India has a longest and richest tradition in theatre going back to at least 5000 years. The origin of Indian theatre is closely related to ancient rituals and seasonal festivities of the country. Bharata’s Natya Shastra (200 BC to 4th Century AD) was the earliest and most elaborate treatise on dramaturgy written anywhere in the world. The traditional account in Bharat’s Natya shastra gives a divine origin to Indian Theatre, attributing it to Natyaveda, the holy book of dramaturgy created by lord Brahma.
In Natya Shastra, Bharat Muni consolidated and codified various traditions in Dance, Mime and Drama. Natya Shastra describes ten classifications of drama ranging from one act to ten acts. No book of ancient times on the world contains such an exhaustive study on dramaturgy as Natya Shastra. It is addressed to the playwright, the director and the actor because, to Bharat Muni these three were inseparable in the creation of drama the Saskrit word for drama, natak, derives from the word meaning “dance”. In traditional Hindu drama, expression was achieved through music and dancing as well as through acting, so that play could be a combination of opera, ballet and drama.
According to legend the very first play was performed on heaven when the gods, having defeated the demos, were enacting their victory. Hindu theorists from the earliest days conceived of plays in terms of two types of production: Laokdharmi(realistic), which involved the reproduction of human behavior on the stage and the natural presentation of objects, Natyakarmi (conventional), which is the presentation of a play through the use of stylized gestures and symbolism and was considered more artistic than realistic.
Theatre in India started as a narrative form, with recitation, singing and dancing becoming integral elements of the theatre. This emphasis on narrative elements made our theatre essentially theatrical right from the beginning. That is why the theatre in India has encompassed all the other forms of literature and fine arts into physical presentation literature, mime, music, dance, movement, painting, sculpture and architecture – all mixed into one and being called ‘ Natya ‘ or Theatre in English.
Roughly the Indian theatre can be divided into three distinctive kinds : the Classical or the Sanskrit theatre, the Traditional or Folk theatre and Modern Theatre.
Vishnu Das Bhave a pioneer of Marathi Theatre, who tried to give a new dimension to the Indian theatre with his effective plays like Raja Gopichanda and Sita Swayanmvar. His innovations consisted in having the play’s characters act in a manner closer to that found in everyday encounters between people and the inclusion of some western stage production techniques, such as changeable scenery. Anna Saheb kirloskar laid the foundation of commercial repertories in Marathi Theatre with his Kirloskar Natya Mandali. In 1880, they started regular theatre with Abhigyan Shakuntalam. Kirloskar retained Bhave’s adaptation and discarded the convention of having the Stutradhara provide all of the singing. In his performances, the characters themselves did their own singing. He included more literature Marathi vocabulary and songs and cleaned up the vulgarities of the Vidusaka. Khanolkar, V.V. Shirwadkar, Satish Alekar, Jayavant Dalvi and Govind Deshpande carried this tradition forward.
Durring this period, the Marathi theatre troupes began to travel to Andhra Pradesh and met with success. In the contemporary context, Vijay Tendulkar, is perhaps one of the few playwrights who tried to counter cinema’s onslaught on theatre by producing several emphatic plays in Marathi. His repertory of plays includes Shantata Court Chalu Ahe, Sakharam Binder, Ghashiram Kotwal, Gidhade, Kamla and Kanyadaan.