The intimate political connection of Bengal (or parts of it) with the Aryan culture continued till the mid-8th century, during which period Harsavardhan of Northern India, Bhaskaravarman of Kamarupa, Yashovarman of Kanyakubja and Lalitaditya of Kashmir exerted great influence. Sanskrit theatre got a great patron in Harsavardhan who was himself a renowned Sanskrit playwright (with plays such as Nagananda to his credit). Bhavabhuti, the author of Malatimadhava, was the court-poet of Yasovarman. However, the most interesting account of a performance is recorded by the Kashmiri poet Kalhan in his Rajatarabgini. According to him, Jayapida, the grandson of Lalitaditya, witnessed a performance given by a highly skilled dancer named Kamala in the temple of Kartikeya in the city of pundravardhana. The performance was given in accordance with Bharat's Natyashastra (a Sanskrit treatise on theatre ascribed to Bharat).
Nothing much is known about Sanskrit theatre during the Pala Rule in Bengal (mid-8th to mid-12th c). The sole evidence is the Tibetan historian Taranath's comments about 'a grand dramatic performance that formed part of seasonal festival' in the city of vikramapura, which clearly indicates the existence of a flourishing tradition of theatre.
The Senas, with their strong Brahmanical bias and distinct south Indian background, extended widespread patronage to performances derived from Sanskrit tradition. King vijayasena (c 1096-1159) and Bhavadev Bhatta (minister of King Hari Varman and a noted scholar) both claim to have provided for a great number of deva-dasis in the temples established by them. Highly skilled in song, dance and music in the classical tradition as formulated in the Natyashastra, the deva-dasis gave public performances in the temples and also private performances at royal courts. There also exist a substantial number of references from various religious tracts of the period in which nata (actor) has been cited as a separate class. Halayudh Mishra's sekhashubhodaya, a historical kavya or poem, written in Sanskrit, confirms the existence of nata (actors) and nartaki (danseuse) in the Sena court. vidyapati's Purus Pariksa also refers to a performance by an actor, named Gandharva, in the court of King laksmanasena. Prevalence of classical Sanskrit theatre in the Sena court can also be inferred from govardhan acharya's poetic work titled aryasaptashati. Shlokas 174 and 538 of Aryasaptashati clearly refer to acting, curtain, and actress, which obviously imply the existence of Sanskrit theatre in the court of the Sena rulers.
Ragatarangini, a critical work on music composed in 1160 by Lochan Pandit, refers to an earlier text titled Tambaru-nataka. It is possible that Tambaru-nataka was a critical work on dramaturgy. However, the most important material for study of theatre during this period is a Sanskrit performance-text titled Gitagovindam (c 1200 AD) by jaydev, the court-poet of Laksmanasena. In the Gitagovindam Jaydev blended the existing popular tale of radha and krishna with one of the uparupakas (minor type of plays) of the classical Sanskrit tradition and set a new trend, which was to be echoed in the centuries that followed. If oral traditions have any historical validity, then Jaydev performed the Gitagovindam as a singer with his wife Padmavati as a dancer.
The Gitagovindam is composed in twelve parts and features three characters: Krishna, Radha, and Sakhi. The characters may be performed by three dancers (as in the case of Manipuri Rasa Nrtya still performed in Bangladesh) or by a single dancer (as it was possibly the case with Jaydev and Padmavati). The dancers are required to sing their lines simultaneously as they dance with mimetic gestures (angika abhinaya). In between the songs, the sutradhar (narrator) is required to render narration in verse, in which he describes part of the action, comments on the same and sometimes also introduces the characters and describes their mental states. The structure of performance follows the general pattern of Sanskrit theatre. Clearly, the text bears remarkable similarity with sabgit-natakas (verse-plays) of the Nepalese court. The Gitagovindam and the Aryasaptashati bear evidence that in the court of Laksmanasena, the love theme of Radha and Krishna, performed by courtesans, was indeed a regular feature. Jaydev's text stood out as the model, to be emulated by the later poets in vernacular during the course of the following centuries.
Medieval period' Sanskrit theatre received a serious setback towards the beginning of the13th century when the Turkish invasion wrested north-western Bengal from the Senas. However, Sagaranandi composed a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, titled Natakalaksanaratnakosa in the same century. The work cites quite a few play-texts, which were also composed. Nothing more can be deduced with certainty, but the very existence of a critical work on drama presupposes the continuance of the tradition of Sanskrit theatre in Bengal, possibly under the patronage of Hindu feudal lords and in Hindu kingdoms.
From the 16th century onwards, literary evidence appears in greater number. Towards the end of the same century, King laksmana manikya of bhulua composed two plays, Vikhyata-vijaya and Kuvalayashva-charita, his son, Amara Manikya composed one (Vaikuntha-vijaya) and a court poet, kavitarkik, composed another, Kautuka-ratnakara. This evidence proves unequivocally the existence of Sanskrit court theatre in Bengal. It continued in the 18th century because of krishnachandra roy, tributary king of Nabadwip (southern part of west bengal). Chandi (1760), the unfinished play of his court poet bharatachandra ray , which is based on the mythological tale of Mahisasura Vadha (the slaying of the buffalo shaped asura), displays remarkable influence of Sanskrit dramaturgy, although the play is not composed entirely in Sanskrit. Although the play was never performed, the court of Krishnanagara is known to have produced another play of similar characteristics named Chitra-yajva by Vidyanath Vachaspati, in 1777/78.
Away from the court, rupa goswami, one of chaitanya's close associates based at Vrindavan, composed three Sanskrit plays, Bidagdha Madhava (1524), Lalita Madhava (1529), Dankeli-kaumudi (1549), as well as a critical work on Sanskrit dramaturgy, Nataka Chandrika. At least three more plays were written outside Vrindavan: Jagannathavallabha by Ramananda Ray, chaitanyachandrodaya by kavikarnapur and Sangit Madhava by Govinda Das. The plays by Rupa Goswami and Ramananda Ray's are all based on mythological tales of Krishna. Kavi Karnapur's play is based on the life of Chaitanya. Of these plays, only Jagannathavallabha is known to have been performed. All save Govinda Das's play were translated into Bangla in the 17th century. It is not known if any of these translations were performed.
Modern period Translations of Sanskrit play-texts continued in the 19th century. A few of these are Krishna Mishra's Prabodhachandrodaya, kalidasa's Abhijvana-shakuntala (1848) and Ratnavali (1849). Scholars in Bengal composed quite a few Sanskrit texts in the modern period as well. A few examples of these are Amara-mabgala by panchanan tarkaratna (published c 1913), Nala-damayantiya and Syamantakoddhar by Kalipada Tarkacharya, etc. The tradition of Sanskrit theatre significantly influenced the initial phase of Bangla plays. Jogendranath Gupta's Kirtibilas, credited as the first original Bangla play and the first tragedy, makes use of the Nandi, the Sutradhara and Nati. The first Bangla play to be performed on stage, ramnarayan tarkaratna's Kulinkulasarvasva (composed in 1854, performed in 1857), also borrows from the Sanskrit tradition in its use of the Nandi, the Sutradhara and the Nati.
With rising social consciousness and effects of western education, the conventions of Sanskrit theatre were seen to be ineffective in portraying the social ethos of the period. michael madhusudan dutt (1824-1873), the literary giant of this period, successfully bridged the transition to an urban theatre independent of Sanskrit influence by introducing techniques of European dramaturgy. From the mid-19th century onwards, Sanskrit theatre and its derivatives ceased to be an effective force in the theatre of Bengal.
Indigenous theatre The term 'indigenous theatre' (generally known as 'folk' theatre) encompasses all forms of theatre which originated in the region of Bengal. Unlike the Sanskrit theatre, the indigenous theatre was always in direct contact with the people and was often created and supported by them. However, it was not closed to the refined techniques of the Sanskrit theatre. In the indigenous theatre, the performers include actors, dancers, singers, musicians, and puppeteers (both male and female). Their performance is not restricted to dialogue in prose but is comprehensive and wide-ranging. It includes any one or more of the following elements: (i) dance, (ii) instrumental music and (iii) speech rendered in prose, verse or lyric, either in the form of narration or that of dialogue. The indigenous theatre of Bangladesh has developed in distinct forms, which can be loosely categorised into (i) the Narrative, (ii) the Song-and-Dance, (iii) the Processional, and (iv) the Supra-personae.
Narrative forms In the narrative forms of theatre, the lead-narrator (gayen) describes an event, portrays various characters related to the event and enacts the action, all in the third person. While engaged as described above, s/he partly speaks his/her lines in prose, partly recites in verse, and partly sings his/her story. S/he is assisted by the choral singers-cum-musicians (dohars), who employ musical instruments (Mridabga and Mandira) and sing choral passages. The gayen carries a chamar (whisk) in religious performances and occasionally dances while singing. Usually, the performer makes effective use of vocal inflections and physical gestures in his/her portrayal of the characters. Sometimes s/he also readjusts his/her basic costume, and uses a few props to make the portrayal more effective.
The earliest evidence of narrative theatre in Bengal can be traced to the charyapada or charyagiti, a form of songs popular in Bengal from the 9th to the 12th century AD. These songs were composed by Tantric Buddhist mendicants to expound their religious doctrine. They were presented to the lay populace with the help of dance, in a manner similar to the charya dance still seen in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
Ethnological studies indicate a long tradition of narrative theatre in the Natha cult. These performances were based on oral compositions of two distinct groups: (i) those dealing with the origin of the Natha siddhas and the subsequent rescue of Minanatha by his disciple Goraksanatha from the enticement of worldly pleasure and (ii) those dealing with the exploits of Queen Maynamati and her son King Govindachandra (or Gopichandra), the disciple of Hadipa. Narrative performances based on the Maynamati-Gopichandra legend were possibly created sometime immediately after the 11th century and gained wide currency all over northern India. On the other hand, the performances based on the Goraksanatha-Minanatha legend are more difficult to date. On the assumption that the Natha cult evolved sometime in the 9th century, it is possible to place the earliest performances of the Goraksanatha-Minanatha legend in the 10th century.
None of the extant literary and liturgical texts of the Dharma cult can be dated beyond the 17th century. However, it is very much possible that in the 12th century, when the cult was definitely in existence, there did exist a body of oral narratives on which the later texts were built. Extant texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that celebrations of the ancient period included narrative performances of oral compositions.
A large number of orally composed folk tales still prevailing at the popular level, such as Madhumalar Kechchha, Sakhisona, Malavchakanyar Kechchha, Shit-Basanta, Kavchanamala and Malatikusumamala, indicate that their original nuclei were created in the 12th century or even earlier. All the tales are secular in content, and some of them are still performed in Bangladesh. It has been only since the first half of the 20th century that they have been scribed and published in editions such as Thakurmar Jhuli. It is reasonable to believe that, for a predominantly non-literate audience, stories would be told rather than read, and the most expedient way to commit a story to memory is to have it composed in verse. Furthermore, terra-cotta plaques depicting secular (Sanskrit Pavchatantra) stories have also been discovered in the temple of Somapura Monastery. Therefore, it can be reasonably argued that the secular tales of the ancient period were orally composed in rhymed metrical verse and rendered as narrative performance.
Various political and social factors, including state-patronised Brahmanical hegemony in the 12th century and the advent of the Muslims in the early13th century, caused a qualitative change in the culture of Bengal. Consequently, there was a gradual acculturation, decay and transformation in Buddhist, Dharma and Natha cult performances. On the other hand, an entirely new set of narrative performances appeared in the indigenous theatre of Bengal. Distinguishing between their subject matter, these can be divided into three categories: (1) performances glorifying the Aryan pantheon and legendary heroes as recounted in the ramayana and the mahabharata, (2) performances glorifying the indigenous pantheon as recounted in the mangalkavya and (3) performances glorifying Muslim legendary heroes. Besides, the tradition of secular narratives continued as before, invigorated by interaction with the above. In this context, it is important to remember that early bangla literature was dependent on lyric. Therefore, literary compositions of the period under study should be held as performance-texts, not merely pages of reading material valid only for literary analysis.
Largely based on the Bhagavata, srikrishnavijay was composed in 1473-80. Therefore, it is very much possible that narrative performance based on oral compositions of Krishna legends existed from earlier times, probably from the beginning of the 13th century. The translation of Valmiki's Ramayana in the first half of 15th century also presupposes the existence in the 13th and 14th centuries of narrative performances drawing from oral texts based on the exploits of Ramachandra.
Initiated in the early 16th century by Chaitanya (1486-1533), Gaudiya vaisnavism made a significant and popular contribution to the theatre of Bengal by giving rise to the narrative form known as Lila Kirtan, which had its formal inception at the famous festival of Kheur in 1576 or slightly after. Narottama Das, who is credited with having given structure to Lila Kirtan, arrived at its structure by stringing together brief Vaisnavite devotional songs known as padavalis, to produce a coherent narrative based on a particular lila of Radha and Krishna. He synthesised the indigenous musical tradition of Bengal with the north Indian classical tradition and arrived at its unique blend.
vijay gupta's Padmapurana (1494) and bipradas pipilai's Manasavijaya (end of 15th c) are clear indications that narrative performances on the serpent goddess manasa were very much in existence in the 15th century. However, narrative performances based on oral compositions were possibly prevalent in Bengal in the 13th and 14th centuries, before the composition of written texts. From the 16th century onwards, there appear a sizeable number of mangalakavyas on Manasa, the most important of which was Narayan Dev's Padmapurana (first half of 16th c) and Ketakadas Ksemananda's Manasamabgala (mid-17th c). Besides existing written texts, quite a few popular versions based on oral compositions also came up during this period. Vijay Gupta's Padmapurana is still performed in south-western Bangladesh as Rayani Gan, while an adaptation of Narayan Dev's text is performed in north Bengal as Padmapurana Gan.
The 16th century is also well known as the era of mangalakavyas on chandi, for it was in this period that these gained widest currency. The most renowned mangalakavya on the goddess is the one composed by Kavikankana mukundaran chakravarti (c 1555-56). The signature-piece (bhanita) indicates that the poet himself performed Chandimabgala and parts of it were rendered in lyric. On a few occasions his signature-pieces suggest that the poet was in the company of skilled musicians (kalanta, lit. well versed in classical music) and actors (natuya). Another section indicates that the performance was composed of git (song), badya (music), natya (acting) and dance, executed by actors and skilled musicians. This textual evidence proves that Chandimangala was given in the narrative form in the 16th century.
References in chaitanya bhagavata (Part I, Chapters 2 and 13; 1535-36) indicate the existence of Mabgal Chandir Git (narrative performance based on eulogies of Mangal Chandi), in the first half of the 16th century. The same text also testifies that narrative performances of Shiver Git, based on oral compositions in praise of shiva, existed in the first half of the 16th century and possibly earlier. A lone performer, who danced and played the damaru (drum) as he sang, would perform in a courtyard.
The appearance of yusuf-zulekha (c 1390-1410) marks the entry of an entirely new element, the Perso-Arabic influence, in the history of performance in Bengal. rasulbijay (1474), which recounts the life of the Prophet, emphasised the keen interest of the Muslims in exerting their distinct identity by attempting to create a tradition parallel to the Hindu puranas. Both the texts were composed under court patronage of the Muslim rulers and point to the beginning of narrative performances based on Islamic root-paradigms. By the 16th century, a large number of texts dealing with Islamic cosmology and legends began to appear. Some of these (such as Maktul Hosain, Kashemer Ladai, Karbala and janganama), focus particularly on the pathetic deaths of Imam Hasan and Imam Hosain and the revenge of their legendary half-brother, Hanifa. Others (nabi bangsha, Rasulbijay and amir hamza) illustrate a vast area, often beginning with the creation of the world, running right through legends related to various prophets, and ending with the life and accomplishments of the Prophet. The textual composition suggests that most of these were given as narrative performance.
Besides the two groups of texts mentioned above, there also evolved a third, the stories of which were indigenous in origin. Based on various legends associated with a number of Muslim saints (pirs), these can be best termed 'miracles of saints'. Most of these texts, composed in rhymed metrical verse, profess the efficacy of the cult of their respective pirs ie, Khwaja Khizir, Pir Madar, Gazi Pir, Satya Pir and Manik Pir. They seek to generate devotion in the cult followers and warn the non-believers of dire consequences.
Khwaja Khizir is the earliest Muslim saint whose miracles gained wide currency in the form of narrative (Khwaja Khizirer Jari) and processional performance (Beda Bhasan). Historical records on the celebration of Beda Bhasan by the ruling elite in 1626-27 make it possible to believe that the celebration was very much in existence by the mid-16th century. The hey-day of the cult and its performances were the 17th and the 18th centuries. On the other hand, granting of a special privilege to the followers of Pir Madar by a Mughal viceroy of Bengal in 1659 (which included taking out processions in honour of the pir) indicate that narrative and processional performances related to the cult must have evolved by 1600 AD. Celebrations in honour of Pir Madar on the day of the full moon in Magh (mid-January to mid-February), accompanied by processions with bamboo poles and music played on dhak, dhol and kasi, are possibly of earlier origin, dating back to the first half of the 15th century when the cult was first introduced in Bengal. Performances of the cult, which still exist in Bangladesh, are Madariya Michhil, Madar Bansher Gan and Madar Pirer Gan. These performances clearly show that the cult had incorporated elements from Tantric practices. Historical accounts (Risalat al-Shuhada, second half of 15th c), textual evidence (sheikh faizullah's Gazibijay, second half of 16th c), ethnological studies and traditions reveal that the legend related to Pir Gazi arose shortly after 1600 AD. The earliest performance of the cult of Gazi, a narrative form known as gazir gan still seen in Bangladesh today, arose by the mid-17th century. The earliest literary reference to satya pir is to be found in kavi kanka's Vidya-Sundar (1502) while the earliest written text on the miracles of the pir was composed by Dvija Giridhara in 1663. It is believed that a form of narrative performance (Satya Pirer Gan), based on oral compositions, evolved in the second half of the 16th century. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that the performance gained wide currency. Literary references to Manik Pir begin to appear in the first half of the 18th century and extant written texts in his honour were composed in the same century. It is possible that narrative performances based on oral compositions (Manik Pirer Jari) began to develop in the second half of the 17th century.
Secular narrative performances based on folk and fairy tales continued in the medieval period. Chaitanya Bhagavata testifies to the existence of performances known as Yogi Paler Git, Bhogi Paler Git and Mahi Paler Git. However, the most significant development occurred in the independent kingdom of arakan far in the south-east, where Bahram Khan (16th c) composed laily-majnu, a free translation of a Persian poetic text of the same title. Bahram Khan's text is important for it is one of those rare specimens of Bangla literature which end in separation and pathos, marking a sharp departure from the norm of union and fulfilment of desire of the central characters. The text marks the beginning of an entirely new trend of pathetic lore. The same Arakanese court was a fertile ground for a host of Muslim poets, the most famous of whom was alaol (c 1607-1680), whose compositions include masterpieces such as padmavati (1651) and Saiful Muluk-Badiujjamal (1659-69). All these texts are secular and romantic in character. They are also remarkable for drawing their material from Hindi and Persian sources, thus enriching the theatre of Bengal with new vitality. All these texts were performed in narrative form and gradually gained currency among the Muslim population all over Bengal. By the late 18th century, there appeared the pala gan, the form that features the oral version of maimansingha gitika.
Song-and-dance forms A song-and-dance performance (nata-gita) is characterised by dances rendered by performers enacting characters while singing their lines or dancing silently to songs sung by a group of choral singers and musicians.
The charyagiti clearly reveal that song-and-dance performances were very well known among the Tantric Buddhists of the Pala society. Examples can be seen in the song composed by kahnapa (text no 10), which contains the words 'dancing' and 'the profession of acting' as well as in the concluding two lines of another song composed by Vinapa (text no 17) which contains the words 'dancing', 'singing' and 'Buddhist drama'. Sketches of siddhacharyas in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have shown Vinapa and Sarahapa with musical instruments, while Minapa, Dombipa and Jalandharipa are shown in dancing postures. These and other references to performances made in Tantric esoteric texts (such as Guhyasamajatantra) suggest that highly esoteric song-and-dance type of performances, aiming at spiritual liberation, were held in secluded spots at night or in temples. These song-and-dance performances were usually given by a male ascetic with his female partner and were accompanied by song (dohas and charyas sung by fellow ascetics) and dance.
The Tantric Buddhist tradition of song-and-dance performances continued among the followers of the Natha cult in performances such as Yogir Gan and Yugi Parva, still seen in Bangladesh today. A glimpse of ancient song-and-dance performances of the cult can be seen in Goraksanath's performance in the presence of Minanatha as recounted in three narrative texts composed in the 16th century: goraksavijay by Sheikh Faizullah, Gorkha-vijay by Bhimsen Ray and Minachetan by Shyamadas Sen, and a play-text, Goraksa-vijay, by Vidyapati c 1403. Gopichandra Nataka (17th c), another play-text from the Nepalese royal court, further substantiates the contention made above.
Krttivas, in his preface to the Ramayana (1415-1433), records the popularity of song-and-dance performance in the royal court of the Muslim rulers of gauda. The so-called account of ma huan recorded in Ying Yai Sheng Lan (1408-1411) also confirms song-and-dance performance in the Muslim royal court. According to the Chinese text, song-and-dance type of performance was given by 'good singers and dancers' in gorgeous costume 'to enliven drinking and feasting'.
The composition of srikrishnakirtan by c 1400 indicates that, by the 13th century, there existed among the people a type of song-and-dance performance based on oral compositions featuring three characters: Radha, Krishna, and Badai. During performance, the characters danced as they sang their lines. Like the Gitagovindam, these performances could be given by a single performer who would enact all the three characters or by three performers who would enact the characters separately. These were performed in rural festivals or during ritualised worship of deities in temples.
The existence of song-and-dance performances in the early 16th century is substantiated by Chaitanya Bhagavata (II, 18) which elaborately describes Chaitanya and his disciples enacting such a performance. Characters portrayed were Rukmini, Radha, her companion Suprabha, Badai, Kotala, Narada and his follower. One part of the performance featured Rukmini while the other, Radha. The spectators, all Chaitanya's followers, sat on all four sides of the performance space; the green room was situated at a little distance. At least one source of lighting was a torch held by a stagehand who moved with the performers. There exist only two more references to early song-and-dance performances within the fold of Vaisnavism. One is from Sylhet, in the first half of the 16th century, which may have given rise to ghatu gan of mymensingh. The other, from the second half of the same century, to a form referred to as Shekhari Jatra featuring Radha, soon became extinct. By the late 17th century, these early attempts matured into what is known as Pala Kirtana in Bangladesh today.
Supra-personae forms The masked dance of the Gambhira festival was originally an ancient shamanist or spirit cult performance of the Koch community. By the 9th century, the Tantric Buddhists in Bengal assimilated the performance to evolve their own forms of masked dance, which were similar to Astamatrika Dance, Mahakali Pyayakhan, Devi Pyayakhan (Kathmandu, Nepal) and Tibetan Buddhist masked dances. These dances were performed in the Buddhist monasteries during religious festivals, very much as in Tibetan and Nepalese practice. These performances were given at the year-ending celebration of chaitra sangkranti and were given after processional performances.
By the end of the 12th century, when Tantric Saivism in Bengal had assimilated decaying Tantric Buddhism, Buddhist masked dances were also adapted to give rise to Mahakali Pyayakhan, Devi Pyayakhan and similar dances. Tantric Saivite masked dances in Bengal, unlike those of Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), decayed because of Muslim conquest. What remains today can be seen in Mukho Nacha, Kali Kach, Gambhira festival and Sang Jatra.
Performance with scroll painting The existence of patuya sangit (performances with scroll paintings) in ancient Bengal is confirmed by two sources: Yama-pattika as referred to in Harsa-charita (7th c AD) and scroll painting of the santals. Banabhatta (the court-poet of Harsavardhan) in his Harsa-charita briefly describes a popular performance of Yama-pattaka witnessed by Harsavardhan on his way back to the capital after he learnt of the death of his brother. It was given by a performer with the help of a scroll-painting showing Yama, the King of the Underworld. On the other hand, recent ethnographic studies have shown that the Santal people have among them a type of scroll painting representing the origin of life (Ko Reyak Katha) and the passage of the dead from the mortal world to the life beyond (Chaksudan Pat). These too point to the ancient origin of Patuya Gan performances in Bengal. In the medieval period, scroll painting performances eulogising ramachandra, Krishna, Manasa, Chandi were extremely popular. By the 18th century, scroll-painting performances gained popularity even among the Muslims, as evinced by Gazir Pat (scroll-painting performances eulogising Pir Gazi), which can still be seen in Bangladesh today.
Puppet theatre It is not known when puppet theatre was introduced in Bengal. The earliest extant literary evidence of the existence of the form in Bengal is a couplet in Yusuf-Zulekha (1391-1410). As signified there, these performances were given with the help of string puppets. It is possible that orally composed tales of gods and goddesses, such as those of Krishna, Rama, Manasa etc, were produced in these performances. Mukunda Chakravarti's Chandimabgala (1555-56) and krishnadasa kaviraj's chaitanya charitamrita (c 1560-80) definitely point to the existence of puppet theatre during this period. Judging by the popularity of cults and the existing tradition among current performers, it could be safely assumed that these were related to Krishna, Rama, Manasa, Chandi and Chaitanya. Interestingly, no Islamic narrative ever seems to have been performed by puppets in Bengal. String puppets still exist in Bangladesh today.
Processional forms Processional performances are characterised by the use of tableaux, music, song and dance, all of which form a part of large processions (jatra) attended by adherents of a particular religious faith. In many ways, these performances hold the key to the history of indigenous theatre because they brought together all the three types discussed above, to give birth to jatra, the most popular form of the indigenous theatre which can claim to be indeed the national theatre idiom.
From the description provided by fa-hien during his visit to India (399 to 414 AD), it is known that on the 8th day of the second month (roughly the last week of May), a highly popular Buddhist religious festival used to be held in Pataliputra. In it, a number of well-decorated chariots (ratha) with the image of the Buddha and other deities installed within, were drawn through the streets and were accompanied by 'singers and skilful musicians'. Hiuen Tsang witnessed similar festivals at Kanauj and Allahabad. Harsavardhan himself accompanied the procession dressed as Indra, and his friend, Bhaskaravarman, the king of kamarupa (assam), appeared disguised as brahma. Each day of the festival opened with lavish performances of dance and music, vocal and instrumental. I-Tsing also reports about similar processions in samatata (eastern Bangladesh) in the second half of the 7th century. These evidences clearly point to the existence of Buddhist processional performances in the 7th century Bengal, which featured chariots with images of deities, song, music, dance and character impersonation (such as Indra and Brahma). At the end of these processions, masked dance and narrative performances were given in the monasteries. The existence of Matsendranatha Jatra in Nepal makes it possible to believe that the followers of the Natha cult in Bengal may also have developed their own procession in 10th or 11th century.
By the early 12th century, processional performances had spread among the followers of the Dharma cult. Extant literary and liturgical texts and current practice among the followers of the cult indicate that in the 12th century, its followers participated in religious celebrations, which included processional performance. The processions would be led by 'the sandal of Dharma (placed) on a golden palanquin', followed by music (played on various instruments), song and dance of the devotee. The processions also included a sang, ie, a clown with a painted face (or wearing a mask) and dressed as a mythical character. The clown may also be seen today in Dharmer Gajan processions. The clown of ancient Dharmer Gajan processions possibly performed brief mimetic dance pieces which depicted legends related to the cult. In all probability, these performances would begin from the temples of dharma thakur, circumambulate neighbouring habitations and end at the temple again. There, narrative performances and masked dances were held in honour of deities of the cult.
By the end of the 12th century, Tantric Saivism had assimilated the Tantric Buddhist and the Dharma cult processions. Tantric Saivite processions, given as a year-ending celebration of Chaitra Samkranti, included impersonation of various deities, mythical heroes, animals and supernatural beings singing and dancing to music played on drums and cymbals. The processions began from Saivite temples, circumambulated neighbouring habitations and ended at the point of origin. Ritualistic and masked dances would be given at temple precincts in the evening and would continue through the night. Remnants of these ancient performances, known as Shiver Gajan, Niler Gajan, and processions of Sang Jatra and Astak Jatra, can still be seen in Bangladesh.
Possibly around the 14th century, the Shakta cult was beginning to incorporate processional performances into its fold. Kalika-purana specifies that the celebration in honour of Kali (in her manifestation as Durga, the slayer of Mahisasura) is to culminate on the 10th day with a procession for immersion of the idol (visarjana). The procession is to be comprised of virgins and courtesans well-versed in music, performers (nata) and musicians who are to play sangkha, turi, mrdabga and dhak. Others are to carry colourful flags, scatter fluffed rice (khai), flower, dust and mud. It is also prescribed that erotic conduct is to prevail in absolute carnivalesque abandon in order to please the goddess. It is possible, as recent ethnological studies reveal, that some form of performance would also be given in temple precincts after the procession. By the late medieval period, the Sakta cult had developed a large number of processional performances. Bamakesvar-tantra (a Tantric text) specifies sixteen processions to be taken out annually in honour of the goddess Bhagavati.
By the 16th century, processional performances were immensely popular among the Vaisnavites as well. Raghunandan, a famous smrti scholar from 15th-16th century, ruled twelve processions in honour of vishnu. The Vaisnavite processional performances gradually incorporated tableaux of Vaisnavite mythologies placed on chariots drawn by devotees and characters representing major mythological characters accompanying the procession on foot. During his lifetime, Chaitanya brought out processions accompanied by singing and dancing of his followers, for mobilising mass support. Vaisnavite processional performances still exist in Bangladesh today in the form of Janmastami Michhil in dhaka (initiated in 1555) and Nauka-vilas Michhil in tangail (possibly acculturated from ancient Buddhist/Dharma cult practice).
The Vaisnavites (particularly the Gaudiya Vaisnavites) are to be credited with further development of the processional performance. During his residence at Puri, Chaitanya and his followers enacted a curious form of performance, best described as 'environmental', which has been recounted in Chaitanya Charitamrta (Part II, Chapter 15). In one of these, they appeared in a procession at a festival site, dressed as Hanumana and his army of monkeys. There they enacted an excerpt from the Ramayana (the attack on and the destruction of the castle of Lanka), on a locale that was created in advance at the festival site. References to similar performances have also been given in the Chaitanya Bhagavata, where it is described that in their childhood, Nityananda and his friends play-acted various tales of Rama and Krishna. In these, the locale of each scene was created in advance in natural environs in a manner similar to Rama Lila of north India. At some time during the lifetime of Chaitanya, the processional performances got linked with the environmental so that the performers and the spectators moved bodily in procession from one locale to another. Narayan Bhatta, a disciple of the 16th century goswamins or ascetics, Rupa and Sanatana, is credited with having established Bana jatra in the countryside of Braja (north India). In Bana jatra, devotees moved in procession to spots where Krishna lilas are believed to have occurred; in each spot, young boys enacted a particular lila associated with the spot. After Chaitanya's death, processional-environmental performances based on various legends associated with Krishna (such as the slaying of the Kaliya serpent) appear to have continued and can still be seen today in nauka-vilas michhil of Tangail. Some scholars believe that similar performances existed in the Shakta fold as well, in the form of Chandi Jatra, the content of which was based on Chandimangala.
The basic characteristics of these processional-environmental performances were (i) the enactment of each scene in separate out-door environs specially created or adapted from natural sites and (ii) processions of spectators who accompanied the performers from one environment to another. Generally, these performances were given during religious festivities and celebrations as a part of processions in honour of the cult deity. By the end of the medieval period, the Buddhist-Dharma-Natha processional performances of the ancient period (which entailed narrative performances and masked dances at the end of the procession in temples/monasteries) had evolved into Vaisnavite processional-environmental performances (which incorporated performances in specific natural environs). During the evolution, the two performances were linked by the processional performances of the Tantric Saiva-Sakta cult.
By the second half of the 18th century, professional performance troupes began to produce various lilas of Krishna not in actual environs but in nat-mandapas or courtyards of rural homesteads and public grounds, that is, any 'non-environmental' space. More importantly, these began to be given not only on religious festivals but also on other days as desired by sponsors. Generally known as kaliya-daman jatra, these performances may have had some interaction with the court-sponsored Sanskrit theatre of Nabadwip. The kaliya-daman texts were based on Krishna legends, drawn from the puranas and popular sources. Kaliya-daman jatra was predominantly lyrical. The adhikari (regisseur or proprietor of the troupe) played the role of Vrinda (a companion of Radha) or Muni Gonsai (Narada) and guided the entire action like a sutradhara by narrating parts of the action in improvised prose and pre-composed verse and lyric. The other parts were rendered as dialogue between him/her and various characters. Shishuram Adhikari (c mid-18th century) was possibly the earliest exponent of the form. Concurrently with kaliya-daman jatra, a few more forms were also popular in Bengal, all of which were similar in form but varied in content. These were Chaitanya jatra (based on the life of Chaitanya), Chandi jatra (with content drawn from Chandimangala) and Rama jatra (with content drawn from the Ramayana). By the early 19th century there evolved the Bhasan jatra, the content of which was drawn from Manasamabgala. However, vestiges of medieval processional-environmental performances continued with rasa jatra in which the rasa dance of Krishna and the milkmaids was enacted.
Kaliya-daman jatra lost its popularity after 1840s, to be replaced by Krishva jatra, which can still be seen in Bangladesh. Although both the forms were based on Krishna lila, the texts of Krishna jatra were entirely dialogic, with a greater portion being in prose. Its popularity faded after the early 20th century. Similar structural changes affected Chandi jatra and Bhasan jatra as well. The latter still exists in Bangladesh.
The first half of the 19th century ushered in a qualitative transformation in the social life of the Bengalis belonging to the Hindu community, especially in urban areas such as calcutta. The essence of the change can be summed up as laying greater emphasis on the material as opposed to the spiritual and Eurocentricism as opposed to tradition-bound conservatism. A section of the indigenous theatre based in Kolkata responded to the social changes. Thus from Krishna jatra arose natun jatra (lit. 'new jatra') in the 1820s. Natun jatra aimed entirely at secular entertainment by enacting pseudo-mythological tales with emphasis on the human aspects (such as vidyasundar) but its structure was similar to Krishna jatra. Natun jatra performances were given by professional troupes, the most famous of which was that of Gopal Ude (1819-1859). In the 1860s, the sizzling sensation of natun jatra began to wear out and gitabhinay appeared, which projected a curious blend of bhakti from Krishna jatra, merriment from natun jatra and pathos from European-influenced Bangla theatre. Gradually, gitabhinay reduced emphasis on lyric and dance, and, in its place, prose dialogue began to play a more dominant role. In terms of plot construction, it gradually began to assimilate techniques of building action based on conflict, from the European theatre. However, its content was drawn from Hindu mythology. The rise of Neo-Hinduism in the 1870s brought about a temporary reversal by reinstating the spiritual and religious tradition. Consequently, there grew a demand for performances which would promote religious devotion. Madanmohan Chattapadhyay responded to the demand and reformed natun jatra by drawing elements from gitabhinay. Known as Pauranic jatra (lit 'mythological jatra'), the new form drew its content from the Ramayana, the Bhagavata, the Brahma-vaivarta Purana, the Harivangsha, etc.
The Partition of Bengal (1905) raised the question of nationalism to the forefront. Consequently, social life in Bengal witnessed a surge of interest on the theme of national identity. This trend is reflected in the indigenous theatre with the evolution of aitihasik jatra (lit. 'historic jatra'), and swadeshi jatra (lit. 'nationalist jatra'). Whereas aitihasik jatra drew its content from semi-historical stories, swadeshi jatra incorporated contemporary issues such as colonial exploitation, patriotism, anti-colonial struggle, oppression of feudal lords etc. The latter, under the guidance of actor-playwright Mukunda Das, earned unprecedented popularity in Bengal. The colonial government banned three of his plays and he himself faced imprisonment.
From the 1920s, jatra failed to respond to the rising heat in the political arena and chose to dwell safely on mythologies and histories. From the mid-20th century, jatra turned to social themes and reflected crises in family life in confrontation with society. Popularly known as samajik jatra, it did raise questions of Hindu-Muslim relationships, but the approach was sentimental rather than analytical. The jatra is a spent force today, and its principal device to arouse public interest is erotic song-and-dance numbers.
No major innovation can be noticed among the 'Islamic' forms in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The number of followers of Pir Madar declined sharply after their rebellion failed. Performances related to Khwaja Khizir also declined after the rise of the Islamic reform movement of the Faraizis (1818-1860s), which called for pristine purity of Islam. Performances related to the three other pirs managed to survive in pockets where the faraizi movement was relatively weak: Gazi (around Sundarban Forest), Satya (in Dinajpur-Rangpur-Rajshahi belt) and Manik (in Khulna-Jessore belt). The followers of the last three pirs were drawn into the rising popularity of jatra performances and, by the mid-19th century, evolved Gazir jatra, Satya Pirer jatra and Manik Pirer jatra. These forms can still be seen in Bangladesh.
European theatre Political and economic measures undertaken by the English colonisers from 1757 onwards led to the bengal renaissance in the early 19th century, which affected all aspects of intellectual pursuits in Bengal. Its immediate effect was a bifurcation of society into the rural and urban cultures. The elitist urban culture and the European theatre of the economically powerful minority fashioned itself around European models. It demonstrated tremendous vitality, opened new directions, but, as in most cases, also lost touch with the majority and their rural culture. The indigenous theatre, which in most cases remained a part of the rural culture, has failed to meet the demands of the 21st century life in Bangladesh and a process of fossilisation has already set in. On the other hand, the European theatre has been dynamic because the elite urban intelligentsia, who have been responding to the needs of urban spectators, have sustained it.
Until 1947, the theatre of the urban elite in Bengal was centred in Calcutta, the economic and political seat of power of 19th century India. With the creation of pakistan, Dhaka gained importance as the urban cultural centre of eastern Bengal and continued its dominance in independent Bangladesh. In the following section, the history of theatre of undivided Bengal will be traced until 1947, following which it will focus on eastern Bengal, later Bangladesh.
Introduction of European theatre The earliest known English theatre in Bengal, a proscenium playhouse known as 'The Theatre', was built in Calcutta in 1753 and was closed following Nawab sirajuddaula's attack on the city in 1756. In 1775 'The New Playhouse', also called 'The Calcutta Theatre', came up. Until 1808, when it went out of business, the theatre performed Shakespeare, Massinger, Congreve, Sheridan etc. Initially, male actors performed female roles but the practice soon gave way to female performers. A host of other proscenium playhouses soon followed, of which the Chowrangee Theatre (1813-39) and the Sans Souci Theatre (1839-1849) gained wide fame and renown. dwarkanath tagore was the only Bengali associated with the Chowrangee and he later purchased the theatre. However, until the day the Chowrangee was burnt down, the English managed it, produced English plays (Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shakespeare and other popular plays from the London stage) and the performers were all English. However, by the time of the Sans Souci, Bengali participation was on the rise. A number of Bengalis were associated with it and a Bengali performed the title role in Othello (1848), although all the other performers were English. However, the Sans Souci too performed only English plays. The English theatre continued in the second half of the 19th century, but lost its significance due to the rise of native Bangla theatre.
Imitation, assimilation and formation The first performance of a play in Bangla, on a proscenium stage, by an all-native cast (both male and female), was produced by a Russian named gerasim steppanovitch lebedeff (1749-1817), on 27 November, 1795. The play, a translation of Richard Jodrell's comedy, The Disguise, was performed at the Bengally Theatre at 25 Doomtullah (presently Ezra) Street, Calcutta. Lebedeff himself translated the play. Although the cost of admission was high, the interest of Bengali spectators can be gauged from the full house the performance enjoyed.
In the first half of the 19th century, colonial educational institutions such as hindu college and Oriental Seminary played the most influential role in disseminating interest in European theatre. As a part of the newly introduced educational curricula in the schools and colleges, Shakespeare soon assumed the position of an ideal model. After a few stray attempts in the first half of the 19th century, the proscenium theatre was considered fashionable enough to be sponsored by affluent zamindars as private theatre in and around the mid-19th century. The most important of these was the Belgachia Theatre (1858-1861), credited as being the first permanent proscenium theatre of Bengal, which was built by the Rajas of Paikpara at their Belgachia Villa. The theatre took pride in its quality orchestra, fine perspective backdrops, gas-lanterns, and limelight.
From the mid-19th century, Bengalis began attempts at assimilating European dramaturgy. Michael Madhusudan Dutt paved the way for future playwrights by successfully demonstrating the techniques of European dramaturgy with plays such as Sharmistha (premiered at the Belgachia where he made his debut in 1859), Padmavati (published 1860, premiered 1865) and a historical tragedy titled Krishva Kumari (published 1861, premiered 1867). Madhusudan shines most brilliantly with his farces, where the language is easy, the attack is sharp and relevant, and the characters are drawn distinctly. In Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (published 1860, premiered 1865), he ridicules the ultra-progressive Young Turks who blindly copied European culture and in Buda Shaliker Ghade Ron (published 1860, premiered 1867), he aims at unmasking the hypocrisy of the affluent. Ironically, the Sanskrit theatre, whose fetters he tried to break, tightened its grip on his last play, Mayakanan (1874).
dinabandhu mitra (1830-1873), a contemporary of Madhusudan Dutt, wrote Nildarpan (1860), which effectively deals with the ruthless exploitation of Bengal peasants by the powerful English indigo planters in rural Bengal. Considered a realistic play of popular protest by many, the play is in effect melodramatic in its treatment of blood and torture but its content reflected contemporary social reality in a manner meaningful to urban middle-class Bengali society. Although he composed a number of other plays, Mitra is also celebrated as 'a veritable magician of laughter' for his farces: Biye Pagla Buda (1866), Sadhabar Ekadashi (1866) and Jamai Barik (1871).
Early years of the public theatre (1870s-1920s) On 7 December 1872, history was made with the opening of the first public playhouse in Bengal, the National Theatre, with Mitra's Niladarpana. The playhouse with its proscenium stage was a temporary construction in the courtyard of a private residence in Calcutta and was formed by a group of theatre-crazy youths belonging to Baghbazar Amateur Theatre (1869-1872), some of whom were to become stars of professional theatre in the next few years. The public playhouse opened European theatre to the urban middle class. No longer the handmaid of the affluent, the theatre was free to serve a wider public and thereby gain strength and maturity. The Bengal Theatre, which opened in 1873, was the first permanent playhouse with a proscenium stage in Bengal. The maiden performance of Bengal Theatre, Madhusudan's Sharmistha, also created history because for the first time in professional European theatre, female performers (Jagattarini, Golap, Elokeshi and Shyama) enacted female roles. Gaslight was used to light these playhouses until 1887 when dynamo-produced electric lighting was introduced for the first time at the Emerald Theatre. Stage locales were usually established with the help of painted wings and backdrops. In playwriting, the five-act romantic tragedy, especially that of Shakespeare, was the model. The acting was mostly declamatory and melodramatic. At the risk of oversimplification, one may describe the productions as escapist entertainment in which songs and dances of dancing girls (sakhis) and other sensational contrivances were indispensable elements.
Soon after its inception, public theatre faced the wrath of the British Raj when the Great National Theatre staged a farce named Gajananda O Yubaraj (19 February 1876). The play was immediately banned. Soon after, the British government passed the Dramatic Performance Control Act of 1876, which empowered it to 'prohibit certain dramatic performances, which are scandalous, defamatory, seditious, obscene or otherwise'. The Act was repealed in 2001. As for the public theatre of Calcutta, it found political criticism too hot to handle and the wrath of the state too strong to defend with its tinsel arms. Hence, after the first skirmish, for the most part it chose to play shy, even when faced with the swadeshi movement beginning in 1905. The major exceptions were some of the historical plays of girish chandra ghosh (1844-1912) and dwijendralal roy (1863-1913).
The second half of the 19th century saw a gradual rise of religious revivalism and traditionalism within the urban middle-class Bengali Hindu society in Calcutta. In theatre, the trend was reflected in plays by girish chandra ghosh, an exceptionally versatile actor and director of high merit. He wrote about seventy plays, many of which were based on mythological tales, lives of saints and religious heroes and projected intense devotional fervour. An example of these is Chaitanya Lila, based on the life of Chaitanya. Whereas Michael Madhusudan and Mitra strove to emulate European dramaturgy both in form and spirit, Girish Chandra Ghosh chose only the form (for him, Shakespeare); his ideological frame and mental makeup was structured on Krttivas's Ramayana and Kashiram Das's Mahabharata. It is only in his social and historical plays (Prafulla and Sirajuddaula, respectively) that Ghosh manages to extricate himself from a revivalist fervour. He is also credited for introducing psychological dimension in character interpretation, acting, and training of performers.
From about 1900 until the Great War, historical plays, often based on patriotic themes began to dominate the scene. Although Girish Chandra Ghosh continued to exert his influence, Dwijendralal Roy was an equal if not a greater factor to be considered. A good example of an intellectual of the colonial period who successfully assimilated the culture of the ruling race, Roy was not directly attached to any theatre. Infused with patriotism that was at once secular and humanist, he redirected the attention of his spectators to the spiritual realm of humanity. Some of Roy's better known plays are Rana Pratap Singha (1905), Nurjahan (1908) and Shajahan (1909).
Beside the mythological and historical plays mentioned above, the period also produced social dramas, domestic comedies, and gitabhinay musicals. Two other playwrights of this period were jyotirindranath tagore (1849-1925), and amrita lal basu (1852-1929). Jyotirindranath contributed a number of quality translations (Julius Caesar, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme etc) and historical plays. Amrita Lal Basu, also a well-known actor, earned his fame for his farces, which ridiculed the influence of European culture on Bengali society.
Blending of the indigenous and the European: Rabindranath Tagore' Parallel to Girish Chandra Ghosh, Dwijendra Lal Roy and others in the public theatre but distinctly independent, rabindranath tagore (1861-1941) wrote and directed plays that were unique for their blend of the indigenous and the European - a blend so subtle that it almost appears organic. The form of theatre which Tagore evolved in his so-called symbolic-allegoric plays is a fusion of the song-and-dance (in the abundant use of song and in the absence of cause-and-effect formula for building action) and the European dramaturgy (in the use of conflict and a few techniques in building character). The conflict of spirit and matter that drives Raktakarabi (1926) and Muktadhara (1922), also Achalayatan (1922) to a large extent, disappears after the battle in Raja (1911) and is hardly present in Dakghar (1912). The influence of the song-and-dance tradition continues in Basanta (1923), Nabin (1931) and Shrabanagantha (1934). The absence of dramatic conflict is so apparent that a few scholars have refused to acknowledge them as plays.
Finally, in Chitrabgada (1936), Chandalika (1938) and Shyama (1939), when he successfully blends the song-and-dance tradition, plays low on dramatic conflict and instead focuses on rasa, the influence of the indigenous is more than apparent. Vocal against the painted backdrop and the proscenium frame, Tagore preferred an intimate performance space like that of the jatra. His work, other than a few farces, mostly proved failures in the public theatre on the rare occasions when they were performed until the 1950s when Bahurupi, a theatre group in Calcutta, performed them. Nevertheless, his work has proved to be immensely influential on theatre practitioners and in literary circles.
Social concerns and nationalism (1920s-1940s) The First World War and the death of the two stalwarts, Girish Chandra Ghosh and Dwijendralal Roy, saw a decline in the public theatre. When it began to revive again in the 20s, a qualitative change was noticeable. Socially, theatre began to be accepted by the cultured elite as an artistic medium, and an increasing number of persons with institutional education began to take up theatre as a serious artistic career. Plays on social themes began to attract greater attention than those on historical and mythological themes. The five-act model began to give way to the techniques of Ibsen and Shaw. The mythological plays that survived shifted focus from the supernatural to the human, while the historical plays attempted to project historical accuracy instead of melodramatic heroism.
The shift of emphasis was noticeable in production style as well. The acting style, pioneered by shishir kumar bhaduri (1889-1959), became less declamatory and more natural. Ensemble acting, meaningful composition, and non-melodramatic speech began to acquire importance. Picture-frame illusion of contemporary social life began to acquire increasing dominance. In 1931, Satu Sen returned from America to revolutionise lighting and set design in the Calcutta-based Bengali theatre. Foot-lights gave way to overhead directional lighting. The painted backdrop began to be replaced with the 'Box set'. Historical accuracy in costume and set design gradually replaced anachronism. Background music played by a live orchestra began to take on a more subdued note. The quality of songs and dances improved, and the indispensable troupe of dancing girls (sakhis) of the previous era gradually disappeared. The period also marked the emergence of the director as a co-ordinator who sought meaningful unity of all elements of a production.
Important playwrights of this period were manmatha roy (1899-1988), sachindra nath sengupta (1892-1961) and Bidhayak Bhattacharya (1907-1986). Manmatha Roy shot into prominence in 1923 with his one-act play, Muktir Dak, and set the trend of one-actor. Roy's plays bore contemporary relevance and reflected current issues, although he made use of mythological and historical materials. In Karagar (1930), banned by the British Government, he uses a familiar mythological tale from the Bhagavata Purana to project Krishna as the liberator from Kangsha's oppressive regime. Shachindranath Sengupta is remembered for his historical play Gairik Pataka, which passionately proclaimed patriotism when the Civil Disobedience Movement was at its height. However, Sengupta's primary contribution to Bengali theatre was the change he initiated both in content and form in plays on social themes. Here he abandoned the five-act structure and attempted to depict the psychology of his characters. In Jhader Rat (1931), an avant-garde play of his time, Sengupta probed into feminine psychology and championed the emancipation of women. Bidhayak bhattacharya, who made his public appearance with the social play Meghamukti (1938), is also well known for his depiction of the urban middle class in a changing society and the resulting clash of values in family life experienced during the 30s and the 40s. Some of his well-known plays are Matir Ghar (1939), Bish Bachhar Age (1939), Rakter Dak (1941) and a few others.
However, even with the best of Manmatha Roy, Shachindranath Sengupta and Bidhayak Bhattacharya, the public playhouses of Calcutta failed to project critical consciousness regarding contemporary social and political reality. Leading artists with socio-political concerns attempted to join hands successively through the Progressive Writers' Association (1936) and the Anti-Fascist Writers' and Artistes' Union (1942), without significant success. Finally, the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA; 1943) organised the city-based artists in an honest attempt to join the rank and file. Soon after its creation, Bengal was faced with a man-made spectre: the famine of 1943, which left 5 million dead. Faced with the reality of hunger and death, the Bengal branch of IPTA produced bijan bhattacharya's Nabanna (1944), which had a far-reaching influence on Bengali theatre. It initiated a new era of play- writing (by projecting immediate reality in familiar language) and acting (that was closer to daily life). Primarily it challenged the role and function of theatre practitioners in society and infused political direction in theatre. The post-Nabanna theatre of Calcutta created the trend of Group Theatre, ie, ideologically motivated groups of theatre activists who strove to attain artistic excellence as well as socio-political relevance in their work. Since such a concept of theatre was not economically viable, they chose not to accept payment for their work and therefore, for their daily sustenance, sought alternative employment.
East Pakistan: from crisis in identity to explosion (1947-1971) Inception of the European theatre in East Bengal took place in 1855 with a performance of Svarna Shrbkhal by durgadas kar at Barisal. However, until 1947, Calcutta was the centre of theatre and was emulated by the rest of Bengal. Theatre was dominated by middle-class Bengali Hindus. Their exodus to India after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 created fresh avenues for the urban Muslims, who till then had been placed in the political, economic and social backwaters. The theatre of the new country was slowly but decisively moving towards polarisation of two opposing camps: (i) the religion-based nationalists and (ii) the language-based nationalists. The religion-based trend was dominant in the urban areas outside Dhaka. It sought to glorify Islamic history through historical plays on Muslim rulers of the Middle East, India and Bengal, and the independence struggle of Pakistan. Important playwrights of this trend were Akbaruddin (1895-1978), ibrahim khan (1894-1978) and Ibrahim Khalil (1916- ). The second trend was dominant mainly in Dhaka city and playwrights belonging to this trend were also linked with Dhaka University-based play productions. Important among them were shawkat osman (1917-1998), nurul momen (1906-1989), Askar Ibne Shaikh (1925), jasimuddin (1903-1976) and munier chowdhury (1925-1971). In play production, Dhaka University students, with their progressive outlook, led the rest of the country. Almost all the plays produced at the University were written by, or adapted from the novels of, Rabindranath Tagore, sharat chandra chattopahdyay, tarashankar bandyopadhyay, Nurul momen, Askar Ibne Shaikh and Munier Chowdhury and had a social content. Except for a few scattered attempts, amateur groups produced all performances.
The language movement of 1952 worked as a catalyst for further intensifying the political polarisation of the language-based and the religious-based camps. In the theatre scene, there was a marked rise in social awareness and political commitment in the language-based nationalist camp. They continued their dominance in Dhaka city, with the university as their bastion. Munier Chowdhury wrote his epoch-making Kabar as a political prisoner in the Dhaka Central Jail, and it was performed by other political prisoners on 21 February 1953. Although the play reveals a strong influence of Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead, it has remained one of the most important theatre pieces for its simplicity and social relevance. The play was performed at night by the prison inmates who improvised their set on a shoestring budget and were forced to use hurricane lanterns, lamps, and matchsticks as their lighting source. The essential appeal of the play lies in its central political issue (the inalienable right of a people to its cultural heritage) and poignant human suffering (police brutality and massacre).
In 1956 the Drama Circle was created. This was an amateur group of passionately committed young theatre activists, who played an important role in introducing contemporary Euro-American design concepts and performance techniques through their productions of European classics, contemporary American and local plays. akm bazlul karim (d 1977), associated with the group since its inception, is still remembered for his dedication and directorial excellence.
Martial Law was clamped down in 1958, effectively silencing the growing demand for social justice and political rights voiced by the language-based nationalists. Consequently, theatre in general lay impoverished in terms of socio-political awareness, concentrating more on plays toeing the central government's policy of religion-based nationalism or experimental work which were overtly 'subtle' or 'neutral'. In Dhaka city as well as district towns, the number of productions grew considerably. These were mostly run-of-the-mill social plays, along with some historical and mythological plays. There was also a short-lived attempt at professional theatre housed at the Minerva Theatre (1957-1964). Major experimental playwrights were syed waliullah (1922-1971) and Saeed Ahmed (b 1931). Waliullah brought to his work (Bahipir, Tarabga Bhabga and Ujane Mrtyu) a European artistic sensibility and insight that had been hitherto unknown in Bangla theatre. Often termed a symbolist, Waliullah's symbolism is far removed from that of Maeterlinck or Tagore because of a strong materialist bias and the absence of spiritualism. Saeed Ahmed's Kalbela (The Thing, 1966) is a milestone in the theatre of South Asia for it introduced the theatre of the absurd for the first time. Later, he came up with two more plays that were avant-garde: Milepost and Trvnay. Zia Hyder's (b 1936) Shuvra Sundar Kalyani Ananda is another important avant-garde addition to contemporary theatre, where he seeks to explore the myth of peace in human society.
A popular uprising in 1969 cracked the central government's authoritative and suppressive rule. Politically conscious theatre activists responded to the growing language-based nationalist movement with street-plays and open-air performances that projected militant nationalist sentiment. Surprisingly, there were no organised attempts in putting up plays during the war of liberation either in the liberated areas or in the refugee camps in India.
Bangladesh: the flowering that was not (1971-1999) Theatre was possibly the most forceful and exuberant expression of post-liberation Bangladesh. Numerous non-professional theatre groups were formed all over the country, modelled after the group theatre movement in post-Nabanna Calcutta. The most important among these in Dhaka city were Theatre (established February 1972), Nagarik Natya Sampraday (established 1968, first performance August 1972), Natyachakra (established August 1972), Aranyak Natyadal (established 1972), Dhaka Theatre (established July 1973) and, in Chittagong, Theatre '73 (established 1973), and Arindam (established September 1974).
All these groups are committed to a language-based nationalism and, in varying degrees, believe in raising social consciousness through theatre. Most of the members are students, while a few belong to independent vocations. There are no professional theatre practitioners because the profession is not economically viable. During the early years of theatre in Bangladesh, none of the practitioners had formal training in theatre. However, they made up this deficiency with their zeal and exuberance. They raised the money for their productions through individual contributions, advertisements inserted in programme folders and box-office sales. Undaunted by the absence of a proscenium stage equipped with modern technical facilities, the theatre groups staged their productions in the small and poorly equipped Mahila Samity Auditorium that had originally been built for seminars. The range of texts performed by the groups varied widely: from Euro-American plays to contemporary originals written by group members themselves. A completely new set of playwrights appeared, important among whom were Abdullah al-Mamun, Mamunur Rashid, Syed Shamsul Huq, Salim al-Deen, Mumtazuddin Ahmed and SM Solaiman.
The post-liberation exuberance in theatre met complete saturation by the early 80s when the middle-class practitioners found it difficult to make ends meet with the little money performance generated. However, there were also developments in various directions. Possibly, the most significant of these was the induction of a number of theatre practitioners trained abroad, who added technique and skill to acting, design, and direction. By the end of the decade, three universities had theatre as a course of study: Chittagong University (introduced in 1970), jahangirnagar university (introduced in 1986) and the University of Dhaka (introduced in 1989). Two more institutes were also functioning by then: Natya Shikshangan (1976) and Theatre School (1990). Faced with autocratic rule in the political arena, many groups also took up theatre as a viable medium for popular protest. Significant among these were Jago Laksa Nur Hosain by Karak Natya Sampraday, Royal Bengal Tiger by Lokanatya Dal and Maharajer Gunakirtan by Desh Natak. Another important area of proliferation was the Mukta Natak movement initiated by Aranyak, in which members of the group (animateurs) sought to conscientise rural landless peasants and create performances with them. In mainstream theatre, the most interesting development was the attempt taken up by Dhaka Theatre and a number of other groups to incorporate indigenous performance elements in modern theatre practice in productions such as Keramat Mabgal and Hat Hadai by Selim al-Deen (produced by Dhaka Theatre), Mahuyar Pala by Nazmul Ahsan (produced by Khulna Theatre) and Inggit and Ei Deshe Ei Beshe by S M Solaiman (produced by Dhaka Padatik).
During the 90s, three important attempts were made towards creating professional theatre: Bangla Theatre (1991), Theatre Art (1992) and the Centre for Asian Theatre (1994). All these, save the last, have failed. Although Aranyak's Mukta Natak movement has lost all its energy, theatre is being used by non-government organisations for addressing issues related to development. There have been some interesting productions, which include Chaka by Selim al-Deen (produced by Dhaka Theatre), adaptation of bisad-sindhu by mir mosharraf hossain (produced by Dhaka Padatik), Shes Sanglap by the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim (produced by Ganayana), Meraj Fakirer Ma by Abdullah al-Mamun (produced by Theatre), Irsa by Syed Shamsul Huq (produced by Nagarik), Kamalaranir Sagar Dighi (produced by the Department of Theatre and Music, University of Dhaka), an adaptation of Arthur Miller's Crucible (produced by Natyakendra) and Nitya Purana by Masum Reza (produced by Desh Natak).
In 2001, urban theatre in Bangladesh has lost much of its ideological commitment and is gradually being marginalised. The middle-class practitioners who bore the burden of performing for passion appear to have run out of steam. In an increasingly free-market economy and globalised cultural sway, theatre may soon find itself redundant. One option for it to survive is to turn professional, but it does not seem economically viable in the near future. The other option is to trust popular instinct. It has managed to survive against many odds for over fifteen centuries; surely it will survive as a cultural expression of the people. [Syed Jamil Ahmed]
Bibliography Rustom Bharucha, Rehearsals for Revolution: The Political Theatre of Bengal, University of Hawali, Honolulu, 1993; Selim Al-Deen, Madhyajuger Bangla Natya, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1996; SJ Ahmed, Achinpakhi Infinity: Indigenous Theatre of Bangladesh, University Press Ltd, Dhaka, 2000.
Light in Theatre Early theatre was open air and daytime theatre. Natural lighting was sufficient. However, when theatre moved indoors, or shifted from daytime to nighttime, the use of artificial light became inevitable. Bangla theatre began in 1795 and, from its very inception, was an indoor theatre. The use of artificial light was necessary from the start. As neither gaslight, limelight, nor electric lights had been invented, candles and oil-lamps were used to light the theatre. Herasim Lebedeff, the father of Bangla theatre, came from Russia. At that time the sources of light of the Russian theatre were also candles and oil-lamps. Naturally, Lebedeff was influenced by the lighting techniques of the Russian theatre of his times, and he applied the same techniques in the production of Kalpanik Sangbadal.
After 1897 the traditional lighting of Bangla theatre started changing. Amarendranath Dutta founded Classic Theatre and introduced some new lighting techniques, including the use of coloured lights on stage. He also introduced the use of appropriate dramatic lighting along with stage-tricks and gimmicks. This was possible, because at that time gaslight, generated from acetylene gas, had been developed. Amarendranath invented an apparatus to control the gaslights. In 1872, Nildarpan was staged at the National Theatre. However, gaslight was not used on stage, only in the aisles. On stage the light was meagre. Before the introduction of electricity the dynamo was used. After 1885, the Emerald Theatre, for example, used the dynamo to light the stage. Electricity was introduced into Calcutta only in 1900, so it is possible that, until electricity had been introduced, Amarendanath used arc spots powered by electricity generated from the dynamo. After electricity was introduced, Amarendranath was able to use electric spotlights.
According to the Indian Mirror (4 April 1900) electric lighting was first used in 1900 by the Star Theatre. But this light was produced on stage not by filament lamps, but by carbon arc lights. In Aparesh Chandra Mukhopadhyay's production of Ramanuja at the Minerva Theatre (1916), carbon arc lights were used. Natyacharya Shishir Kumar Bhaduri introduced some new ideas in stage lighting. He abolished footlights because they created shadows on stage. By this time actual electricity was being used in the theatre. Shishir Kumar was thus able to use light in expressionistic ways to highlight the mental condition of a character or interpret a dramatic situation. Satu Sen, a distinguished director and expert in stage lighting, joined the Bangla stage in 1931. He effected great changes in scenery and lighting. Satu Sen used light in a planned way as part of the scenery and to help create stage pictures. Sen made different types of lighting equipments for the theatre and thus elevated the standard of stage lighting. Impressionistic techniques such as the use of coloured shadows and the use of light to reveal the psychological make-up of characters etc are the significant contributions of Mr Sen to the theatre. Tapas Sen further improved the standard of stage lighting through various experiments and applications, a process still continuing today. [Ranjit Kumar Mitra]
In Bangladesh before 1971 stage lighting was generally rudimentary. While the advent of electricity had brought to an end the stage lighting by means of the traditional lantern, technical skill was confined to putting on and putting off lights. Water dimmers were used to control lights. These gradually developed into resistance dimmers. Spotlights and floodlight were the most important among the lighting instruments used on the stage. In the fifties, Kamal Electric and Call Ready used to supply lighting instruments in Dhaka. However, the quality of the lighting on the stage was poor because of lack of sufficient knowledge and skill. The establishment of Drama Circle in 1956 saw a rise in experimentation with stage lighting. With the growth of group theatre in the seventies, stage lighting also developed along with other theatre skills. Initially, people like Lutfor Rahman and Nilotpol Kar brought about some changes through their personal skill. In the eighties, creative directors like Quamruzzaman and Syed Jamil Ahmed added new dimensions to planned use of lighting on stage. This influenced most people engaged in the theatre to appreciate the importance of stage lighting and to experiment further. At present floodlight, striplight, borderlight, skylight, baby spot, middle-sized spot, baby-mirror spot, freshen-spot light, step-lens spot, ellipsodial spot, beam projector, acting area flood, ultraviolet lamp etc are used on the Bangladesh stage. In order to control lights, variable voltage transformer dimmers and electric dimmers have replaced old devices. The improvement in the standard of stage lighting in the Bangladesh theatre was evident from the following plays where the lighting was directed by Syed Jamil Ahmed and Qamruzzaman respectively: Fanimanasa, Kittankhola, Keramat Mabgal, Inspector General, Oedipus, Guinea Pig, Achalayatan, Bisarjan, Bisad Sindhu and Talpatar Sepai, Ma, Kavjus, Raja Raja Khel, Ballabhpurer Rupkatha, Yuddha Evang Yuddha, Othello, Shes Sanglap. Tapas Sen directed the lighting in Coriolanus. Despite many limitations, the use of planned lighting in Bangladesh theatre has not only improved a lot, lighting has become an integral part of the play. [Zillur Rahman John]
Make-up is used to transform or beautify the appearance of actors with the help of cosmetics to conform to characters portrayed. Make-up includes the use of masks, wigs, cosmetics, beards, moustaches, etc. The first and foremost function of make-up is to create the external appearance of the character. Make-up artists have to pay close attention to the character's race, age, personality, environment, mental condition, etc. Make-up has three additional functions: (a) to neutralise the bad effects of artificial light on normal skin, (b) to rectify facial defects and (c) to create aesthetic beauty.
Masks were used in ancient Greek theatre, not make-up. In the Roman theatre both make-up as well as masks were used. Make-up was in vogue in the ancient Indian theatre. The Natyashastra, for example, says that actors adorned with make-up and costume acquire different characters and natures.
Initially, colours for make-up were collected from indigenous plants, animal fat, minerals etc. In 1873, a German actor named Leichner invented make-up. Stage make-up is still known as 'Leichner's grease paints,' because it was made by mixing pigments with oily substances. When electricity was introduced to the European stage (1880) there was a revolutionary change in drama production. Make-up became essential to neutralise the effects of artificial light
Because of the lack of skilled artists, knowledge, techniques as well as lack of accessories, the proper use of make-up in Bangladesh theatre was very rudimentary before 1971. At that time actors and actresses usually applied their own make-up according to their interpretation of the character they were portraying. As a result, make-up was not always appropriate. Some of the ingredients used in make-up were zinc oxide, vermilion, wool of various colours, water hyacinth roots etc. During winter some two or three drops of glycerine were smeared on the faces of the characters before they were coated with zinc oxide. In other seasons coconut oil was used in place of glycerine. Red-ink tablet (alta guti) dissolved in water was used by actresses as a substitute for lipstick and collyrium or kajal was used instead of eyebrow pencils. Actors used woodapple glue, or other plant glues, to fix beards and moustaches.
Changes in the techniques and elements of make-up was initiated by Suresh Dutta who underwent training in Lucknow. He began to use eyebrow pencils, pancake make-up, crepe hair (for beard, moustache, hair etc), spirit glue, red oxide (to dye hair) etc. After 1971 Nabadwip Basak, Abdus Salam, Debdas, Khokan Chandra Dey and Bangajit Dutta played a remarkable role in using make-up for the stage and television.
At present pancake make-up, eye-liners of different colours, lipsticks in different shades, tissue paper, pencils, face powder, sponge, foundation make-up, glycerine, paraffin liquid, brushes, paste, cotton, brilliantine, hair whitener, derma wax, spray, cleansing milk etc are used. Much of this material is imported from abroad. [Zillur Rahman John and Ranjit Kumar Mitra]
Stage The Bangla stage, like the Bangla theatre, draws from three traditions: the classical Sanskrit tradition, the indigenous tradition, and European influences.
Ancient Indian stage Apart from providing a comprehensive account of ancient drama and dramaturgy, Bharatamuni's Natyashastra (c 1st century BC-3rd century AD), the oldest Indian treatise on drama, also provides details about the ancient Indian stage. According to the Natyashastra there are three types of rabgalay or stages: vikrsta (oblong), chaturasra (square) and tryasra (triangular). Each of them is again divided on the basis of their measurements: jyestha (large), madhya (medium), and avara (small). As a result there are nine types of playhouses: vikrsta jyestha, vikrsta madhya, vikrsta avara; chaturasra jyestha, chaturasra madhya, chaturasra avara; tryasra jyestha, tryasra madhya and tryasra avara. Natyashastra mentions the measurement of playhouses in terms of cubits (hasta) as well as dandas (4 cubits = 1 danda).
According to the Natyashastra, the jyestha stage is proper for gods, but not for mortals because in a large playhouse their dialogue and songs cannot be properly heard by the audience. Nor can the audience easily see the facial expressions of the actors. Therefore, according to the Natyashastra, madhya and avara playhouses are the most suitable for human beings, with madhya stages being proper for kings and avara stages for ordinary people. The Natyashastra gives some details about the structure and measurements of vikrsta madhya rangalay. There are no such details for the others. According to the Natyashastra, the total area of the vikrsta madhya rangalay is 6432 hastas, divided into two equal parts lengthways. The front portion (3232) consists of the rabgamabdal (auditorium). The rear portion is again divided into two equal parts (1632). The back forms the nepathyagriha (green room) and the front the rabgabhumi (stage). Between the rangabhumi and the nepathyagriha, there should be a wooden partition.
In the middle of the partition, there should be a decorated area measuring 88, called sadadaruk. On both sides of the sadadaruk there should be two doors to allow passage between the rangabhumi and the nepathyagriha. The rangabhumi too consists of two parts: the rabgapith, downstage, and the rabgashirsa, rearstage. The floor of the rangabhumi was supposed to be smooth and bright like a mirror. Abhinavagupta describes the functions of these two areas: The performer stays in the rangasirsa before entering the stage and rests there after exiting the stage. The rangasirsa with the sadadaruk are the most decorative areas of the stage and the musical instruments are placed there. The basic acting area of the rangapitha is 168 hastas. Two mattavaranis are constructed on both sides of the rangapitha The mattavarani has four pillars in its four corners. Mattavaranis of the ancient Indian stage were not only part of the architectural design but were also used for stage action.
The Natyashastra describes the use of the yavanika or screen. However, the yavanika was not used in front of the stage, but between the rangapitha and the rangasirsa. Music was played behind the yavanika. The yavanika would be removed for dance performances as well as other actions. [Ranjit Kumar Mitra]
Modern stage refers to a proscenium stage, with a frontal curtain in an ornamental frame. There are eight or ten wings on both sides and a backdrop. The audience sits in rows facing the stage. Interior and exterior changes of stage are brought with the use of realistic or suggestive set, platform, stair etc.
In the 18th century, the English introduced the type of stage used in England to Bengal. Later rajas and zamindars built similar playhouses in Calcutta. David Garif, a famous actor of England, helped to plan and design the first foreign playhouse, Old Play House, and then The New Play House or Calcutta Theatre (1775). Lebedeff's Bengali Theatre was considerably influenced by the design of Calcutta Theatre.
Indigenous stage Traditional jatra performances were held on temporary stages built for the duration of the performance. A pandal was set up with a raised wooden platform in the centre round which sit the viewers. On one side is a greenroom with a narrow passage for the performers to enter and exit. The musicians sit on both sides of the stage.
Till the independence of Bangladesh, plays were performed on proscenium stages and on temporary stages. In independent Bangladesh there have been no remarkable changes. The new dramatic culture which started in Dhaka was mainly located at Mahila Samiti and Guide House auditoriums, though these two auditoriums lack technical and physical facilities. Apart from the Mahila Samiti and Guide House auditoriums, which seat about 300 people, other auditoriums used for plays include the British Council, the Engineer's Institute, the Teacher-Student Centre, the Public Library, the Kachikancha Milanayatan, the Dhaka Mahanagar Natyamancha, and the WAPDA auditorium. The largest of these auditoriums is that of the Public Library which seats an audience of 875. Dhaka Mahanagar Natyamancha and WAPDA Auditorium seat 600. The bangladesh shilpakala academy is building two new stages, a proscenium theatre and an experimental theatre seating 300. [Zillur Rahman John]
Theatre Costume In real life, costume is the symbol of advancement of human civilization; in theatre, it is the artistic reflection of real life. The primary function of costume in theatre is the creation of the proper external appearance of characters. To create the proper external appearance, a character's country, race, place, historical period, profession or occupation, season, religion, occasion, age, financial condition, personality, gender, taste etc must be taken into consideration. In real life, there may be a contradiction between a person's personality and what the person wears, but in theatre, costume is used to emphasise character. Here character is the representative of a particular person or society. In case of theatre costume, matters of historical accuracy, artistic imagination, aesthetic taste, colour etc must be considered. In real life personal likes play a significant role, but in the case of stage representations, actors' personal likes do not matter. Here the most valuable condition is what the character requires. So, it can be said that in theatre, costume is not only dress, it is the manifestation of the inner nature of the character.
Theatre costume may be divided into four groups: (a) Historical: Costumes planned on the basis of history for the historical characters as well as for the fictitious characters in a play. (b) Social: Normal everyday costumes are included in this group. (e) Symbolic: Many ideas cannot be expressed easily and need the help of hints, signs, symbols etc. This type of costume is very effective for symbolic and allegorical dramas. (d) Fictitious or Imaginary: These imaginary costumes are needed for characters who do not exist in real life, such as demons, giants, devils, spirits, monsters, ghosts, fairies etc. Characters of mythological dramas are included in this group. [Ranjit Kumar Mitra]
Theatre Music music employed to create an atmosphere appropriate for depicting the story and characters of a play. Stage music is an important part of theatre and helps to emphasise theme or character, to enhance dramatic tension, and to generate interest in the audience.
Music has been an integral part of theatre since its inception. Bharat's Natyashastra indicates the use of music in ancient Indian theatre. Music in old Sanskrit plays was called 'dhruva'. Dhruva was divided into five segments: 1. prabeshiki, sung/played when a character entered the stage; 2. aksepiki, sung/played when a character suffered imprisonment, illness or death; 3. naiskramiki, sung/played when a character left the stage; 4. prasadiki, sung/played to calm the excited hearts of the audience; and 5. antara, sung/played when the main characters were in danger, forlorn or angry. However, with the passage of time, with drama becoming more verbal, the importance of music declined.
Music has formed part of Bangla theatre as the latter evolved out of jatra. Music was played in narrative plays (popular in Bengal between the 9th century and the middle of the 12th century), musical plays, dance drama and Krishna jatras. The combination of instrumental and chorus music that accompanied Krishna jatra in the 16th century gradually developed into the jatra. Singers would entertain the audience between jatra scenes. Later, under the influence of western theatre, concert type instrumental music was played before the start of a jatra. This tradition of jatra led to the introduction of songs and background music in Bangla plays. Plays use solo, duet or chorus songs. Background music is often used to create special dramatic effects.
Stage music was used in the Bangla play Kalpanik Sangbadal (translation of Disguise) staged in Calcutta on 27 November 1795 and in Abhijvanashakuntala. Twelve songs were sung in Ramnarayan Tarkaratna's Ratnavali staged in July 1858 at Dwarkanath Tagore's Belgachia garden house. The profusion of songs in plays began with the well-known playwright Girish Chandra Ghosh. All his 1,370 songs were written for plays. Girish Chandra Ghosh, Kshirod Prasad, Amrita Lal Basu and Michael Madhusudan Dutt used solo or duet songs at the opening of a play and between its scenes to enhance dramatic effects. Jyotirindranath Tagore, Upendranath Das and others extensively used patriotic songs in their plays.
Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Dwijendra Lal Roy made unique and appropriate use of songs in plays. Songs play an important part in Rabindranath Tagore's plays, especially musical plays and dance dramas. They are an essential element of symbolic plays such as Sharadotsav and Muktadhara, with the basic themes being expressed through song. Until 1971 the plays staged in Dhaka mainly followed the tradition of Calcutta in respect of using songs.
In post-independence Bangladesh the use of songs in plays has been continuing. Recorded or taped music is played if the actors cannot sing. In some plays singers and instrumentalists position themselves close to the wings or at the back or front of the stage. Instruments used in the theatre include flute, drums, cymbals, nal, mandira, tabla, harmonium etc. Many drama groups use recorded music to create an appropriate atmosphere of joy, sorrow or foreboding. Plays also use sound effects of birdsong, storms, thunder, running trains, motor vehicles or horses, bomb blasts, flying planes or crashing waves etc. [Zillur Rahman John]