Every year, the Mint Lounge Independence Day issue tries to go beyond the narrow, flag-bearing definitions of patriotism—it is hardly just about a party, a war, an ideology or love for one’s country. It is also about ideas and action.

This year, we celebrate an art form as old as India. Its intrepid practitioners have combined dissent with art, and entertained. Some historians consider drama to be the highest achievement of Sanskrit literature. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, village theatre flourished in many regional languages—even today, you will find performances and natak in every nook and corner of India. Local groups in small towns perform regularly; there are some troupes which travel with their own makeshift stage.

The British tried to control content and prevent Indians from using theatre as a tool of protest by imposing the Dramatic Performances Act. But after independence, theatre was shaped by playwrights, directors and actors who questioned government and morality. After 1947, Rabindranath Tagore’s plays, among others, heralded the modern Indian drama.

In Bengal, Badal Sircar broke out of the proscenium, a European construct, and popularized open-air theatre. In Bhopal, Habib Tanvir democratized the art form by forming his group Naya Theatre (now run by his daughter Nageen Tanvir) with Chhattisgarhi tribals. Marathi theatre, as Mumbai playwright Ramu Ramanathan says in his essay, had intriguing beginnings. The works of illustrious playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Satyadev Dubey and many others, continue to be performed and adapted. In Karnataka, Girish Karnad has modernized mythology and history for urban India and the world over the last 50 years.

Even though it was the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India, the pioneering umbrella organization, Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) once attracted the best talent in writing and performance. Its ideological roots have weakened since. Can Ipta sustain its quality as it did until the mid-20th century? Essayist Vikram Phukan is sceptical.

Safdar Hashmi. Photo courtesy Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust
Safdar Hashmi. Photo courtesy Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust

Today, every city, every town has its own distinctive theatre. Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre runs to packed houses most of the time, even as Thrissur becomes the new destination for serious and experimental plays.

Theatre in India has opened up many possibilities—of dissent, protest, artistic experimentation and entertainment. We explore it all in this issue. Enjoy reading it.

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